the watchtower: lions vs. steelers

>> 10.06.2009

I never could leave well enough alone.

the most likely outcome involves Stafford getting rattled by the Bears, getting sacked 3-to-5 times and surrendering at least two turnovers. Despite moving the ball as well as they have all season, the Lions should score below expectations (currently 19, though a 3-game average is nearly useless). This is much less well defined, but my guess is that the Bears will match or slightly outperform their scoring expecations (also currently 19, equally shakily), with one dimension of the offense working much better than the other.
  • Stafford was sacked five times, for a loss of 42 yards.
  • Stafford lost a fumble on one of those sacks, and threw an interception.
  • The Lions generated a season-high 398 yards of total offense, and scored 24 points--for reference, they scored 20 points off of 231 offensive yards in Week 1.
  • The Bears scored 41 offensive points. As a team, they ran 20 times for 151 yards (7.55 YpC) and 3 TDs. They passed 28 times for 141 yards (5.04 YpA) and 2 TDs.
That's some profound prognostication. Unfortunately, I threw the data to the wind and kept talking:
I'm calling for another low-scoring, ugly, sack-and-turnover filled game, and a probable (but probably narrow) Bears victory.
I've said before that I'm going to continue to expand the data sets as I find appropriate.  I've decided to start including average defensive yards-per-attempt and yards-per-carry numbers. It should help highlight when the fit of offensive and defensive scheme are actually resulting in performance deltas.

Unfortunately, this week is another matchup with a paucity of reliable data. Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Bruce Arians technically came up through the NFL ranks as an assistant to Tom Moore, joining him in Peyton Manning's rookie season. However, he also spent many years in the college ranks, even serving as an assistant Bear Bryant . . . so he clearly has had many influences, and doesn't come from any specific "tree".

His first stint running his own offense was calling the plays for Butch Davis in Cleveland. After a few subpar seasons, Davis was swept aside, and Arians was hired as a WR coach by his old colleague, Bill Cowher.  Arians assisted then-OC Ken Whisenhunt for several years, ascending back into the playcalling role when Whisenhunt left for the Cardinals.

Trying to find more details about Arians' scheme, I gleefully stumbled upon a Bruce Arians breakdown by Chris Brown of Smart Football.  Arians, as Brown explains, tried to port what he learned from Tom Moore over to Cleveland, but a lack of quality quarterback play tripped him up.  Brown asserts that Arians, today, executes those principles from a modified version of the Whisenhunt offense with the Steelers.  My own eyeballs tell me there are a lot of Colts-esque 3-wide and 4-wide packages being trotted out in the Steel City than there were in ‘05.

The Whisenhunt/Arians Steelers didn’t face a Cunningham or Schwartz/Cunningham defense (for the record, new readers, I don’t count the 2006-2008 Chiefs as a “Cunningham defense”, because he merely executed Herm Edwards’ Tampa 2 scheme).  The only data we have to look at is Arians’ Browns against the Schwartz/Cunningham Titans defense.

I’ve used the Schwartz/Cunningham data sparingly in previous weeks, because we heard a lot of talk about 40% blitz and 3-3-5 nickel and Derrick Thomas and Julian Peterson and whatnot.  However, the inability of the Lions’s secondary to cover anybody at all has constricted Cunningham to calling a more conservative 4-3, in the style of Schwartz’s Titans.  


In 2001, pre-re-alignment, the Browns and Titans shared a division.  This is cool because, as regular readers of this feature know, the numbers get much stronger when there are two data points from the same year to work with.  Arians's Browns were not a potent crew, ranked 25th in the NFL with 17.8 points per game. They averaged 6.01 yards per attempt through the air, and 3.24 yards per carry on the ground.  Meanwhile, Schwartz's Titans weren't any great shakes either: also ranked 25th; allowing an average of 24.2 PpG, getting torched for 7.31 YpA, but holding runners to 3.53 YpC.

The expectations for this game would be the Browns scoring around 21 points, passing more effectively than usual, and running about at their average.  Astonishingly, the Browns' passing attack was bottled up, gaining only 5.89 yards per attempt.  Rushing for 3.82 YpC could only do so much: between 2 lost fumbles, a pick, and two sacks for seven yards lost, the Browns' ineffectiveness through the air held them to just 15 points scored.

Immediately upon seeing these numbers, I went sensed something was up. Ahh, there's the problem.  Tim Couch was rotten that day, and benched midgame. Kelly Holcomb got his first taste of NFL action that afternoon, and was mildly decent.

The second matchup between Arians's Browns and Schwartz's Titans was interesting indeed: a 41-38 shootout!  The Browns exploded for 12.44 yards per passing attempt, eviscerating the Titans' suspect pass defense.  We see that Tim Couch was every bit the Golden Boy on this day, going 20-of-27 for 336 yards and 3 TDs.  He also threw a pick, and was sacked 3 times--but when the ground game got only 87 yards on 29 caries (3.00 YpC), there's only so perfect you can be.

