As regular readers know, I briefly revisit the previous Watchtower piece at the start of each new one. Let me hold my nose and . . .
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.. . . obviously, the introduction of the new Watchtower format didn't erase my wholly unfounded faith in the Lions. It was punishing to watch the offense operate on Sunday (once I’d found a bar that had the game). Stafford's passes weren't always perfect, but there were an egregious amount of stone cold drops--and as lifeless as the passing game was, the running game was just as moribund.
If the Lions' offense could have performed the way it did in the first few games of the season, this would have been an easy victory. However, as ESPN.com's NFC North blogger, Kevin Seifert, discovered while doing the legwork that I didn’t, the Lions' offense without both Matthew Stafford AND Megatron in the game is offensive. With Stafford and Johnson in there, the Lions have a respectable NFL offense--one that should have had no problem putting 23+ points on the Rams, as I projected they would.
However, without both the young signal-caller and his favorite target in there, the Lions’ offense is worse than bad--it’s wretched, pathetic, rock-bottom, UFL awful. Even so, the Lions’ defense did exactly what I projected: they kept Steven Jackson from running completely wild, and they stopped the Rams’ passing cold. In fact, let’s look at those projections, versus the actual results:
I projected the Lions would get 24-27 points, 6.5 to 6.75 YpA, and 4.0 to 4.25 YpC, with medium confidence. Obviously, the points projection was nowhere near correct, due to gaining 1.5-1.75 fewer yards per passing play than I expected. I projected the Rams to outpace their season averages: 10-13 points, 5.60-5.80 YpA, and 4.5-4.75 YpC; these numbers were spot-on. If the special teams TD, the fake field goal, had been a regular field goal, they’d have scored 13 points, and my projections would have been dead solid perfect (though that “36-yard passing TD” inflated STL’s YpA by .8 of a yard).
Okay, postmortem over. Let’s look at the upcoming opponent:
The Seahawks, at the beginning of the season, appeared to be amongst the rarest of birds: a beatable road opponent. While their 2-5 record certainly doesn't change the first-glance assessment, with these Lions we take nothing for granted. First, let's break down the Lions' gradually improving defense against the Seahawks' veteran offense:
Greg Knapp versus Gunther Cunningham:
Greg Knapp is a purebred Bill Walsh Offense coach, with papers and everything: he came to the Niners as an offensive QC assistant under George Seifert in ‘95, was promoted to QB coach under Mariucci in ‘98, took over as OC in 2001. After Mariucci’s ouster, and a year under Dennis Erickson in 2003, 49ers DC Jim L. Mora (a.k.a Jim Mora “Jr.”) left to become the head coach of the Atlanta Falcons—and he brought Knapp with him. Knapp served as the OC of the Falcons from 2004-2006. After Mora was run off in Atlanta, Knapp was recalled to the Bay Area by new Raiders HC Lane Kiffin, to serve under him as offensive coordinator. Knapp called plays for the Raiders for two seasons, before rejoining Mora in Seattle.
Unfortunately, in all that time, Knapp didn’t face off against Gunther Cunningham much. Only once did the two meet: in 2004, Knapp’s first year in Atlanta. I’m going to include a 2000 meeting between the 49ers and Cunningham’s Chiefs, as Knapp was the QB coach of an offense he’d take over in the following season. I have decent confidence in this data, as Knapp was a devoted Mariucci/Seifert/Walsh disciple, and he obviously was a trusted offensive assistant when this game was played.
Of course, the 2000 49ers were an offensive powerhouse: the 6th-best scoring offense in the NFL, averaging over 24 points per game. Despite featuring passing attack based on shorter routes, those 9ers averaged a whopping 7.27 YpA--evidence of their offensive efficiency, and Jerry Rice & Terrell Owens' post-catch effectiveness. More surprising was the Niners' ground effectiveness: Charlie Garner & Co. averaged a stout 4.33 YpC. On defense, Cunningham's Chiefs were mediocre: 19th-ranked, allowing 22.1 PpG. They were a little soft against the pass (6.32 YpA), but tougher to run on (3.83 YpC).
The expectationts would be that the Niners would score above their 24.2 PgG average, and be especially effective through the air. Actually, they scored a field goal below average (21 points), despite gaining a whopping 9.67 yards per pass attempt. As expected, the running game was slightly depressed on a per-carry basis (4.03 YpC)--though they pounded it repeatedly, grinding out 149 total rushing yards. These extremely close-to-norms results don't imply much of an advantage either way.
