the watchtower: Lions at Packers

>> 10.14.2009

Last week’s Watchtower, full of vim and vigor from the previous week’s accuracy, made the following projections about the Steelers game:

  • Roethlisberger should have an incredibly effective day, smoking the Lions' subpar secondary; completing at least 70% of his passes. Whether that's for 350 yards and 4 TDs or 250 yards and 2 TDs will depend on the Lions' ability to stop Rashard Mendenhall--and then blitz to get pressure on Ben.
  • If Matt Stafford, Kevin Smith, and Calvin Johnson are healthy enough to play, and play well, this could be an intense shootout.
  • Duante Culpepper proved last week that he's a dumpoff artist and no more. If Stafford can't go, the corners will press, the safeties will creep up, and the ground game will be ground to a halt.
  • Either way, though, I think we're just talking about margin of loss. As I said about the similar pass-first, blitz-heavy Saints, the most likely outcome of this game is a shootout that the Lions lose.

While I wouldn’t call 28-20 a “shootout”, that score doesn’t necessarily reflect the offensive output/efficiency of either team.  Big Ben’s stat line was astonishing, as predicted: 23-of-30 for 277 yards (9.23 YpA), 3 touchdowns, 123.9 passer rating . . . oh yes, and one interception.

Minus that beautiful defensive play, the final score is 28-13--and would have been 28-6 heading into the fourth quarter.  Culpepper did open it up a little bit, generating a much-improved 7.62 YpA—but again, he was sacked SEVEN times for a loss of 57 yards.  If you use the “Average yards gained per passing play” stat, that  robust-looking 7.62 YpA drops all the way down to a meager 5.1.  Not to mention, of course, his mistakes killed the drives before and after the only offensive TD.  Kevin Smith was almost completely ineffective, averaging a miserable 2.65 YpC.

However, there’s no question that the defense surpassed my expectations, especially on the ground.  While Mendenhall rushed for 5.13 YpC, it was just 15 carries for 77 yards, including one 27-yarder (the other 14 carries averaged 3.57 yards each).  The defense actually got to Big Ben three times, twice on third down--thereby killing drives where the Steelers might have scored.

The three Steelers drives that were killed by sacks and the pick-six definitely suppressed the Steelers’ scoring . . . and that’s wonderful news.  This sequence--the Steelers' second-to-last drive, immediately prior to the Northcutt TD--shows exactly how the Lions’ defense is supposed to work:

  • 1-10-PIT 49 (9:57): 7-B.Roethlisberger sacked at PIT 40 for -9 yards (sack split by 96-A.Fluellen and 92-C.Avril).
  • 2-19-PIT 40 (9:20) (Shotgun) 7-B.Roethlisberger pass short right to 86-H.Ward to PIT 45 for 5 yards (24-K.Pearson).
  • 3-14-PIT 45 (8:35) (Shotgun) 7-B.Roethlisberger sacked at PIT 45 for 0 yards (59-J.Peterson).

On the first play, you see the base nickel defense.  To an extent, this is a coverage sack; Ben has time to throw, but instead just pumps as he waffles about it.  Then, Fluellen, who was lined up on the right side, beats his man to the left, then cuts behind that guard inside.  As Flu launches to sack Ben, Avril--who'd doubled back from the edge--follows Fluellen, attacking the same gap.  They get to Ben at nearly the same time, preventing any Roethlismagic.  Note that Foote is also sent on a delayed blitz--so even if Roethlisberger had gotten away from Flu and/or Avril, or the protection had been different, the pressure would still have been there.

On 2nd-and-19, the offense doesn't have much it can do but take a bite out of the elephant--and so it does, hitting Ward for 5 and setting up a slightly-but-not-much easier 3rd-and-14.

