When I was a little kid, children’s television was in the middle of changing from puppets on Saturday morning to a 20-channel, 24-hour, on-demand, companion-Web-site multimedia extravaganza. There was an all-kid’s-programming network, Nickelodeon, but there wasn’t enough actual programming. What to do? Re-run old programming, of course!
So it came to be that I would watch old episodes of Lassie, in all of their black-and-white glory. One of the recurring characters was the park ranger, who would sometimes be shown at his post, in a forest fire watchtower.
It seems like it would be easy to just, you know, look for fire—but without knowing exactly where in all those miles of forest a fire is, a lone ranger couldn’t possibly prevent it from spreading in time. But by spotting the vector to the smoke from the tower, and with help from some known reference points, he can find the heart of the blaze.
Using known variables like the latitude and longitude of the tower, the position of the sun, the direction and size of the smoke, etc., he could input some numbers into pre-calculated tables, work out the rough location of the smoke’s source, hop in his truck, and go tell those punk kids to douse their campfire.
For this season, the Lions are essentially a blank slate. We’ve never seen most of these players, they’ve never played with each other, and they’re being plugged into all-new coaching, training, conditioning, and schemes. So, for this season, I’m going to whip out some tables and numbers of my own, and see if I can match up the Lions, scheme for scheme, with their opponents.
What does all this mean? The first two columns represent each coach/coordinator, and the team they they were coaching at the time they played each other. The “OR” and “DR” are the points-per-game rank of their offense and defense, respectively. This should give a general idea of the talent and execution level of the schemes—you see Linehan’s units were ranked 8th, 6th, and 10th in scoring offense in the three games his teams played against a Gregg Williams defense. The “Opg” and “Dpg” figures are the actual per-game points either scored or allowed by the units during the given contest. “Ypa” and “Ypc” are passing yards per attempt, and rushing yards per carry. “Pts” is points scored in the game; “Int” is interceptions. “Pyds” and “Ryds” are the total passing and rushing yards accumulated. “Ypa” and “Ypc” are passing yards-per-attempt and rushing yards-per-carry, and “Fum” and “Sck” are fumbles-lost and sacks-yardage.
In the year of the first contest, we see Linehan’s offense scoring 24.4 ppg, and the Bills allowing 24.8 ppg. The NFL-relative rankings show that the Vikings were a talented offense indeed, but the Bills’ defense was . . . lacking. The result was explosive; 39 points (despite three lost fumbles), and 5.46 yards per carry for 213 yards. 5 sacks for 45 yards lost really hurts the team passing stats and team yards-per-attempt; with in-his-youth Daunte Culpepper at the helm, that’s scary.
It looks like despite Linehan's three-man RBBC running all over everywhere, and a mobile QB in the pocket, Williams’ pass rush prevented the run advantage from developing into a passing advantage as well. Still, that kind of wanton running success is not to be discounted—and we see that passing-yards-per-attempt and rushing yards-per-attempt were right in line with the average for the year. It looks as though Williams’s blitzing, though effective, merely prevented the Vikings’ passing game from exploding far above average.
Let's look at the next meeting. Linehan’s offense has improved in execution and talent--but Williams’s defense has exploded, going from the 27th-ranked scoring defense to the 5th. This immediately shows up in the stats. Though the Vikings were scoring 25.3 points per game, passing for 8.18 yards per attempt, and rushing for 4.72 yards per carry that season, against the Bills they scored only 18, passed for 6.80, and rushed for 2.89. Again we see high pressure; Culpepper is sacked 3 times for 15 yards. Minnesota’s offensive output for that game is much closer to the Bills’ defensive season average than their own. Therefore, given equal talent and execution, Gregg Williams’s attacking 3-4 defense will disproportionately disrupt Scott Linehan’s balanced offense.
Finally, the last game. Linehan’s unit is again one of the better in the game, ranked 10th in ppg output with 22.9. Williams’ is mediocre, ranked 20th with 19.2 ppg allowed. The expected outcome would be Minnesota matching their season average, or mildly exceeding it, but no—the Rams exploded for 37 points, passing for a whopping 10.21 yards per attempt, and rushing for a stout 5.05 yards per carry. Also, look at the sacks: just one for six yards. As all three metrics of output--per-play passing, per-play rushing, and points scored—are way above their averages for the season, I’m going to say that given superior talent and execution, and/or excellent pass protection, Scott Linehan’s balanced offense disproportionately gives Gregg Williams’ attacking 3-4 defense fits.
