In last week's watchtower, we looked at the historical matchups of Gunther Cunningham defenses versus Brad Childress offenses, and Scott Linehan offenses versus Dungy-style Tampa 2 defenses. Here's what I came up with:
Given greater or equal talent, Scott Linehan’s balanced offense significantly outperforms its averages when facing a Dungy-style Tampa 2, especially with the run. Given lesser talent, Linehan’s offense meets or mildly outperforms expectations against a T2. However, a disproportionate amount of sacks and turnovers seem to be created by a Tampa 2 when facing a Linehan offense. It’s that pesky turnover thing that will make the difference; if Minnesota sacks Stafford five or six times and generates two or three turnovers, the Lions will have an extremely hard time keeping pace, even if the ground game is working well (and scheme or no, nobody runs on the Williams Wall!). However, Minnesota’s lack of a downfield passing game should allow Gunther Cunningham to turn up the defensive heat to an extreme level, which should have a disproportionately disruptive effect on the Vikings’ offense. Given how amazing Adrian Peterson looked in the Vikings’ first game, and how inept the Lions looked against the Saints, it’s tempting to say this will be a blowout—however, the Vikings didn’t blow out the Browns, and I don’t think this one will be a blowout either. It appears as though the Lions have a decided systemic advantage on both sides of the ball, assuming Gunther feels safe enough to crank up the heat. It remains to be seen if those advantages will be enough to overcome the gap in talent on both sides of the ball. Therefore, the most likely result of this game is a closely contested, medium-to-low scoring slugfest, with a lot of turnovers and penalties. It is slightly more likely that Minnesota’s talent overcomes Detroit’s systemic advantages, but this will be a volatile game in Detroit’s home opener.
This method of prediction--breaking down historial scheme vs. scheme data, and layering on subjective analysis--has its flaws. Indeed, the brighter analytical minds of the football universe have been privately critical of my work so far. While I take said critiques to heart, I think I may be on to something.
- I found that Linehan's offense seems to be unusually successful against Dungy-style Tampa 2 defenses; Detroit was so successful on the ground that the Vikings abandoned their base defense, and put eight men in the box.
- Linehan's teams seem to turn the ball over frequently when facing a Dungy-style defense. I noted that avoiding that would be key to the Lions' chances for victory. Instead, the Lions turned it over three times, and that was arguably the difference in the game.
- I projected that Minnesota's lack of a consistent deep threat would allow Gunther to blitz, thereby disrupting the Childress offense. It did, he did, and it did; the Lions nearly carried a shutout into halftime. In the end, the turnovers--and resultant short fields for the Vikes--were too numerous to overcome.
- It was indeed an ugly game marred by sacks, turnovers, and controversial calls--most notably the phantom Gosder Cherilus "chop block" that negated a long gainer by Megatron.
This analysis isn't anything more than that: analysis. But rather than pretend that Dominic Raiola had some sort of secret Pat Williams kyrptonite in his pocket, I prefer to believe that the interaction of schemes provided an opportunity for Kevin Smith to succeed . . . and I know of no other way to project or predict such interactions. I said as long as I find this analysis to have predictive value, I'd continue--and I do, and so I shall.
Jim Zorn, former Lions quarterbacks coach, has only been an offensive coordinator for as long as he's been a head coach--this is his second season as anything more senior than a position coach. However, he's been a top assistant to Mike Holmgren in Seattle since 2001, and runs that flavor of Walsh-style offense in Washington, so I decided to extend my reach back to Seattle-era Holmgren offenses.
This opened up something I've been anxious to see: two meetings between the same schemes in the same year. In 2000, Holmgren's Seahawks met Cunningham's Chiefs twice; this should give us an idea of how reliable our single-sample data has been. I don't want to get ahead of myself though, so let's look at the prior meeting first.
