the watchtower: Lions vs. browns

>> 11.18.2009

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Last week, we had the pleasure of deconstructing a team that had already gone under the knife: the Minnesota Vikings. This was both exciting and troubling: a historical analysis that relied heavily on historical data, run twice, should predict the same result—and we all know that two teams playing twice won’t result in the same outcome twice, right?

  • I originally concluded that the Gunther Cunningham 4-3 disproportionately disrupts Childress’ conservative flavor of the Bill Walsh offense, and that conclusion was indisputably correct.
  • Given a huge talent and execution advantage, but a definite systemic disadvantage, I expect the Vikings will meet or slightly underperform their season averages: scoring 27-30 points, passing for 6.75-7.0 yards per attempt, and rushing for 3.75-4.0 yards per carry. I have very high confidence in this prediction.
  • I originally concluded that given lesser talent, Scott Linehan’s balanced offense meets or slightly exceeds expectations against a Dungy-style defense, even while allowing more sacks and/or turnovers. This conclusion was also confirmed by the results of Week 2.
  • With lesser talent, and therefore a small-to-zero systemic advantage, the Lions will slightly underperform, or approach, their season averages: 14-17 points scored, 5.0-5.25 YpA, and 3.75-4.0 YpC. I have very high confidence in this prediction.
  • The Lions will lose this week, scoring 14-17 points against Minnesota’s 25-30.

Astonishingly, the final score was 27-10—one missed Jason Hanson field goal away from perfectly matching Week 2’s 27-13 final, and almost exactly what I’d projected based on the previous contests.  The rushing and passing numbers, however, threw me for a loop.  The Lions gained 93 yards on 22 carries, for a surprisingly stout 4.23 YpC average, and passed 51 times for 224 yards, netting a surprisingly lame 4.39 YpA.  Once again, the Lions’ defense couldn’t contain the Vikings long enough to really control the ball with that running game . . . and once again, the Vikings’ pass rush simply overwhelmed the Lions’ offensive line.

The Vikings, for their part, did take advantage of the Lions' already-suspect, dropped-like-flies-during-the-game secondary, with an outrageous 11.10 YpA.  That opened things up for the running game, and All Day plowed through the defense for a better-than-Week 2 4.90 YpC average.

Something that’s really interesting to me is that while these breakdowns are proving to be remarkably strong predictors of final score, they’re all over the map when it comes to the rushing and passing per-play effectiveness.  Big plays really swing the per-play passing numbers, and rushing seems to be the inverse of what I expect . . . the historical rushing and passing per-play  averages have value in analyzing the past, I’m just not sure they have predictive value when projecting the future.  Food for thought.

Anyway, postmortem over.  On to the Browns!

Scott Linehan vs. Eric Mangini

Eric Mangini, much like our own Grandmaster, began his career as an unpaid assistant (actually, a ball boy) for the Cleveland Browns--and like Schwartz, was given an assistant gig when the team moved to Baltimore.  Mangini, unlike Schwartz, left the Ravens to rejoin Belichick in New York as a defensive assistant.  Mangini then followed Belichick to New England in 2000, to serve as defensive backs coach.  After winning the Super Bowl in 2001, 2003, and 2004, Pats’ DC Romeo Crennel took the Browns' head coaching job, and Mangini was promoted to replace him.

Here we have our first problem: Mangini has only been a coordinator or head coach for five years.  This is what happens with “hot young assistants”; they have nearly no track record.  On the other hand, Mangini’s coaching-tree influence is incredibly strong: his entire coaching career, from age 23, up until his hiring as the Jets head coach at 35, was under the guiding hand of Bill Belichick.  As a result, I’m including all data from Belichick’s days with the Patriots forward.  As you can see, this nets us some good numbers:

