the watchtower: lions at Ravens

>> 12.10.2009

At first glance, last week’s edition of the Watchtower appeared to be nearly perfect:

I'm going to stick with the data: 20-24 points for the Bengals, and 7-9 points for the Lions.

However, besides the Lions getting a late TD to exceed my expectations, 7 of the Bengals’ 23 points came on a defensive TD.  The results of the offense/defense interactions, then, was a very narrow 17-13 margin for the Bengals.

I project 20-24 points, 8.0-8.5 YpA, and 4.25-4.5 YpC. I have extremely high confidence in this projection.

Oops.  The Lions' defense came up big, holding the Bengals to just 6.97 YpA, and--I advise sitting down--2.70 YpC.  Except for the play that was arguably the dagger in the Lions’ heart, the Lions completely contained one of the most physically talented QB/WR combos in the NFL.  With 44 rushing plays, that 2.70 YpC number is no fluke, either.  Sammie Hill was huge in this game, literally and figuratively.  All in all, the defense stepped up to a level I didn’t think they were quite capable of.

Of course, the skeptic in me points out that the Bengals have been notorious for playing to their level of competition this year, that Bengals’ OC Bob Bratkowski has been criticized for his conservative playcalling, and that the 16 penalties called in the game further disrupted rhythm, timing, and momentum—all of which played right into the Lions’ hands.  But hey, it worked.  If they can play as well next week in Baltimore as they played this week, they’ll again be competitive.  Speaking of which . . .

Cam Cameron vs. Gunther Cunningham

Cam Cameron is very familiar to midwestern football fans.  In his four years as head coach of Indiana University, with All-American QB Antwaan Randle-El under center, he won less than a third of his games.  He’s also very familiar to Floridian football fans.  In his one year as head coach of the Miami Dolphins, he one only one game—a freaky overtime TD away from beating the ‘08 Lions to the 0-16 punch.  However, Cameron is also very familiar to southern California football fans—as the architect of one of the most consistent, prolific offenses of the decade.

Cam Cameron is also very familiar to Gunther Cunningham.  For three seasons, 2004-2006, the two coached against each other in the AFC West division.  Regular readers know what that means: good data.  Though Cunningham ran Herm Edwards’ Tampa 2 defense in 2006, we still get four games between Cameron and Cunningham.  In ‘04, the Chargers were the #3 offense in football, averaging a whopping 27.9 points per game, a whopping 7.46 yards per pass attempt, and very-good-but-not-whopping 4.16 YpC.  Cunningam’s Chiefs, meanwhile, were the 29th-ranked scoring defense, probably better than expected given the appalling pass defense (8.05 YpA?).

Note that in the first game of 2004 and in the first game of 2005, the Chiefs held the Chargers’ running game to below its on-season average—quite a feat for a team allowing an 4.62 YpC average and facing LaDanian Tomlinson!  In fact, they held Tomlinson himself to a microscopic 2.19 YpC, and 4.09 YpC in the first contests of 2004 and 2005.  Cunningham must have entered each game absolutely dead set on containing Tomlinson, in order for the ‘04 and ‘05 Chiefs to hold the line like that.  It follows, then, that in both of those games, the Chiefs greatly outpaced their average effectiveness in the passing game, and scored points right in line with expectations.

However, looking at the second games of ‘04 and ‘05, we see the opposite effect: the Chiefs held the passing of the Chargers down below season averages, and also held the scoring down as well.  I was tempted to dismiss this effect when I noted it in the 2004 game, as the Chargers had already clinched the division and were resting their starters.  However, the pattern manifests itself much more plainly in the second game of 2005, when the Chiefs were the median defense instead of one of the worst.  They depressed the passing game severely, holding Drew Brees and company to just 4.88 yards per attempt—nearly two yards per attempt below either the season average gained for the Chargers (6.64) or allowed by the Chiefs (6.58).  The result?  The #5 scoring offense in the NFL put up seven measly points against the #16 scoring defense in the NFL.

There is a bit of a chicken-and-egg thing here; I can practically hear Ron Jaworski pounding the table and hollering, “POINTS COME OUT OF THE PASSING GAME!”  Were there fewer points scored because the passing game wasn’t working, or were the passing stats limited by the denial of long scoring plays?  One clue is in the disruption numbers: when Cunningham defenses depress scoring, it’s usually as a direct, or indirect, result of sacks or forced turnovers.  In this case, though, there was only 1 sack, 1 INT, and one fumble lost.  Enough to impact scoring, yes, but not hold a 26.1 PpG offense to a single score.

This is as strong of a statistical correlation as I’ve seen.  I’m comfortable stating it as fact: when Gunther Cunningham commits to denying Cam Cameron the run game, Cameron’s offenses merely throw more effectively, and score the expected amount of points.  When Gunther Cunningham commits to containing Cam Cameron’s passing offense, scoring is curtailed to well below expectations.

In 2009, Cam Cameron's offense, led by Joe Flacco, got off to a very hot start, leading talking heads to conclude early in the season that Baltimore is now an offense-first team. However, they’ve cooled off a bit since then.  They’re now the 10th-best scoring offense in the NFL, averaging a very healthy 23.4 points per game.  Average per-play effectiveness for both passing and running is very high: 6.95 YpA, and 4.25 YpC.