In 1999, the Seahawks brought the 12th-best scoring offense (21.1 ppg) up against Gunther's 13th-best scoring defense (20.1 ppg). You'd expect the Seahawks to match their usual output, and they roughly did, scoring 24 points. While they outperformed expectations through the air (6.47 ypa avg., 7.20 actual), their already-weak running game was completely ineffective (3.45 ypc avg., 2.14 actual). They didn't simply abandon the run, either—that’s 60 yards on 28 carries! The three sacks might be interesting, but paired with zero turnovers, it doesn't point to anything systemic. Let's get to the really interesting case study: 2000.
In 2000, the Seahawks were a below-median scoring offense, posting up exactly 20 points per game (19th). Meanwhile, Cunningham's defense was also ranked 19th, allowing 22.1 points per game. The offense scored very near expectations: 17 and 22 points in the two games. In both meetings, the offense passed below their season averages: only 5 and 5.33 yards per attempt, versus the average 5.84. In a reverse of the 1999 data, though, they ran with success far above average: 5.47 and 5.72 yards per carry, over the average 4.27. The disruption numbers, however, are consistently high: 5 & 3 sacks for -37 and -16 yards, 4 & 1 fumbles forced (1 and 1 recovered), and 1 & 3 INTs.
What are we to make of this? I'm excited by the strong parallels in the stats between the two games. This is exactly what I was hoping to see; it buoys my assertions that the 16-game averages can roughly capture annual swings in talent and execution. There's a quirk, though: when the Seahawks had a strong passing game but weaker running game, the run was shut down--but the passing attack outperformed expectations. Then in 2000, when the Seahawks were much better on the ground than through the air (thanks Shaun Alexander), the Chiefs took away the pass, but were steamrolled with the run. Before drawing any conclusions, I'll go to the last data point.
In 2006, Seattle had a fairly balanced offense, scoring 20.9 points per game (14th), averaging 5.96 yards per pass attempt and 3.97 yards per carry. Cunningham's Chiefs were the 11th-ranked scoring defense, allowing 19.7 points per game. Though the Seahawks, at first blush, exceeded expecations, 7 of their 28 points came from a defensive TD--putting them right where you'd expect them, at 21 points. Now, we see a reversion to the 1999 pattern: the Seahawks passed for 6.60 YpA, 0.7 yards above average--and rushed for a measley 2.94 YpC, 1.03 yards below average.
I looked at the 1999 data, and the Seahawks were ranked 24th in the NFL in rushing attempts (25.5 per game), and 24th in yards per carry (3.45). In 2000, however, the Seahawks ran almost exactly as often (25.19 CpG, ranked 23rd), but were markedly more successful when doing so (4.27 YpC, ranked 9th). It seems as though Cunningham was almost "taking what the offense gives him"--simply blitzing both the run and pass, generating many turnovers and sacks, interrupting the scoring success of what a team does well, and denying what they don't. As this is the guiding principle of Cunningham's defense--extreme blitzing, and a focus on touchdown denial vs. yardage denial--I'm willing to say that given equal talent and execution, there is no systemic advantage for either Jim Zorn's WCO or Gunther Cunningham's hyperagressive 4-3.
If this week's game follows the above trends, Clinton Portis will have an above-average day on the ground, but the Lions' blizting will disrupt and confound Jason Campbell and the Redskins' ho-hum passing game. Point production by the Redskins should be right at expectations--which, for 2009 so far, means 13.0; they're ranked 31st.
On the other side of the ball, the analysis unfortunately gets murkier. 'Skins DC Greg Blache has been in Washington since 2004, but only as the defensive line coach until Zorn took over. Moreover, Blache was not a product of the Gregg Williams "tree"; he was a refugee from Dick Jauron's ouster in Chicago. While Blache allegdly had significant input into the Williams defenses of 2004-2007, Blache apparently removed many of the more exotic blitz packages, and called fewer blitzes in 2008. Further, the signing of Albert Haynesworth and drafting of Brian Orakpo bolster the notion that Blache's scheme and playcalling will more closely resemble the stout but staid defense Blache put in place during his time in the Windy City . . . therefore, I'll use Linehan's matchups against the pre-2004 Bears defenses, and the 2008 Redskins for my analysis.