Lin Man Ornk PgG YpA YpC Drk PpG DYpA DYpC PTS YpA INT YpC Sack
MIN NEP 8th 24.4 6.60 5.3 17th 21.6 5.99 4.71 17 5.55 0 6.12 4-8
MIA NEP 16th 19.9 5.94 3.69 17th 21.1 7.03 3.62 16 7.66 1 3.08 0-0
MIA NEP 16th 19.9 5.94 3.69 17th 21.1 7.03 3.62 28 6.83 0 3.70 2-9
DET CLE 26th 15.9 5.08 3.95 27th 25.0 7.40 4.73 10 4.54 1 3.52 0-0

Unfortunately, the 2002 data isn’t very solid.  The Patriots didn’t rely primarily on a 3-4 look until the 2003 season, so schematically there’s reason to doubt the figures.  As SI’s Don Banks points out in that article, Belichick has flexed in and out of 4-3 and 3-4 looks throughout his career—but the switch from a 4-3 with some wrinkles to a 3-4 with some wrinkles was enough of a shift to grab national headlines.  Tellingly, Belichick disciples like Mangini, Crenell, and new Denver HC Josh McDaninels use the 3-4 alignment almost exclusively.

So, knowing this data may not be solid, let’s touch upon it.  Linehan’s Vikings were the 8th-ranked unit in the NFL, averaging 24.4 points a game, 6.60 yards per attempt, and a punishing 5.3 yards per carry.  The Patriots’ scoring defense that year was mediocre; ranked 17th, they allowed 21.6 points per game.  The pass defense was still strong, holding opponents to just 5.99 yards YpA—but the rushing defense struggled, allowing an alarming 4.71 YpC.

Surprisingly, the Pats held the Vikings to well below their scoring norms: only 17 points scored.  This probably had something to do with the 3 lost fumbles, and four sacks, that the Patriots forced.  The YpA and YpC were spot on with expectations, furthering the argument that the Patriots depressed scoring with turnovers and disruption; not by “actually” stopping the Vikings’ superior offense.

In 2005, we have some excellent data.  Not only was Eric Mangini the titular defensive coordinator, but Scott Linehan was calling signals for the Pats’ divisional rivals, the Dolphins.  Yes, that’s right, they played eachh other twice in 2005.  Miami was the median scoring offense that year, ranked 16th and netting 19.9 PpG.  Their passing offense was middling, too, averaging only 5.94 YpA.  Their rushing offense was also solid but nothing to shout about, with 3.69 YpC.

In a strange case of symmetry, the Patriots were the 17th-ranked scoring defense that season, too; allowing 21.1 points per game.  They allowed 7.03 YpA, and 3.62 YpC.  The expectations here would be, well, the averages.  The Fins should’ve scored 20-21 points, gained between 6 and 7 YpA, and exactly 3.6 YpC . . . not so much.

In the first game, the Fins mustered only 16 points.  I’m not quite sure how, as they passed for 7.66 YpA (360 yards on 47 throws!).  Rushing was anemic, only 3.06 YpC, but when you throw that much, and have only two turnovers, that defense is bending, but not breaking.

In the second game, on New Years' Day, the Dolphins came strong with the ground game. Thanks mostly to Ricky Williams, the Fins ran 40 times for 148 yards; only 3.7 YpC but effective nonetheless. Gus Frerottte was much more efficient, completing 22 of 35 passes for a still-solid 6.83 YpA. The result? 28 points hung on the Patriots, and a W for the Dolphins.

This illustrates a point I've made before about divisional rivals: when two teams play twice in the same season, the results of the games are primarily affected by weather and quarterback play.  In Miami in November, they throw 47 times.  In New England on New Year's Day, they run 40 times.  We all know from reading our Watchtowers that Linehan's offense is much more potent when the ground game is working; the effect here was dramatic.  The Fins scored nearly twice as many points, and tasted victory.

We have one more data point: in 2009, Mangini's Browns faced Scott Linehan's Lions. Yes, that's right, it feels like a million years ago, but the Browns played the Lions this preseason.