In 2004, Knapp's Falcons met Cunningham's Chiefs, this time with Gun in his second stint as KC DC. The Falcons were the median offense in 2004, with 21.2 average points, and a subpar 6.11 YpA. However, Warrick Dunn, T.J. Duckett, and Mike Vick combined for a mindblowing 2,672 yards on only 524 carries (5.10 YpC)! Meanwhile, Gunther's Chiefs were one of the worst defenses in the NFL, allowing 27.2 PpG, 8.05 YpA, and 4.62 YpC.
One would expect the to Falcons explode on the Chiefs, passing for well above average, running at their usual pace, and scoring near the Chiefs' allowed average of 27.2. Nothing of the sort happened. The Chiefs blew out the Falcons, 56-10. Not only were the Falcons held well below their scoring average, their sole offensive TD was an Alan Rossum punt return! The Falcons’ truly wimpy 5.12 YpA can be laid at the feet of one Mike Vick, whose stat line was unforgivably bad: 7-of-21, 119 yards, 0 TDs, 2 INTs, sacked 4 times for –25 yards . . . and those stats include a 56-yard bomb. Oddly, the Falcons' rushing was actually more effective than usual, 5.67 YpC instead of the year-long average of 5.10.
Since the second data point is the exact same coaching configuration, Mora HC with Knapp as OC, as the Seahawks, I'm inclined to weight it more strongly. However, since the first data point was Jeff Garcia executing the offense extremely well, and the second featured Mike Vick executing the offense horrifically, I think the truth is between these two data points. I'm concluding that regardless of talent, Gunther Cunningham defenses disproportionately depress the scoring of Greg Knapp offenses, despite allowing typical rushing and passing per-play effectiveness.
This season, the Seahawks are the 21st-ranked offense, scoring 19.3 points a game. The per-play effectiveness of the offense isn't good: 5.84 yards per attempt, 3.51 yards per carry. Again, the YpA is depressed a little because of the offensive system, but it is what it is. Hasselbeck's QB play has been typically efficient-but-unremarkable: 55.9% complete, 9 TDs vs. 3 INTs, 87.0 passer rating.
Meanwhile, of course, the Lions defense is still 31st in scoring, allowing 29.3 PpG, 7.53 YpA, and 4.82. Given a definite talent gap and a mild systemic points-denial advantage, I expect the Seahawks to mildly overperform their season averages: 20-23 points, with 6.00-6.25 YpA, and 3.75-4.00 YpC. I have medium-high confidence in this prediction.
I'm renaming "Intangibles", because the effects of injuries, recent trends, and coaching/roster moves are certainly "tangible". For the Seahawks, their rebuilt WR corps is matching expectations, with Burleson, Houshmandzadeh and Branch giving Hasselbeck more athletic options than he’s had in a long time. However, their offensive line is missing two tackles (Walter Jones, Sean Locklear) and a guard (Rob Sims), and they're still desperately searching for a consistent ground game—they cut their second-leading rusher, Edgerrin James, this week.
We’ve seen that the Lions’ defense can turn up the pressure—and play like they’re supposed to—when the deep passing game is disrupted; the less the Lions’ secondary factors into things, the better. If Seattle's WRs can get behind the defense before the pressure comes, the Lions will have a hard time limiting scoring to the 20-23 that I project. However, if the Lions can bring the heat before Hasselbeck can make them pay, they could hold the Seahawks to significantly fewer points.
Scott Linehan versus Jim L. Mora:
Jim L. Mora, commonly called “Jim Mora Jr.”, even though he doesn’t actually share a name with his father, took over the Seahawks job from longtime coach Mike Holmgren. Mora, like Knapp, came up as an assistant in San Francisco—though Mora had been on the staffs of the Charagers and Saints from 1985 through 1996 before signing on to be the49ers secondary coach in 1997. In just two years, Mora was installed as defensive coordinator. After five successful seasons in San Francisco—including three with Greg Knapp as OC—Mora was hired as the head coach of the Atlanta Falcons. Mora brought Knapp along with him. After a tempestuous tenure as Falcons’ HC, Mora returned to his native Pacific Northwest to assist Holmgren; Mora was eventually named Holmgren’s successor.
Fortunately, we have two real data points for this comparison. UNfortunately, Mora has decided to move away from his balanced 4-3 and incorporate some Tampa 2 elements. He hired Tampa Bay LB coach Casey Bradley to be defensive coordinator, and to begin laying the foundation for that defense. However, Bradley has never been an NFL coordinator before, and I have to believe that Mora will have a strong hand in overseeing the defensive coaching, and probably the playcalling as well. Therefore, I’ll include Mora’s historical data, rather than use Linehan’s numbers against established pure T2 defenses.
