The Watchtower: Packers at Lions

>> 11.25.2009

Traditionally, I start each Watchtower with a postmortem analysis of the previous game’s Watchtower.  Suffice it to say, the Lions and Browns completely blew all of my predictions out of the water.  Regular commenter Matt actually did much better than I:

"You have to put the Browns' defense in perspective: MY perspective. My fantasy football team went into that game needing the Browns to hold Joe Flacco AND Ray Rice to less than 14 points. They combined for 13! This threw me into a 4-way division tie (all 5-5) instead of being two games back. The Browns D also aided this by keeping the Ravens' kicker in check. So, even though the team lost, the Browns D was simply stepping up to help out a fantasy football geek. :-) We can now extrapolate this to next week's Lions/Browns game. The only player from this game on either fantasy roster is Matt Stafford (my opponent as no Lions or Browns). He will be on my bench behind Brett Favre. This surely means that Stafford will have his break-out game, throwing for 400 yards and 5 TDs, as the Lions completely trounce the Browns while my Las Vegas Kings lose a heartbreaker. :-)"

When I initially penned the last Watchtower, it was on the heels of a game where the Browns had played the Ravens; they threw the ball further than five yards downfield only a handful of times.  Not only did the announcers in the booth call this out as it happened, the postgame analysts carped on it as well--and then the Cleveland media, national NFL media, and entire football blogosphere spent the next entire week flogging the Browns for their total lack of downfield balls.

Pun intended.

It only stands to reason, then, that with the 31st-ranked scoring defense--minus some starters in the secondary, and minus some of the replacements for those starters—next on the schedule, the Browns would give downfield passing a whirl.  The results were, well, typical.  Meanwhile the Lions, rather than getting ahead early and turning to Kevin Smith as I’d predicted, again abandoned the run and asked Stafford to win the ballgame.  This time, it worked.

Okay, the Packers:

Mike McCarthy vs. Gunther Cunningham


The Packers are the second team to feel the searing gaze of the eye atop the Watchtower twice in one season.  The first time around, I concluded 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.

Then, in the midseason review of the Watchtower feature, I smugly pointed out that:

  • The Packers scored 26 points, which exactly matched their average on the season to that point.
  • Aaron Rodgers completed 29 of 37, for a whopping 358 yards (and 9.68 yards per attempt!).
  • Rodgers, however, was sacked five times, and intercepted once. The Lions also forced three fumbles, recovering one.
  • Rodgers passed for only two touchdowns, and those were on the first two drives (one of which started on the Lions' 17).
  • The Packers as a whole did not score a touchdown after cashing in on the opening-drive Culpepper turnover.
Of course, things are a little different now.  The Lions’ secondary has been decimated, degrading said unit from “suspect” to “dumpster fire”.  The Packers’ offense has clicked a little more, too, with the OL protecting better than, you know, not at all, and the WRs beginning to get open deep again.  Though my conclusions about McCarthy’s offense and Cunningham’s defense proved to be spookily correct the first time around, merely projecting a repeat of the prior game would be hubris.

Let's instead look at the Packers’ current stats, the Lions’ current stats, and then apply the same advantage to those figures.  The Packers are now the 8th-best scoring offense, averaging 26.2 PpG.  They’re passing for an impressive 7.41 YpA, and rushing for a surprising 4.46 YpG.  Meanwhile, the Lions are allowing 30.1 PpG, surrendering 7.84 YpA, and being run on to the tune of 4.47 YpG. 

One would expect the Packers to significantly outperform their season averages—that is, score well over 26 points, and gain passing and rushing yards at a pace well over their typical per-play average.  However, if we apply the systemic advantage it appears Gunther Cunningham’s aggressive defenses have against Mike McCarthy’s offense, scoring should be somewhere above the Lions’ allowed average—the Packers are a well-above-average offense—but below, like, a zillion points.  Meanwhile, the Pack should be able to move between the 20s more or less at will.

Therefore, the Packers should score 34-38 points, pass for 9.00-10.00 YpA, and run for 4.50-4.75 YpC. I have very high confidence in this prediction.