This illustrates Brown's point above: quality quarterback play makes Arians's downfield passing offense much more powerful.

In the final meeting between these two coordinators, Arians's Browns were the 19th-ranked scoring offense, scoring 21.5 PpG on the wings of a pretty-potent 6.65 YpA passing attack.  They also improved their ground attack, using a two-back combo of Jamel White and William Green to gain 3.98 YpC.  However, Schwartz's Titans had taken a much bigger step forward, being the 11th-ranked scoring defense, allowing 6.30 YpA and only 3.83 YpC.

I'd expect scoring to be right about at average for the Browns--and instead, they put up 31 points.  Couch was again incredibly efficient, completing 36 of 50 passes for 326 yards, 3 TDs, and just one INT. He wasn't blowing the Titans up downfield, as the 6.52 YpA shows--but completing 72% of your passes, and throwing one pick in 50 attempts is truly excellent quarterback play.  If the Browns hadn't lost three fumbles, and if Couch's only pick hadn't been taken back to the house by Andre Dyson, this would have been a Browns blowout.

The evidence is clear, and the verdict is terrifying: With quality quarterback play, and/or suspect secondary play, Bruce Arians's multi-WR downfield passing offense is disproportionately successful against Jim Schwartz's balanced 4-3, regardless of talent.


This table looks a little stubby; that's because we only have one real data point to work with.  I fleshed it out a little with his protegé, former Steelers DC Dom Capers, but that data point is really for "entertainment purposes only".

In 2007, Linehan's hobbled Rams offense met Lebeau's typically terrifying Steeler defense.  The Rams were the 28th-best scoring offense, mustering 16.4 PpG.  They passed for only 5.63 yards per attempt, but managed to grind out 3.78 yards per carry behind a decimated O-line.  Meanwhile, the vicious Steelers D allowed only 16.8 points per game, 5.27 YpA, and 3.98 YpC.  Note how eerily similar those numbers are . . . it’s almost like the Steelers were the #2 defense in the league just by turning every team they played into the Rams.

One would expect that the Terrible Towels would transform the Rams into, like, the Double Rams, with a logarithmically smaller offensive output. What happened instead was a relative offensive explosion: 24 points. The Rams balanced their typical 5.60 YpA passing game with a surprisingly effective ground game; they averaged six yards per carry. Though they carried only 15 times, pounding Steven Jackson inside was clearly enough to keep the Steelers honest; Bulger was sacked only once.

One might think that the Rams came back in garbage time, but no: the Rams trailed 17-24 at the half, 24-31 after three quarters, and the final margin came on a Bulger pick-six at the bitter end. The Rams were legitimately in this game, moving the ball and keeping pace for 50+ minutes, despite having no real business doing so. We saw a similar effect with Linehan's track record against Gregg Williams's similar defense: the balance of an inside running game and downfield passing game gives a high-edge-blitz defense fits.

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.

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.

Likewise, if Matt Stafford, Kevin Jones Smith [Great Googily Moogily! I knew I'd make this typo someday], and Calvin Johnson are healthy enough to play, and play well, this could be an intense shootout. The Steelers will likely give Johnson & Johnson plenty of cushion on the outside, and blitz the OLBs. Look for Linehan to attack this space with routes out of the backfield and TEs. Likewise, the Steelers will do a lot of blitzing off the edge; Smith should be able to find seams up the middle.

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. Unless and until the Lions can rush the passer and cover the pass . . . get used to this.


Anonymous,  October 7, 2009 at 3:30 PM  

Don't you mean Kevin Smith in the second to last paragraph?

Ty,  October 7, 2009 at 3:32 PM  


Oh good gravy! Corrected.


Joe Willy,  October 7, 2009 at 8:12 PM  

My question is: is the Lions secondary unable to cover or are they experiencing breakdowns in coverage from miscommunication. Lots of new players and a new scheme might be one reason since I see guys being well-covered up until the point the coverage breaks down and they're wide open with no one without 15-20 yards.

This game scares me. I think the Steelers break 50. They were already passing well and in their last game they got the running game going. The Lions defense seems capable of stopping the run but teams that like to pass and have lots of weapons to cover seem to torch them.

Ty,  October 9, 2009 at 10:25 AM  

Joe Willy--

Well, there's no question that the "solid B+" level play of 36-year-old Anthony Henry makes him by far our best corner--and, given the inconsistency of Delmas, probably our best DB . . . even so, the Lions spent all preseason trying to move him to safety. Buchanon got an $8M deal to be our #1 CB, and is currently a dedicated special-teamer. Eric King was supposed to be a solid nickel/okay #2, and he's been an unqualified disaster--and is now hurt. Our starting left cornerback is now Will James, who was a street free agent. The other safety spot would be Ko Simpson, traded for just before the final roster cuts--except that he's hurt, and we're back to Marquand Manuel.

It may be communication, too, but I'm going to go out on a limb and say it's ability.



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