This is indeed a very balanced, effective offense, despite no real “studs” in the backfield or in space (no slight intended to Derrick Mason, but Larry Fitzgerald, he is not).  Despite the differences in ordinal rankings, which might lend credence to Gunther’s rant about tackling these days, this Ravens offense actually ranks in between the ‘04 and ‘05 Chargers in per-play effectiveness in the run and pass.  The field-goal-plus scoring disparity between these Ravens and those Chargers, though, points toward red zone problems.

Meanwhile, the Lions still have the 32nd-ranked—that is, worst--scoring defense in football: 30.5 points allowed per game.  Pass defense continues to be appalling, surrendering yards through the air at a 7.94 YpA clip.  The average opponent’s rushing attempt nets them 4.33 yards.  Given the state of the Lions’ secondary, and the way the Ravens have played this year, and the way it looks like Gunther figured Cameron out in the second game of the ‘05 season, I expect the Lions to load up to stop the pass.

Therefore, I’m going to gulp loudly and predict the Ravens to meet or slightly fall short of their season averages: 21-24 points, 6.5-7.0 YpA, and 4.25-4.75 YpC.  While I’m sure as I can be about the statistical effect I’ve seen above, I’m not so sure of Gunther’s game plan, so I’ll assign this projection medium-to-low confidence. 

Mitigating/Augmenting Influences:

Offensively, the Ravens seem to be the opposite of the Bengals.  Where the Bengals seemed to be built for explosive downfield passing, yet have been relying on a power run game to make hay.  Meanwhile, the Ravens have been built around Willis McGahee and the defense for years—yet, Ray Rice, LeRon McClain, and a much-diminished McGahee are all cogs in a Flacco-triggered offense that’s been far more effective on-field than it is on paper.

However, the disparity between the Ravens’ ability to move the ball and ability to score feeds right into the strength of the Cunningham philosophy.  Think about the Thanksgiving game—in some cases, the end zone is the Lions’ best defender.  Removing the 20+ pass as a threat allows the Lions’ front seven to play more aggressively, and it allows the secondary to keep the play in front of them.  It’s possible that the Lions could hold the Ravens to even fewer points than I projected above.

Then again, the Ravens are at home, 6-6, fighting for a playoff spot, and recovering from a crushing Monday Night Football loss to the Packers.  It’s entirely possible that the Ravens come out looking to take out their frustrations on the Lions, and blow them out of the stadium.

Scott Linehan vs. Greg Mattison

I got nothin’.

Seriously, though, Greg Mattison’s NFL resumé is as long as last year.  Depsite a long, decorated tenure as a coordinator in the college ranks—think Florida, Notre Dame, and U-of-M—Mattison was hired last season by then-new head coach John Harbaugh to coach the linebackers.  When Rex Ryan left in the offseason to coach the Jets, Harbaugh promoted Mattison instead.  While the Ravens’ philosophy has stayed the same—aggressive, blitzing, no-holds-barred defense—I don’t believe that calling a man with 38 years of coaching experience a “disciple” of a man he worked under for one year is accurate.  Just for the record, though:


When Scott Linehan’s horrible 2007 Rams offense that could sort-of run a little bit met the Ravens’ defense that allowed no running whatsoever, practically no points happened.  I don’t believe that this has any bearing on this Sunday’s contest.

However, the fact that Scott Linehan’s scoring offense is ranked 24th in the NFL, and Baltimore’s defense is ranked 4th?  That will have an awful lot of bearing on this Sunday’s contest.  Note, though, that that number keeps inching higher; at 18.1 points per game, the Lions are rapidly approaching the top of the bottom third of the league.  That, frankly, is ridiculous to point to as a positive, but such has been the state of the franchise.

Given a complete lack of data to work with, I can only project the Lions’ offensive production to meet expectations, given the current performance of the two units this year.  They should fall significantly short of their season average in points scored, while meeting or falling just shy of their passing and rushing effectiveness norms: 9-13 points, 5.00-5.50 YpA, and 3.50-4.00 YpC.  I have very low confidence in this prediction.

Mitigating/Augmenting Influences:

Unfortunately, with Matt Stafford already announced as inactive for this contest, that offense won’t be there.  Given that Megatron will be relatively healthy, I expect the offense’s play to be closer the Steelers game than the first Packers game—but we can’t be sure.  The Lions’ offense IS trending toward respectability, but the leader and triggerman is gone, and they’re playing their second straight road game against a top 5 scoring defense.  I don’t see any way the Lions surprise here, unless turnover margin or special teams swings the game wildly in the Lions’ favor—and that’s a long shot, indeed.

I’m sticking with the data here, folks, shaky though it might be: 21-24 points for the Ravens, and 9-13 points for the Lions.


Borat,  December 10, 2009 at 5:14 PM  

You should check out this guy's site, Ty.

Ty,  December 11, 2009 at 1:47 PM  


Thanks for the tip! I've browsed his stuff a few times, but there's a lot of good stuff in there. Thanks for the reminder, I'll be sure to go back over some of those articles.


Matt,  December 11, 2009 at 5:46 PM  

Thanks for the tackling link. That dirt squirrel smeared across young Chris Spielman's face was worth the price of admission.

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