In 2002, Linehan's Vikings met Blache's Bears twice, again giving us a good look at in-season trends. Linehan's Vikings were ranked 8th in the NFL in scoring offense, with 24.4 points per game. They passed for 6.6 yards per attempt, and rolled with an outstanding 5.3 yards per carry. The Bears scoring defense was subpar; they allowed 23.7 PpG, slotting them 25th in the league. You'd expect the Vikings to score well above their already-prodigous average, but don't; they only muster 19 and 24 points in two tries. While they were very successful in passing the ball (8.36 & 7.20 YpA, 6.60 avg.), the vaunted Vikings ground game ground to a halt (4.24 & 3.4 YpC, 5.3 avg.).
Disruption numbers were low (2 picks; 3 fumbles, 1 lost; 1 sack for -6 yards for both games COMBINED), but it's undeniable that the Blache defense smothered an excellent Linehan ground game with far inferior talent, and the success of the passing game wasn't enough to do anything but equalize the offensive output to normalcy.
In 2003, both teams were slightly bettter; Minnesota was the 6th-best scoring offense in the NFL with 25.3 PpG, and Chicago was the 22nd-ranked scoring defense with 21.6 PpG allowed. The passing attack was extremely potent, averaging 8.18 YpA, and the running game was still solid (4.71 YpC), despite losing over half of a yard per carry from the previous season. Expectations would be that the Vikings outperform their usual scoring average—and in the first game, they do, scoring 25 points. However, in the second game, they took a pratfall, mustering only 10.
Here we have the first discrepancy between two contests in the same season. In the first matchup, the Vikings slightly outperformed their 16-game averages both through the air and on the ground (8.23 YpA & 5.18 YpC, vs 8.18 & 4.71 avgs.). However, in the second contest, the Vikings managed a mere 10 points, passed for only 6.53 YpA, and ran for an average 4.68 YpC. The only real variance between the two games that I can find is that the first game happened in mid-September in the Metrodome, and the second happened in mid-December at Soldier Field. It’s entirely possible that the climate and crowd were decided factors in limiting the Vikings’ high-flying offense—though I admit, that’s nothing but conjecture.
There's one more data point to look at, so let's do: last season, just two games after Linehan's ouster, his Rams faced Blache's Redskins. I realize that this won't perfectly capture Linehan's playcalling tendencies, etc., but it's the only data point we've got with Blache leading the Redskins' defense. The Rams were fairly well wretched that season--the 30th scoring offense, ekeing out just 14.5 points per game. The passing offense could only manage 5.67 YpA, and the rushing game was only good for 3.95 YpC. Meanwhile, Washington's defense was the 6th-best scoring defense in football, allowing only 18.5 PpG. One would expect a truly wimpy offensive output, and yet the Rams scored 19 points. How?
Well, their only touchdown came from a interception return, and the remainder of the scoring came from kicker Josh Brown's foot. YpA and YpC were both depressed (5.23 YpA vs. 5.67 avg.; 2.92 YpC vs. 3.95 YpC avg.). Disruption numbers again weren't great, but it hardly mattered; the defense did their job. Therefore, I'm concluding that regardless of talent or execution, Greg Blache's philosophy of a strong front four and committment to run-stopping disproportionately slows Scott Linehan's balanced offense. Where does this leave us? With the burden entirely in the hands of the respective quarterbacks. Given the Redskins' meager offensive output so far, and the lack of any decided systemic advantage for either the Redskins' offense or the Lions defense, the Redskins will move the ball only if Jason Campbell can be successful deep and force Gunther Cunnigham to call off the dogs. Meanwhile, the Redskins' impressive apparent advantage when matching up their defensive system against the Lions' offense means that Matt Stafford will have to minimize turnovers and connect with Calvin Johnson deep.In my opinion, the most likely scenario is an absolutely brutal game, a physical brawl where both teams try but fail to control the ball with the running game, sacks and turnovers abound, penalty flags fall from the sky like rain . . . and the team whose quarterback performs the best wins.