the Watchtower: Lions vs. Cardinals

>> 12.16.2009

Last week’s Watchtower, in the words of excellent commenter A Lion in ViQueen Territory, kind of sucked:

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.

A 48-3 blowout doesn’t look anything like the low-scoring 10ish-point game I predicted.  However, if we dig a little deeper, you’ll see that my prediction came with some pretty strong caveats:

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 . . . I have very low confidence in this prediction . . . 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.

For the Lions’ D vs. the Ravens’ O, I projected numbers based on an observed effect: that Gunther’s defenses are supereffective against Cam Cameron offenses when the passing game is contained.  Up until the freaky Mason touchdown, that was exactly what had happened.  Believe it or not, that game was 0-3 at the end of the first quarter—and a Hanson miss away from being tied.

Unfortunately, the offense hung the defense out to dry over and over again—it was only a matter of time before they folded.  If Culpepper and the offense had any ability to control the ball, or keep the game close, I don’t think the defense would have rolled over in the second half (as they did), and let Ravens score 4 more touchdowns.

Unfortunately, the high-flying Cardinals are coming to town, and their scoring may be limited only by the game clock . . .

Gunther Cunningham vs. Ken Whisenhunt


For the second week in a row, the Lions face a coordinator with absolutely no track record against their opposing Lions counterpart.  Whisenhunt’s only called signals since 2004 (with the Cards as HC, and the Steelers as OC), and Gunther hasn’t faced Whisenhunt since then.  As Whisenhunt doesn’t come from a clearly delineated coaching heritage, we can’t use any “school of/disciple of” workarounds, either.

All we have to go on here are the season averages: Arizona’s the 11th-best scoring offense in the league, averaging 23.5 points per game.  Averaging a healthy 6.88 YpA, and surprisingly robust 4.16 YpC, the Cardinals are more balanced than you might suspect—though doubtlessly, defenses are laying back in fear of the Cards’ receivers, not loading the box to stop Beanie Wells.  These averages are practically identical to the Ravens’ stats coming into last week: 10th-ranked scoring offense, 23.4 PpG, 6.95 YpA, and 4.25 YpC.

Meanwhile, Sunday's debacle against the Ravens dropped the Lions' stats across the board; they're now allowing an average of 31.2 PpG, 8.00 YpA, and 4.50 YpC.  Since all we have to go on are the averages—and the Cards’ averages very closely match the Ravens’—it’s straight connect-the-dots: expectations would be that the Cardinals significantly exceed their season averages in PpG, YpA, and YpC: 40-45 points, 9.00-10.00 YpA, and 5.00-5.50 YpC.  I guess that serves as my prediction?  If so, I have very low confidence in it.

Mitigating/Augmenting Influences:

Here's a disturbing trend: in two of the Lions’ last four games (Browns, Ravens) they’ve faced opponents coming off of a deflating Monday Night Football loss, where the offense drastically underperformed its season averages.  Guess which team just got blown out on MNF last night, while drastically underperforming its season averages?  Oh yes—the Cardinals.

I deeply suspect that Warner, Fitz, Boldin, Beanie and the rest of the Cardinals offense will be itching to take out their frustrations on the Lions, and get back on track—just like the Ravens did.  Moreover, the hit-or-miss nature of the Cards’ offense (even with the same QB!) underscores the idea that they’ll bounce back from Monday’s performance.

On the other hand, this game will be in Ford Field, where the Lions are unquestionably more competitive.  Matthew Stafford is at least not yet ruled out, and if the Lions’ offense can actually move the chains and possess the ball a little bit, the defense should be able to not be quite so horrible.  I think. 

Scott Linehan vs. Billy Davis

DET 27th16.15.393.8113th19.86.454.16     

Fortunately, we do have a little bit of data to work with here.  Bill Davis (often “Billy”, thanks to being a Jr.) has a surprisingly long resume for someone I’d never heard of.  He was an assistant under Dom Capers in Pittsburgh, and then a linebackers coach under Capers in Carolina.  After Capers was broomed, he bounced around for a couple of years, then became linebackers coach in Atlanta, under DC Wade Phillips.  That's an impressive 3-4 pedigree! 