On the third play, we get the payoff.  Whereas the first set looked like a soft nickel and became a five-man rush, this play begins with all three linebackers up on the line of scrimmage: one between each defensive lineman.  Ben is already in the shotgun to try and nullify the heat--but at the snap, all three linebackers drop back into coverage.  Ben, who was ready to get rid of the ball to a target just beyond the blitzing linebackers, now has to wait for deep routes to develop.  Julian Peterson, lined up as the rush end, simply outruns the LT to the outside, though overrunning Ben to do so. Ben feels the heat and tries to roll out, but he has no options. Peterson doubles back and runs Ben down.

You see how this is supposed to work: pressure (and the threat of pressure) dictating what the offense does, throwing them out of rhythm, killing drives, and denying points.  If the execution was just a little bit better, this defense as a whole could be a LOT better.

In Green Bay, the same talent may indeed be a little more effective; the Packers have allowed a league-high 20 sacks so far, and appear to be incapable of protecting their franchise QB, Aaron Rodgers. . . well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.


What we have here are GB Head Coach Mike McCarthy’s ‘03 and ‘04 New Orleans Saints (he was OC under Jim Haslett), squared off against Jim Schwartz’s ‘03 Titans and Gunther Cunningham’s ‘04 Chiefs.  In the first contest, the Saints are a middle-of-the-road offense, scoring 21.2 PpG, gaining 6.43 YpA, and a very healthy 4.46 YpC (Deuce McAllister had a 1,600-yard season that year).  Meanwhile, the Titans were ranked 13th in scoring defense, allowing an average of 20.2 points a game.  They were a little firmer against the run than the pass, holding opponents to under well under 4 YpC, but allowing 6.6 YpA.

The defensive lockdown that occurred is impressive indeed.  The Titans held the Saints to just 10 offensive points (their D came up with a safety), completely neutralized McAllister—8 yards on 11 carries!—and sacked Aaron Brooks 3 times for -20 yards.  Brooks was efficient when he did get the ball off, completing 15-of-23 for 185 yards, a score, and no picks—but it didn’t translate into points until the fourth quarter, when the score was sitting at 20-5 and the game was functionally over.

In the second matchup, the Saints were again ranked 14th in the NFL in scoring, with very similar output (21.8 ppg).  However, McAllister tweaked his ankle that season, and wasn’t nearly as effective; Aaron Stecker picked up some of the load, but the Saints ran for a half-yard less per carry in 2004 than in ‘03.  Meanwhile, Gun had jumped from the maturing Titans defense to the clean-slate Chiefs unit, and it showed.  The 29th-ranked scoring defense allowed 27.2 ppg, a whopping 8.05 YpC, and less-whopping-but-still-not-good 4.62 YpC.

Though the Saints, in line with expectations, scored a touchdown above their season average—right at the Chiefs’ season average—they actually gained yardage at clips well above their norms.  At 9.59 YpA and 5.83 YpC, the Saints were moving the ball extremely well—it’s the 4 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, and a pick that depressed New Orleans’s score.  Wait a minute, that sounds familiar . . .

Clearly, McCarthy was working with a substandard QB in Aaron Brooks, and clearly, this Lions’ defense is much closer to the 2004 Chiefs than the 2003 Titans.  However, those Chiefs damn near won that game: the final score was 27-20, after a 42-yard Joe Horn bomb broke a 20-20 fourth-quarter tie.  So despite being hopelessly overmatched on talent, Gun’s D stood up to McCarthy’s O, all the way until the last drive.

Combining the results of that game with the defensive Alcatraz Jim and Gun contained the ‘03 Saints in, I'm willing to conclude that given equal or greater talent, Gunther Cunningham’s aggressive 4-3 disproportionately disrupts Mike McCarthy’s downfield flavor of the Bill Walsh offense.  Given lesser talent, Gunther’s 4-3 will cap offensive production with sacks and turnovers, even while allowing better-than-average offensive effectiveness between the 20s.


