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.