Rob Milanov over at the Bleacher Report captured the feelings of Lions fans everywhere when he wrote, “What Do You Do When Your Football Team Is Actually Favored To Win?” That’s right—for the first time since the 2008 season opener, the Lions are four-point Vegas favorites. What, really? Yes, really—the Lions are expected to win this game by the greater football universe. Let’s see if the historical data between these teams’ coaches supports that conclusion . . .
Scott Linehan versus Steve Spagnuolo:
Obnoxiously, both the Rams’ defense-minded head coach, Steve Spagnuolo, and their offensive coordinator, Pat Shurmur, have been extremely successful position coaches for a long time in the NFL—but Spags was only a coordinator for two seasons in New York, and this will be Shurmur’s first time calling his own signals. Spagnuolo, for those who’ve been reading this blog since back when only seven or eight people were reading this blog, was my initial choice for Lions’ HC; I actually tagged him “Candidate 1A” after breaking down his resume:
That Spagnuolo's defense could simply plug in Justin Tuck and Matthias Kiwanauka and still be a fear-inspiring, quarterback-eating, Top 5 defense, speaks highly of the Giants' drafting, Spagnuolo's football teaching abilities, and Spags' scheming and system as well. It's worth comparing his system to his mentor Jim Johnson's in Philly: lots of good, decent, and/or okay DEs and LBs have rotated in and out of Johnson's defenses in the past decade, yet the Philly defense is always amongst the leagues' best (this year the Eagles were ranked 4th, 3rd, and 3rd in the categories above, respectively).
Fortunately, we do have a data point between Linehan and Spagnuolo from Spags’ coordinatorship. I’m still going to look at data between Linehan’s Vikings and Spagnuolo’s mentor, the late, great Jim Johnson, as it includes two games in the same season—statistically, highly desirable.
In 2004, Linehan's Vikings were, of course, a juggernaut: 6th in scoring offense at 25.3 points per game, 7.16 yards per pass attempt, and 4.71 yards per carry. Incredibly, though, Philly's defense was even more impressive that year. Ranked 2nd overall, they allowed only 16.2 points per game, and just 5.84 YpA--though they were run on between the 20s, with a YpC of 4.31.
Given the slightly superior talent, it's no surprise that both games resulted in point totals near Philly's season average allowed--dead on with 16 in the first game, and then 14 in the outdoor, Philly-hosted playoff game. The passing and rushing averages are right about where you'd expect, too. There's about a half-yard swing in the run-pass effectiveness balance from the September 20th game to the January 11th playoff game, but that's only natural, as well.
In 2008 (*cough* while Linehan was still the head coach *cough*), Linehan's Rams faced Spagnuolo's Giants. This should be a better data point, as we have Linehan's offense versus a defense that is truly masterminded by Spagnuolo. Unfortunately, it’s not a great data point because the Rams were terrible that season, and the Giants were excellent.
The Rams were 30th in points scored, eking out just 14.5 points a game, while the Giants were the 5th-best scoring defense in the NFL, allowing just 14. The Rams were better at running than passing, averaging an okay 3.95 YpC, but only mustering 5.67 YpA. The Giants were a fairly balanced defense, allowing 6.24 YpA and 3.97 YpC. You’d expect the score to be well below the Rams’ season average, but it wasn’t: they scored 13 points, only 1.5 below their norm. Linehan’s Rams mildly outperformed expectations on the ground, gaining a healthy 4.25 YpC. YpA was right at their season average as well: 5.53 YpA actual vs. 5.67 YpA on the year (this includes their TD, a 45-yard bomb to Torry Holt).
Based on the sole data point between Linehan and Spagnuolo, I'd be tempted to conclude that there’s a massive systemic advantage for Linehan, given that the woeful Rams essentially performed to their season averages against one of the best defenses in the league. However, giving some consideration to the strong Linehan/Johnson data, the correct conclusion is that given lesser or equal talent, there is a mild systemic advantage for a balanced Scott Linehan offense when facing an aggressive Steve Spagnuolo 4-3, especially when boasting an effective inside running game.
So far this season, the Lions have mustered a respectable 17.2 points per game, good enough to be ranked 23rd in the league. That doesn’t sound impressive unless you are a Lions fan. Averaging a (pretty poor) 5.50 yards per pass attempt and (kinda okay) 3.74 yards per rushing attempt, the Lions haven’t had a talent/execution advantage over, really, any of the teams they’ve faced so far. Then again, they haven’t yet faced the Rams.
Ranked 30th in the NFL, the Rams’ defense has been allowing 30.1 points per game, an appalling 7.83 YpA, and a not-much-better 4.30 YpC. Given a definite execution advantage and a mild systemic advantage, the Lions should strongly outperform expectations--and their season averages. I would expect 24-27 points, 6.5 to 6.75 YpA, and 4.0 to 4.25 YpC. I have medium confidence in this projection.
I credited much of Linehan's systemic advantage over Spagnuolo to a strong inside running game--it may have drawn coverage up, reopening the deep pass. However, the Lions have struggled with this. Spotty interior line play has led to a constant rotation of personnel, culminating this week with the insertion of veteran reserve RT Jon Jansen at LG. Also, I’d like to note that while the sack numbers put up by Spagnuolo defenses versus Linehan offenses are alarming, those Spagnuolo defenses were all top five defenses. These Rams are ranked 22nd in the NFL in sacks, with 12.
While both Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson are listed as questionable, Stafford took all the first-team reps on Friday, but Megatron still appeared limited. At this point it’s unquestionable that the Lions are a much better offensive team with them both in the lineup; it remains an open question as to how much better the Lions are with just one able to go.