Last week, I gave us a sneak preview of this week.  While trying to get a handle on Steelers DC Dick LeBeau, I included some data from his disciple, Dom Capers.  That data was his Texans against Scott Linehan’s Minnesota Vikings.  I’ll just quote what I said last week:

Let's look briefly at the scorched-earth napalming that Linehan's 6th-ranked Vikings offense put on Dom Capers' 21st-ranked Texans defense. 34 points, 7.92 YpA, 4.69 YpC. Culpepper was 36-of-50 for 396 yards, 5 TDs, and 0 INTs. Vikings backs ran 26 times for 122 yards. It probably would have been worse if the Vikes hadn't been flagged 10 times for 75 yards. Given the only data point on LeBeau, and fitting it into the broader picture painted by the Capers and Williams info, I think I'm safe to say that Scott Linehan's balanced offense significantly outperforms expectations against aggressive, blitzing 3-4 defenses like LeBeau's.

Obviously, the Lions didn't significantly outperform expectations against the Steelers--they only scored 13 offensive points--but with Kevin Smith playing hurt (and ineffective), Daunte being Daunte, and Megatron missing a significant fraction of the game, Linehan's offense wasn't exactly "balanced", either. If we look briefly at the season so far for the Steelers and Packers . . . we see that the Steelers are the 14th ranked scoring defesne, at 19.6 PpG, and the Packers are 21st-ranked, at 23.6 PpG. Obviously, that's just the average of five and four games, respectively, for these teams, so those numbers aren't anywhere near airtight--but there is a clear gap in talent and execution between the Steelers and Packers. With Ryan Pickett instead of Casey Hampton, and an out-of-position Aaron Kampman instead of Lamar Woodley, the Packers' defense should be a significantly flimsier obstacle between the Matt Stafford and the end zone than the Steelers.

Yes, that presumes that Stafford will play--but unlike last week, he's already practicing. It's true that Megatron may not be able to go--but if Stafford is under center, I still like the Lions’ chances to be effective.  Northcutt and Williams should have a good day in between the Packers' excellent corners, and Aaron Kampman on Brandon Pettigrew is an incredible mismatch that Scott Linehan is more than smart enough to relentlessly attack.

So, where does that leave us? As we've seen with Gregg Williams and Dick LeBeau, Scott Linehan's balanced, conventional offense is disproportionately successful against an aggressive, blitzing 3-4. This will be the third such defense that the Lions face, and they've outperformed averages against the two prior units.  If Kevin Smith is his usual, steady self, and Matt Stafford is able to play, I expect the Lions to score between 24-28 points. If history is any indicator, and the finally-awakening Lions pass rush can really get going against the hapless Packers offensive line, Gunther Cunningham's aggressive 4-3 should be able to limit the Packers below their (admittedly tiny-sample-sized) season average of 26.0 PpG.

Based on the Packers' reliance on the passing game, inability to protect the quarterback, and a decided systemic advantage for the Lions on both sides of the ball, the most probable outcome is a medium-scoring, close-margin game that the Lions win.


Pacer,  October 14, 2009 at 11:06 PM  

Hey Ty-as always-good job. It will be interesting to see if the Pack has been able to shore up that OL. If not, then I think the Lions have a chance. They have not been huge on defense either but they are coming off a bye, presumably healthier and coached up.

The Lions have a lot of injuries-Gos for example-to me a complete surprise he did not go last week. I doubt CJ will play but believe that Stafford will. The game is a tough call but may play out to your scenario-if so, can't wait to see your recap.

FYI-links to the Lions did not work for me-hope they do for others.

Jeremy,  October 15, 2009 at 1:37 AM  

Links work for me.

Good to see we have potential in this game. I'm in the midst of my preview as well, and I have to say, I'm very tempted to pick the Lions for the first time this year.

The only issue I'm having is that I'm not so confident in our D-lines ability to get pressure. I know the Packers gave up 8 sacks last game, but they get Chad Clifton back this week and won't be facing the likes of Jared Allen this week.