I'm going to be honest with you, folks: I have no idea what to do with this data.  Part of me says that due to the completely different rosters, rotations, etc. (both teams have benched their “starting” QBs since then, both teams were still on 80-man camp rosters, etc.) it should be completely discounted.  Part of me counters that this should mean it was pure scheme-on-scheme interaction, divorced from talent and execution . . . but then, enumerating and controlling for talent and execution is how I isolate that scheme-0n-scheme effect.

No, I don't think I can include this data in my analysis; there are just too many variables in the rosters, systems, and playcalling to assign significance to these numbers.  Therefore, I'm concluding that given lesser or equal talent, a Belicheck 3-4/4-3 flex defense disproportionately disrupts the scoring of a balanced Scott Linehan offense, even while allowing typical ball movement on a per-play basis.  A 60-minute offensive committment to using an effective running game may neutralize this effect.

I don't anticipate Kevin Smith having a huge day against Shaun Rogers, Robaire Smith, and company--and given the way Linehan's been putting games in Stafford's hands lately, even if Silent Bob brings the fire, they might not stick with him.  Therefore, I’m going to project the Lions will meet or slightly exceed their season averages in passing and rushing, but score fewer-than-typical points, to wit: 12-15 points, 5.50-6.00 YpA, and 3.75-4.00 YpC.

Mitigating/Augmenting Influences:

To add another layer to things, the Lions seem to abandon the run, even when it's working well--but then, they also seem be behind late in a lot of games.  We haven't seen this Lions team play with a lead very often--and when we have, turnovers, mistakes, or just plain failure have quickly ended said lead.  If Kevin Smith finally, finally gets a chance to establish a rhythm, maybe he'll break through in the second half, like Ray Rice did on Monday night.

I'm hearing a lot of talk about the Browns' unstoppable defensive line--but I'll take the Vikings' DL over the Browns' any day, and Silent Bob just ran for 4.58 yards a carry against them . . . essentially, if Cleveland's offense hangs their defense out to dry as badly as they have been, the Lions's offense will have many, many possessions to get into rhythm and build some confidence.

If the Lions offense can play like they did at Seattle, and at Minnesota, they shoudl be able to really get going against Cleveland at home.

Brian Daboll vs. Gunther Cunningham

Brian Daboll, I think, has finally, officially, beaten me.  the 34-year-old Daboll’s coaching resume is even shorter than his boss’s.  He was a grad assistant at my own Michigan State University from 1998-1999, under Nick Saban.  He joined the Patriots’ staff as a defensive assistant from 2000-2001, then got promoted to wide receivers coach, in which role he served from 2002-2006.  In 2007, Eric Mangini took Daboll with him to New York to serve as QB coach under OC Mike Hiemerdinger.  After two seasons on Broadway, Mangini took Daboll with him to Cleveland, and installed him as offensive coordinator.

Unlike Mangini, who spend his entire coaching career as a defensive assistant to a defensive mastermind with a distinct system, Daboll has served on both sides of the ball, for several different coordinators and coaches with dissimilar systems.  I’m done.  That’s it.  I have absolutely no reliable data to go upon . . . except for this:

The 2009 Cleveland Browns have the worst offense ever.

There's simply no getting around this fact.  The Browns are averaging 8.7 points per game, and have failed to score an offensive touchdown in 6 of the 9 games they've played so far.  They’re averaging 3.96 yards per pass attempt, and 3.73 yards per carry.  They have almost no ability to move the ball, no ability to convert on third down, and no ability to score points.

Trent Dilfer was on the Huge Show last night, and he called them the worst offense he’s ever seen—gamely admitting that he has both played on, and been the cause of, a lot of bad offenses.  He noted all the same things I said in my last article: with zero verticality in the passing game, and a slew of poorly drafted, poorly executed screens, the defense’s job is done for them.  Dilfer also said he talked to an active NFL quarterback who claimed that Peyton Manning and Tom Brady would each struggle to crack a 60.0 passer rating in that system, with that surrounding cast.