Mitigating/Augmenting Influences:

If it weren't for the frequent turnovers by, and rampant futility of, the Lions offense, the Packers might not have scored even the 26 points that they did. Moreover, the Lions were without Matt Stafford and Calvin Johnson--which, as we've discussed before, absolutely destroys the Lions' offense.

Of course, the Lions may not have Stafford or Megatron available this time, either, but if they do play, the defense won’t be hung out to dry as badly as before. Also, the Lions’ defense was even more banged up last time—3/4ths of the starting defensive line was out---so the crappy secondary being even more crappy might not be as big of a factor.

Another interesting factor to note: instead of the Lions trying to break a 19-year-old losing streak at LLLLAAAAAMMMMMBOOOWWW FEEEEEEEEEELLLD, they'll be playing at home, in front of a sellout crowd, on national TV, in the Lions’ annual showcase game.  I don’t think this will matter anywhere near as much as Stafford/Culpepper, or Megatron/no Megatron, but the Lions have been much “better” at home than on the road. 

Scott Linehan vs. Dom Capers


Okay, the last time we did this, I concluded:

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.
This is why I started breaking the analysis out from the "influencing factors"!  There was a monstrous whopper of an “if” in there, and I utterly failed to account for it.  Still, I don’t think anyone would have predicted how poorly Daunte Culpepper would play.  4.20 yards per attempt?  That’s criminally bad.  For what it’s worth, the Lions did rush for a very respectable 4.20 YpC.

It’s almost impossible to tell what’s going to happen here.  Given the Culpepper/Stanton in-and-out, no Megatron, and the immediate TD/turnover/TD sequence putting the Lions on their heels two minutes in, I’m not going to attribute the shutout earlier this year to scheme-on-scheme interaction.  That leaves us with the earlier conclusion, that Linehan’s offenses are unusually good against blitzing 3-4s, especially when the running game is working well.

Unfortunately, given the loss of Stephen Peterman, I don’t see Kevin Smith rushing any better than he did the first time around.  If the Lions, as probable, are playing from behind early again, a rushing attack averaging 4.2 yards a carry is not going to force the Packers to adjust to stop it.

I have to project this based on the assumptions that Daunte Culpepper and Bryant Johnson will be starting in the stead of the newly-christened avatar of the Lions franchise and, arguably, the most dangerous downfield threat in football.  Given the way the Packers defense has been playing (12-ranked scoring defense!), this is an insurmountable challenge.

Even accounting for the systemic advantage I still believe a fully realized Linehan offense has against a Capers-style 3-4, the Lions should meet, or slightly underperform, their season averages: 14-17 points, 5.25-5.50 YpA, and 3.85-4.15 YpC.

Mitigating/Augmenting Influences:

Yeesh, this Linehan/Capers section has been almost all “influences” already, but here we go.  Obviously, Matthew Stafford is now THE QUARTERBACK, and losing him is a great loss indeed.  Megatron is the only weapon that defenses respect, and losing him is an even bigger loss.  However, last Sunday, the Packers have lost both their top corner, Al Harris, and their top pass rusher, Aaron Kampman, for the rest of the season.

While I’m not exactly salivating over the Charles Woodson-versus-Bryant Johnson matchup, the Lions’ remaining wideouts should have much better looks than they did the first time around.   Moreover, as miscast as Kampman has been this season, he’s still a naturally gifted pass rusher, and losing him partially de-fangs a defense whose bite has been much worse than its bark this season.

Unfortunately, for the second week in a row, we find the Watchtower’s view obfuscated.  This offense without a healthy Stafford and Megatron simply isn’t the same offense—and while it’s only on the low end of mediocre with them, it’s absolutely wretched without them.  Let’s be real, here, folks: if both Stafford and Megatron can’t go, this is going to be another bloodbath, regardless of who is out on the other side, or what logo is at midfield.  It kills me to say it, but unless the young binary stars of this franchise take the field on Turkey Day, the national audience is going to get treated to yet another Thanksgiving fiasco.


Hyperion Ecta,  November 25, 2009 at 6:42 PM  

I think your pretty much right about the chances of this being a bloodbath. Without Stafford and CJ, I don't see our offence keeping up with the Packers, who are definitely going to score and lots. I'm just hoping that somehow, being in front of a big crowd, with the national TV audience watching and riding the confidence of last week's win bring's the best out in our boys and they do us proud.

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