And, like you, I'll feel much more confident with Stafford in there. If I had to guess, I'd say Stafford will play, Calvin will not. Which, in my opinion, is better than the opposite.

David M,  October 15, 2009 at 10:00 PM  

Nice analysis of the game, Ty. I was quite impressed to find that we hung in with the Steelers, who are still an excellent team despite their average record.

However, I do think we could have put up a much better fight with Stafford and Calvin in the game. But Culpepper was definitely a serviceable backup.

Matt,  October 16, 2009 at 11:35 AM  

At this point in their careers, I don't see Stafford as a significant step up from Culpepper (key words there are "at this point" and "significant"). Therefore, I don't see starting Culpepper against the Packers (which, right now, sounds like the likely scenario) as a huge problem.

However, missing Megatron (ditto previous parentheses) IS a huge problem. Frankly, at this point in the season, he's the only player on the Lions' offense that really scares opposing DCs and having him out makes Dom Capers and the Packers secondary's job this week a LOT easier. That being said, Culpepper, against the Steelers, showed an ability to spread the ball around to whoever is open (I believe he hit 9 different receivers and completed 62% of his passes), which provides some hope.

Check out the injury report (both teams):

I think when you combine this with the facts that the Packers are looking to rebound from the Vikings game, coming off a bye week, and playing at home, you get this:

"Based on the Packers' reliance on the passing game, inability to protect the quarterback, and a decided systemic advantage for the Lions on both sides of the ball, the most probable outcome is a medium-scoring, close-margin game that the PACKERS win."

Ty,  October 16, 2009 at 4:09 PM  


Yeah, their starting LT is probably, but both their #1 and #2 centers are questionable. It'll be interesting to see exactly who on that line plays, how well, and for how long . . .

The injuries are starting to drive me crazy. I also think Megatron isn't going to play, but I have absolutely no clue what is up with Stafford, or really anyone else. DeWayne White and/or Sammie Hill would be reall nice to get back.


Ty,  October 16, 2009 at 4:27 PM  


Clifton was a great LT, but he's about a zillion years old--who knows how effective he'll be in his first game back? Also, these Lions got three sacks against the Steelers; even with no White or Hill they should do at least as well against the averaging-5-times-sacked-per-game Packers.


Ty,  October 16, 2009 at 4:33 PM  

David M--

Hey there!

One thing to note here: the Packers are, essentially, the Steelers--just not as good. It's the same defensive system, executed much less well. The offense is a talented young quarterback and nice WR corps, paired with a questionable RBBC and even questionable-er offensive line. If these same Lions can hold the Pack to the same 28, they ought to be able to score much more than 20.


Ty,  October 16, 2009 at 4:41 PM  

"Based on the Packers' reliance on the passing game, inability to protect the quarterback, and a decided systemic advantage for the Lions on both sides of the ball, the most probable outcome is a medium-scoring, close-margin game that the PACKERS win."

I can't really argue with this. With both teams 100% healthy, on a neutral field, the OC vs. DC numbers suggest there's enough of a systemic advantage for the Lions to bridge the inherent talent gap. Removing all bias, the data points towards a coin flip--and Lambeau and Megatron and Clifton seem to nudge the coin the Packers' way.

However, as I said in the previous reply, the more I look at the Packers, the more I see the Steelers with a much worse defense. If Kevin Smith can get going even a little, and the pass rush can be at least as good as last week, I still say this comes out the Lions' way.


Jimmerz,  October 16, 2009 at 5:08 PM  

Ty, no offense,'re nuts!

The Packers will have no problems protecting Rodgers in this game. And expect Jennings to have a HUGE game. I'll be VERY surprised if the Packers put up less than 50 points and the Lions put up more than 24.

Ty,  October 19, 2009 at 12:39 PM  


Well, the Rodgers was sacked five times, and they barely put up half of 50 points--but . . . uh, yeah. No Stafford, no Megatron, no points.


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