Now, the other way around: Gunther Cunningham's 4-3 "with 3-4 principles" (extreme blitz ratio, hard edge pressure, funneling the run inside) versus Sean Payton's pass-heavy offense:
In the first matchup, neither the offense nor defense possesses exceptional talent. The offense is scoring 18.4 ppg, and the defense allowing 21.5 . You would expect the offense to mildly outperform its average—yet, that doesn’t occur: they muster only 13 points.
The per-play passing success—6.26 ypa vs. 6.12 ypa—doesn’t significantly vary, but the running game is throttled down from 4.19 ypc to 3.16. The Chiefs also force three interceptions from Kerry Collins, and sack him once. Since we have more data in this matchup, let’s keep looking before drawing any conclusions.
The second game is a bit of an outlier, as Gunther is only a linebackers coach here—but the DC is Jim Schwartz, so like referee Mills Lane, I’ll allow it. In this case, the Titans’ D is ranked 11th in the NFL, and the Giants’ offense is ranked 22nd. However, the ppg averages are 20.3 allowed and 20.0 scored, so I would expect Payton’s offense to mildly underperform. Instead, they rack up 29 points, despite running with far less success (3.80 avg., 2,48 actual), and passing only a little above average (7.20 avg., 7.86 actual).
However, look at the big plays: 0 INTs, 0 fumbles, 1 sack for no lost yards. Despite having good talent, and swallowing the run, Schwartz does not disrupt the rhythm of Payton’s passing offense, and so the Titans are disproportionately scored upon.
In the third game, the Cowboys are much more talented than either of Payton’s previous Giants units, and are ranked 15th in scoring output. Cunningham’s Chiefs are ranked 16th—and both units’ scoring average is the same: 20.3. I would strongly expect a Cowboy score of around 20. Somehow, the Cowboys again produce far above expectations, scoring 31 points. They pass much better than usual (6.68 avg., 9.76 actual), and run much better than usual, too (3.57 avg, 4.60 actual). Cunningham’s defense produces plenty of sacks, 4 for a loss of 16, but, crucially, forces no turnovers. This leads me to believe that given equal talent, Cunningham’s hyperagressive 4-3 is extremely effective against Payton’s pass-heavy offense, but only if that aggression leads to mistakes and turnovers—otherwise, the holes in the defense will be exploited. Effective quarterback play may neutralize the defensive advantage.
Last season, there was one more meeting between Payton’s Saints and Cunningham’s Chiefs. However, though Cunningham was the coordinator in name, he was executing coach Herman Edwards’ Tampa 2. As we’re trying to isolate scheme against scheme, including that data would only throw off the results.
So, where does this leave us? We know that the Saints have struggled on defense as of late; last season they were the 26th-best scoring defense, and the 23rd-best yardage defense. If you factor in the difficulty of transitioning to a new base alignment, the Saints may again be afflicted with one of the worst defenses in the NFL. The Lions' offense does have an edge in talent; Kevin Smith and Calvin Johnson should both prove very difficult for the Saints to stop. If Matt Stafford begins the game looking for Johnson deep, the Lions could quickly rock the Saints' defense back on their heels. However, if the Saints' radical revamp of their defense is an immediate net positive, or if Stafford throws an early pick, the advantage will swing back to the home team.
Though there's historical evidence that a decent Cunningham defense, when successful, is disproportionately disruptive of a Payton offense, the talent gulf between the Lions' D and the Saints' O is enormous. Unless the Lions generate three or more turnovers, I don't see their defense having any kind of success in slowing the Saints down.
Therefore, the most probable outcome of this game is a shootout that the Lions lose. There is a chance that the Lions' defense disrupts the passing game early, and that the Lions score on their first two posessions, thereby allowing the defense to safely turn up the heat--and the offense to put it in the cooler. However, the offense will have to overcome a systemic disadvantage with talent, and the defense will have to overcome a significant talent gap with a perfectly-executed gameplan.