Ultimately, Stafford’s return should give the Lions improved QB play over their season average. Combined with St. Louis’ horrific pass D, the Lions should still strongly outperform their averages on offense. Therefore, I’m calling the intangibles a wash, and presuming that Megatron’s presence, or lack thereof, will simply push the Lions’ performance to the high end, or low end, of my projections.
Pat Shurmur versus Gunther Cunningam:
Really, this should be a very, very, very short section, consisting of one sentence: this is Pat Shurmur's first season as an offensive coordinator.
However, much like Jim Zorn, Shurmur has been a position coach, primarily the quarterbacks coach, under a 10th-degree Walsh Offense Ninja Master--in this case, Andy Reid. While Shurmur has been a valued assistant to Reid since 1999, he's not even been the second banana at any points in that stretch. Therefore, this limited data is of questionable use--though Shurmur has indeed "forklifted" Reid's offense from Philly to St. Louis.
In 2002, Reid’s Eagles met Schwartz/Gun’s Titans, and the Eagles were an impressive offense: ranked 4th in the league with 25.9 PpG, passing for 6.18 YpA (doesn’t sound amazing, but remember, short Walsh passes), and running for a thumping 4.54 YpC. Still, the Titans weren’t a wet-tissue defense. Ranked 11th in scoring D with 20.2 PpG, they were beatable through the air (6.30 YpA), but stouter against the run (3.83 YpC). The results were right in line with expectations: the Eagles scored 24 points, slightly under their average. They were held to 5.89 YpA, slightly under their average. However, they were also held to 3.64 YpC, nearly a full yard less than their average. Interestingly, Reid’s Eagles were also intercepted twice, and sacked 6 times for –31 yards.
In 2005, Reid's Eagles met Cunningham's Chiefs. The Eagles were much less terrifying that season, ranked 18th with 19.4 PpG. Passing for slightly fewer yards per attempt (5.93) and, significantly, rushing for far fewer yards per carry (3.92). The ‘05 Chiefs were ranked lower than the ‘02 Titans (16th vs. 11th) despite having very similar numbers in PpG (20.2 vs. 20.3), YpA (6.30 vs. 6.58), and YpC (3.83 vs. 4.10). Astoundingly, the Eagles went completely gonzo: 37 points, and 7.69 YpA. However, most of that can be explained by one Terrell Owens abusing a poor KC secondary for 11 catches, 171 yards, and a score. Also, note just one INT and one sack, down quite a bit from the previous matchup’s disruption numbers. However, there is one key data point: the Eagles ran 17 times for only 28 yards against those Chiefs, for a miniscule 1.65 YpC.
Given how loosely connected these two data points are to Pat Shurmur, and how wildly they vary between each other, I cannot draw a firm conclusion, other than Reid/Shurmur Walsh-style offenses run the football well below expectations when facing a Schwartz/Cunningham aggressive 4-3.
So far this season, the Lions’ defense has been barely better than 2008’s disastrous unit: ranked 31st in points allowed (31.3 PpG), allowing a whopping 7.83 YpA (yes, the exact same number as the Rams’ D, I triple-checked), and slightly better 4.30 YpC. However, this week brings the cure for what ails them: the dead-last-ranked Rams’ offense is averaging only . . . 8.2 points per game.
Oh, my stars and garters. That is epically, shockingly, terrifically bad. I hate to disrespect so proud of a Spartan as Pat Shurmur, but his unit has to be well on the way to being the worst NFL offense ever. Of course I’m not saying it’s his fault; it’s the fault of the patchwork offensive line, UFL-caliber wideouts, and terrible quarterback play. Still, as they say, it is what it is. The Rams absolutely cannot score points. Given their really pathetic 5.25 yards per attempt, their stout 4.38 YpC hasn't really mattered.
Literally right now, while writing this, Theismann, Papa, and Sharpe just started breaking down this game on the NFL Network. Their consensus was that Steven Jackson is the best player on the field in this game. Combined with the "fact" that the Rams "like" to throw the ball, and the Lions' secondary is weak, all three analysts picked the Rams to win.
For starters, at 5.25 YpA, the Rams can “like” to throw the ball as much as they want, but they don’t throw the ball. They’re the worst offense in the NFL, even with a stud runningback. I mean, even if the Rams drastically outperform their averages through the air, they’ll still be subpar.
Moreover, Steven Jackson has been Steven Jackson for years now, and it hasn’t helped the Rams win lots of games this year any more than it did last year or the year before. When you have no defense, and no receivers, and no offensive line, and your quarterback has turned to dust . . . well, having a workhorse power back who grinds out 4.5 YpC 4.5 yards at at time isn’t going to score enough points to outscore any better offense--and this year, every offense in the NFL is better than the Rams'.
Therefore, given no talent advantage for either side, and only a very questionable systemic advantage for Cunningham defenses against the running game of Reid/Shurmur offenses, I expect the Rams' output will meet expectations. This means they should outpace their season averages: I project 10-13 points, 5.60-5.80 YpA, and 4.5-4.75 YpA. I have medium-low confidence in this projection.
Well, there you have it, folks: 24-27 points for the Lions, 10-13 points for the Rams. According to my analysis, the Lions should not only win, but cover the spread. That is interesting news indeed. Again, I deeply apologize to you, my readers, for the lateness of the post--but I hope you'll find it the most worthwhile Watchtower yet. If the Lions win 24-13 we're all going to Vegas next week, okay? For now, though, I'll be happy if I could just find a place to watch the game . . .