The upshot of all this is that despite the Lions’ suspect, and decimated, secondary, Gunther Cunningham should have every opportunity to crank up the heat and disrupt the Browns further.  Unfortunately for Cleveland, they simply don’t have the quarterback or wideouts to take advantage of the poor coverage—and the heavy, heavy blitzing will just make it all that much worse.

I don't have any data whatsoever to back this up, but I'm concluding that the Browns are going to meet, or slightly underperform their averages: 6-9 points scored, 4.00-4.50 YpA, and 3.5-4.0 YpC.

Conclusion:

The Lions have absolutely no excuse to not win this game.  As bad as they have looked at times, as difficult as it’s been, and despite having the same record as the Browns, they must prove they are a cut above this Cleveland team.  Cleveland is a disaster in progress; a team in freefall.  They’ve already fired their GM, their coach is the unanimous choice for the next to be fired, and the owner is openly courting a “football czar” to completely take over the on-field product.

The Lions, on the other hand, had their freefall; had their disaster season.  They just made all of those hires, and just drafted “the future”.  The Lions have to prove that they are on the way up from 0-16 by beating a team who’s hitting rock bottom right now.  In a sense, this puts all the pressure on the Lions to produce.  In another sense, the Lions have a chance to really, thoroughly dominate a team, and build some confidence for the stretch run—and for 2010.

10 comments:

Matt,  November 19, 2009 at 10:14 PM  

". . .and the owner is openly courting a “football czar” to completely take over the on-field product."

May I suggest one Mr. Matthew Millen?

Neil November 19, 2009 at 11:41 PM  

Nah, Cleveland is too close to Detroit. I, for one, don't want Millen's stink wafting across Lake Erie on a hot summer's day.

Matt,  November 19, 2009 at 11:48 PM  

Fair enough, Neil. I just don't want to have to look at his stupid face or listen to the stupid words coming out of his stupid mouth on my stupid TV every stupid time I watch stupid football. . .stupid.

A Lion in ViQueen territory,  November 20, 2009 at 11:52 AM  

So lately I've been a bit, shall I call it, scared to go on sites like MLive. It is as if I am ashamed of my team and don't want to read anything. Think Hester Prin looking in a mirror at her scarlet letter.

Anyway, I hope you are right about Sunday. I need a victory, bad. It's to the point where I will trade Adrian Peterson, Ray Rice, and Calvin Johnson off my fantasy team for three more Lions wins. Well, maybe AP is worth two.

Jeremy November 20, 2009 at 12:09 PM  

I have to say, because I, too, expect a low-scoring win, I am terrified by the fact that Josh Cribbs is going to play. With a low scoring game, Special Teams could potentially make a huuuuge difference. If Cribbs returns one to the house, that could be the entire game.

Ty November 20, 2009 at 12:50 PM  

Matt--

Actually, I've been rooting for the Millen-to-Raiders rumors to be true. Wouldn't that just be perfect? People have been screaming for years for Al to turn the football ops over to a true GM, and he brings a beloved Raider--with experience!--home. Ohhhh, how delicious.

Peace
Ty

Ty November 20, 2009 at 1:33 PM  

aLiVT--

I literally laughed out loud at the Hester Prinn line! Yeah, the first win was so awesome, King Kong off our backs and all that--but not having won another one since just seems all the more depressing. We've simply got to get another win, and if it's not this weekend, then I don't know when it'll be.

Peace
Ty

Ty November 20, 2009 at 1:43 PM  

Jeremy--

Honestly, Cribbs is the only weapon they have. I was elated when it looked like we wouldn't have to worry about him (NOT elated he got hurt, of course, just happy that we might not have to face him).

Unfortunately you might be right; a Cribbs return TD could easily swing the whole game. Wow, way to bum me out, man, thanks. ;)

Peace
Ty

Hyperion Ecta,  November 20, 2009 at 6:40 PM  

I like your prediction this week, you seem to be pretty close to the money most days, I hope your right.

Matt,  November 21, 2009 at 6:16 PM  

Millen-to-Raiders. Could anything make more sense and less sense at the same time?

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