In last week’s Watchtower, we matched up the historical OC vs. DC tendencies to see if there were any schematic mismatches—that is, if either team had a systemic advantage over the other. Looking over the history, and the presumed talent levels of each team, we came to a conclusion: the most probable outcome of the game was a shootout that the Lions lose.
Sure enough, that’s exactly what happened--though some of the Lions’ scoring contributions relied heavily on special teams providing great field position, and one of the TDs was defensive. It seems as though the breakdown, though statistically flawed--very small samples of head-to-head matchups, relying entirely on the mean averages of 16 data points, etc.—had enough predictive value to be worthwhile.
This week, the Lions take on the Vikings. Again, the Linehan offenses are the 2006-2008 Rams, the 2005 Dolphins, and the 2002-2004 Vikings. Gunther defenses include the 1995-2000 Chiefs, and the 2004-2006 Chiefs. I tentatively include data from his 2001-2003 stint as linebackers coach with the Titans, since Jim Schwartz was the DC at that time--but the Lions’ scheme is thought to more closely resemble Gun’s system in KC than the balanced D Schwartz ran in Tennessee, so I include those years on a case-by-case basis. I also discount Cunningham’s ‘06, ‘07, and ‘08 seasons in KC, as he merely executed Edwards’ conservative flavor of the Tampa 2 defense.
For Minnesota, I’m calling the 2002-2005 Eagles and 2006-2008 Vikings “Childress” offenses. Unfortunately, Lions OC Scott Linehan never faced off against Minny DC Leslie Frazier as a head coach or offensive coordinator. However, we know that Frazier, after studying under Jim Johnson in Philly, and a contentious two-year run as the DC in Cincinnati, became Tony Dungy’s star pupil in Indianapolis, and now runs the Tampa 2. Therefore, I included Linehan’s games against Dungy’s Colts and Monte Kiffin’s Bucs defenses.
In the first matchup, we see that Philly comes in as a potent scoring offense, ranking 4th in the NFL with 25.9 ppg. Note they ran the ball especially well, with 4.54 yards per carry. Tennessee’s defense was solid; ranked 11th, at 20.2 points per game. I’d expect scoring to be right at or just below Philly’s average on the season—and indeed it was: 24 points scored.
The passing yards-per-attempt was right about on target (6.18 avg., 5.89 actual), but look at the rushing! Philly rushed for 0.9 ypc below average for that game; it was also on 22 attempts, so they didn’t just abandon the run—and the only rushers were starting RB Duce Staley and QB Donovan McNabb, so it’s not as if injuries were a concern. Also, look at the disruption numbers: 2 picks, 1 fumble lost, and six sacks for a loss of 31 yards! Still, this was with Schwartz making defensive calls, not Gunther, so let’s hold off on drawing conclusions.
In 2005, the Eagles were a below-the-median scoring offense, ranked 18th with 19.4 ppg. Passing for 5.93 yards per attempt, and rushing for 3.92, the Childress-led offense was considerably less fearsome. Though not boasting anywhere near the personnel the ‘02 Titans had, the Cunningham-coordinated Chiefs were the 16th-best scoring defense, allowing a mean 20.3 points per game. The expectation would be a very-close-to-average output by Philly—but instead, they blew up with 37 points, and passed far more effectively than usual(5.93 avg., 7.68 actual). Terrell Owens had a huge day (11-171, 2 TD).
However, the Philly running game was again stymied. Brian Westbrook and Lamar Gordon combined for just 28 yards on 17 carries. KC also forced three fumbles, recovering one, picked off a pass, and sacked McNabb once. Since the first data point is still “iffy”, I’m going to look at the last one.
In 2007, the two coordinators again have closely-matched, close-to-the-median scoring units: the Vikings were ranked 15th with 22.8 average points scored, and the Chiefs were the 14th-ranked scoring defense, allowing an average 20.9 points per game. The ‘07 Vikes looked much like the ‘02 Eagles: passing for 6.35 ypa, but absolutely toting it for 5.33 ypc. The Chiefs allowed an average of 20.9 points per game, ranking them 16th in the NFL and matching Minnesota’s average output. Therefore, we have a very strong expectation that Minnesota will score 21 points. However, they only mustered 10.
They passed much less effectively, gaing 0.53 fewer yards per attempt than their average. The juggernaut running game was staunched even more, gaining 1.09 yards fewer than expected with every attempt. Also, we see another raft of sacks (5-36), and 2 fumbles (1 lost).
We see the same pattern in all three games; therefore I feel safe concluding the following: given equal or lesser talent and execution, Gunther Cunningham’s hyperaggressive 4-3 disproportionately disrupts Brad Childress’s conservative Walsh-style offense, especially in the running game. However, a very effective deep passing game can stretch the defense, reduce QB pressure, and produce points.
Linehan had a very strong roster when he first faced a Dungy-style defense—24.4 ppg (8th best in the NFL), and carrying for 5.3 ypc. However, those Bucs were ridiculous; the #1 scoring defense, allowing a miniscule 12.2 points per game! Yet, the Vikings weren’t slowed down at all. They scored their average 24 points, passed for a well above average 7.75 yards per attempt, and rumbled all over the Bucs for an absolutely ridiculous 7.52 yards per carry. The disruption numbers were very high: 2 picks, 3 fumbles (2 lost), and 2 sacks, but with a young Daunte Culpepper at the helm, that was not unexpected for those Vikings.
Against Dungy’s Colts in 2004, Linehan’s Vikings were again very strong: 6th-best in the league with 25.3 ppg, passing for 8.18 ypa, and rushing for 4.71 ypc. The Colts, however, weren’t executing that Tampa 2 nearly as well as the ‘02 Bucs: the Colts were a below-median scoring defense, allowing 21.9 points per game. One would think the Vikings would outperform their average, and that’s exactly what happens: 28 points, a robust 8.89 ypa, and a walloping 5.75 ypc—0.71 and 1.04 yards per play above their season averages, respectively! Again some disruption: 2 fumbles, 1 lost, and 2 sacks—but overall, a strong Linehan O met a mediocre Dungy D and mildly outperformed expectations.
Finally, we see the 2005 Dolphins, the median offense that season (19.9), going against the 8th-ranked Buccaneers, who were allowing only 17.1 yards per game. The expectation would be that the Dolphins’ offense scores well below season averages, and that’s what happens—they muster only 13 points. However, the passing game and running game each hover near their in-season per-play expecations (5.94 avg,, 6.21 act.; 3.69 avg., 3.56 act.). There is, again, a lot of disruption (2 fumbles, 1 lost, 5 sacks for –36 yards), but this time it can’t be blamed on Culpepper.
Strong patterns are emerging, so I feel pretty comfortable in making this statement: given greater or equal talent, Scott Linehan’s balanced offense significantly outperforms its averages when facing a Dungy-style Tampa 2, especially against 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.
There IS some room for hope here. But to cash in, the running game will have to improve, Stafford will need to limit turnovers, and Gunther will have be as Gunther as he can be. Also, be prepared for another round of ref-trashing, replay controversy, obnoxious flags, and trash-talking. Me? I'll be up in the Roar Zone, doing plenty of roaring.