The first data point is from 2005, when Scott Linehan’s Miami Dolphins faced Mora’s Falcons. the ‘Fins were the median offense in 2005, ranked 16th, scoring 19.9 points per game. They were balanced, but mediocre, on offense, averaging 5.94 YpA and 3.69 YpC. Meanwhile, the Falcons weren’t any better on defense: ranked 18th, allowing 21.3 PpG, and a scary 4.71 YpC against the run.
However, the Fins failed to capitalize on the Falcons' D. While the Dolphins did run much more effectively than usual (25 carries for 105 yards; 4.20 YpC), they only managed to score 10 points. I’m blaming this scoring depression at least partly on the dominating possession denial by Atlanta; 41 carries for 162 yards by the Falcons left very few offensive reps for the Fins. Still, the appalling 4.68 YpA the Dolphins put out is more than a full yard-per-play shy of the Falcons’ typical defensive performance. It’s undeniable that the Dolphins’ O deeply underperformed in this game.
In the second matchup between Linehan and Mora, Linehan’s 2007 Rams faced Mora’s Seahawks. Technically, Mora was not the DC for this game, but the “Assistant Head Coach/Secondary”, the typical designation for top assistants that have some input into playcalling. However, the actual DC for this game was John Marshall--Marshall being the DC Mora worked under in San Francisco. I’m going to call the data point good.
The Rams, as we know, weren't very good in 2007; they ranked 28th in the NFL with 16.4 points per game. They threw for 5.62 YpA, and carried for 3.78 YpC. Meanwhile, the Seahawks were defensively excellent. They were the 6th-ranked scoring edefense in the NFL, allowing only 18.2 PpG, 6.17 YpA, and 3.77 YpC. Given the execution level of the Rams, expectations would be that they underperform their averages, probably severely. Bizarrely, though, nothing of the sort happens—the Rams scored 19 points. They did pass and run for notably fewer yards-per-play than usual: 5.22 YpA versus 5.63 average, and 3.35 YpC versus 3.78 average.
Noting that the two St. Louis scores were a 53-yard Steven Jackson run, and a 15-yard Isaac Bruce catch, it seems as though Jim L. Mora’s conservative 4-3 disproportionately depresses the per-play effectiveness of Linehan’s balanced offense—unless scoring can come from big plays that get behind the defense. Given that elements of the suffocating Tampa 2 short zone-based defense have been added to Mora’s historical approach, this effect should remain in place.
The 2009 Lions offense, besides being a bipolar Jekyll-and-Hyde monster, is simply not that good. They're ranked 25th in scoring offense, with 16.1 points per game, 5.42 YpA, and 3.76 YpC. The Seahawks' D, however, is ranked 14th, with 21.0 PpG, 6.49 YpA, and 4.25 YpC. If "Dr. Jekyll" shows up--the Lions offense that features Matt Stafford, Calvin Johnson, and Kevin Smith all healthy and effective--the Lions should be able to push it deep and meet or slightly outperform their expectations: 17-20 points, 6.25-6.5 YpA, and 3.75-4.YpC. I have medium-low confidence in this prediction—since if this is “Mr. Hyde”, and Johnson and Smith can’t play or are limited, it may be much worse: 10-13 points, 5.00-5.25 YpA, and 3.5-3.75 YpC.
Besides what I just said about Johnson—and, by the way, he practiced today—the real story here is the running game, featuring Kevin Smith—who, by the way, didn’t. Smith has been running poorly ever since coming out of the Lions’ sole win with a shoulder injury; he’s looked very tentative, running with none of his old conviction. Seahawks castoff Maurice Morris, however, ran for his life last weekend, and was much more effective.
The Lions will need either Morris to continue to run well behind the Lions’ subpar offensive line, or Smith needs to get healthy, quick. Without a legitimate running game to keep the Lions’ offense on schedule, they are asking Matthew Stafford to win games by himself—something that he’s not quite capable of doing yet.
I’m projecting 20-23 points for the Seahawks, versus 17-20 points for the Lions. Unfortunately, I don’t see a trip out to the West Coast, a notoriously loud crowd, and a running game that’s forcing the coach to give his tailback a public vote of confidence affecting those numbers in favor of the Lions. The only hope for an outlier performance is the defense putting worlds of pressure on Matt Hasselbeck and forcing an un-Hasselbeckian number of turnovers.