Finally, in 2004, he became a linebackers coach with some authority.  According to Giants DC Tim Lewis, he allowed Davis to compile the blitz packages.  I’m tentatively including this data, just to flesh things out a bit.  After that, he was hired by new 49ers head coach Mike Nolan to head up

In 2004, the Minnesota Vikings were very good.  Ranked #6 in the NFL, they averaged 25.3 points per game, 7.16 YpA, and 4.71 YpC.  Meanwhile, the Giants were a decent unit: 17th-ranked, at 21.7 PpG, 6.49 YpA, and 4.33 YpC.  The expectation here would be that the Vikes meet or exceed their typical numbers—but they don’t.  Only 13 points scored, and a measly 5.63 YpA.  4.65 YpC is still good, but not enough to overcome the massive pass suppression.

In 2006, Linehan’s Rams faced Davis’ 49ers.  The Rams were still a typical Linehan offense: 10th in scoring, with a balanced 6.69 YpA and 4.26 YpC.  Meanwhile, the Niners . . . well, they were rebuilding.  They were the worst scoring defense in football, allowing 25.8 PpG.  While they weren’t great against the pass, allowing 6.89 YpA, they were terrible against the run.  Allowing an average of 4.96 YpC is going to make any offense impossible to stop.

Except, apparently, Linehan’s Rams that year.  In the first game, the Niners held the Rams to just 13 points.  They sacked the Rams six times, depressing per-play pass effectiveness to 5.44 YpA, more than a yard less than their season average.  The run game was also depressed; the 4.21 YpC the Niners allowed in the first game fell essentially met the Rams’s season average—despite playing against the statistically worst defense in the NFL.

In the second game, the Rams picked it up a little bit--20 points scored, 6.16 YpA, and 4.83 YpC.  Still, though, the points and passing were depressed below the Rams' averages--not expectations vs. the worst defense in football, the season averages—and the 4.83 YpC was still below the Niners’ average-allowed mark.

The conclusion is absolutely inescapable—with lesser, or much lesser, talent and execution, Billy Davis defenses have an overwhelming systemic advantage against Scott Linehan offenses.  In 2006, the 10th-best offense in football played the dead-last defense in football, twice, and both times produced well below their season averages, across the board.  The only explanation is that Billy Davis has Scott Linehan’s number.

Given that the shoe is on the other foot—the Cards’ defense is the 13th-best in the NFL, and the Lions’ O is the 27th-best—I have no choice but to project the Lions's offense to . . . good Lord . . . significantly underperform expectations: 6-9 points scored, 4.50-5.00 YpA, and 3.5-3.75 YpC.

Mitigating/Augmenting Influences:

Schwartz is back to the maybe-maybe not game with the Lions’ quarterback situation.  Let us make no bones about it: when Daunte Culpepper starts, the Lions are doomed.  In his last two starts, the Lions have been outscored 74-3.  If Matthew Stafford does not play, the Lions will be very lucky to score the projected 6-9 points. 

Starting tailback Kevin Smith is lost for the season with a torn ACL (plus maybe some other stuff).  Maurice Morris, Aaron Brown, and just-signed practice squadder Cedric Peerman will fill in.  Morris is a well-rounded veteran, who’s run hard in limited relief.  Brown has flashed game-breaking ability in both senses: he can break the game wide open on a screen pass, and he can get his quarterback broken with his clueless pass blocking.


Every single piece of data I have, both objective and subjective, points to a Cardinals blowout.  However, there has not been a more “off” and “on” team over the past two seasons than the Cardinals.  The one thing they haven’t done in this Warner/Fitz/Boldin/Whisenhunt era is meet expectations—they beat teams they shouldn’t beat and look amazing doing it, and they lose to teams they have no business losing to, and look horrible doing it.

Further, I can’t imagine that a Jim Schwartz team comes back for a home game after a bad performance and rolls over from the opening gun--if so, it should raise some serious red flags.  My instincts tell me this will be more like a 35-21 loss—but if Culpepper plays, and Fitz and Boldin don’t take the game off, I don’t see how the Lions keep it that close.

The only hope for the Lions is the Cunningham/Whisenhunt matchup—they’ve never faced each other before, and Gunther’s certainly much more experienced.  Maybe, just maybe, a little dose of Guntherball flummoxes Warner early, and the sacks and turnovers come—as they did on Monday Night.

However, this is a statistical analysis, not a "Let's pretend the Lions won't get blown out, despite all rational thought" column. 40-45 points for the Cardinals, and 6-9 points for the Lions.


Angus Osborne,  December 17, 2009 at 6:01 PM  


Wake me up after Christmas.

A Lion in ViQueen territory,  December 18, 2009 at 12:33 PM  

Ouch. I hope this one is as wrong as your last Watchtower, but like you write in the last paragraph "However, this is a statistical analysis, not a 'Let's pretend the Lions won't get blown out, despite all rational thought' column"

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