holding my nose . . . and my breath

>> 10.08.2009

When the announcement came down that Matt Stafford would be the Week 1 starting quarterback, I reacted with mixed emotions.  I was pleased because I thought it was the right decision, for now and for the future.  I was excited because I was pumped to see the kid play right away.  I was relieved because I wanted the ridiculous QB "controversy" to die as quickly as possible; I knew that after a couple of games with Stafford at the helm--and, especially, after the first win--all the arguing would settle down.

There was a part of me, however, was overjoyed to be able to cling to a small hope: that Daunte Culpepper would never take another snap for the Detroit Lions.  That he'd never do that ridiculous "rolling" thing in Honolulu Blue ever again.  That this would be our lasting memory of Culpepper in a Detroit Lions uniform:


I often get questioned about this . . . why all the vitriol?  Why all the scorn and derision?  Why am I, Mister Let’s Look At The Bright Side, downright angry about Daunte Culpepper playing for the Lions?

It goes back to my roots as a Lions fan, really. Of course, I hated the Vikings in general. But I especially hated how the national media seemed to have an undying love for the Dennis Green-era Vikes, annually anointing them the "sexy pick" for the Super Bowl.  From around 1997 to about 2007, the Vikings put up amazing offensive numbers, played mediocre football, and were constantly worshipped as an great team. To my eyes, Daunte Culpepper was merely one of several flawed quarterbacks who lined up under a perennially excellent offensive line, threw to two superlative receivers, lit up the stat sheet, won little plastic football trophies for legions of nerds*, and played amazingly mediocre football.

The Rise of the Overrated Vikings occurred while I was in high school, and the pigskin places of the nascent World Wide Web were just firing up their servers.  On chat rooms, email lists, USENET--and eventually Web forums and message boards--I fought the good fight, railing against Culpepper, his supporters, and his smoke and mirrors.

It was so obvious!  So transparent!  Daunte Culpepper was out there winging it, accumulating many yards and touchdowns--but his inefficiency, inability to read defenses, and knack for making rotten mistakes at the most critical times had his team playing .500 ball.  Just like Randall Cunningham, Jeff George, and Brad Johnson before/alongside him, Culpepper put up incredible numbers, but never won anything.

Culpepper became, to me, the avatar of all I disliked about sports, everything bad about fans and analysts and boo birds and bandwagon jumpers. Everything easy and cheesey, "BOOM!" and Budweiser, fake tans . . . and twins! about football.  I've never, ever, been one of those "sports is for the cretins" types, even in my most intellectual of "intellectual phases".  But the constant praise of Culpepper as some sort of megastar, unstoppable force, or--heaven help us--MVP smacked of meatheads praising a meathead; of cavemen watching a caveman and his big cannon arm spray that rock around to whoever comes up with it, and going "OOG WIN FANTASY LEAGUE! OOG VOTE DAUNTE PRO BOWL!

It's easy to see why I, the self-appointed keeper of the spirit of Lions fandom, would be just a little bit put off by my chosen team signing Jabba the Daunte off the street, and putting him on the field just a few days later. It's easier to see why I absolutely did not want him under center for The New Detroit Lions.  Schwartz has said he's made a point of changing practically everything about the Lions, down to the pictures on the walls.  He’s wanted nothing the same between last year and this year, nothing any returning player could point at and go, "Oh, that's still here? Heh, this place'll never change".

Well, come Sunday, there might be a 6'-6", 250-plus-pound leftover from 0-16 calling signals for the New Lions. The Captain of the Failboat might be at the tiller as we sail towards a battle with the reigning World Champion Steelers. Ugh, it's all so wrong to me.

Okay, time to look at the bright side.  Daunte has proven that the last five years have changed him; instead of being reckless with the ball to generate points, he's now a walking check-down.  Maybe eliminating turnovers will be enough to keep the Lions in the game.  Maybe Kevin Smith returns to form, and the defense comes up huge.  Maybe, just maybe, the Lions win despite who's under center . . . as always, no matter what, I'll be cheering my guts out for them to do so.

*I'm a fantasy football nut, and nerds are my brothers-and-sisters-in-arms!


the watchtower: lions vs. steelers

>> 10.06.2009

I never could leave well enough alone.

the most likely outcome involves Stafford getting rattled by the Bears, getting sacked 3-to-5 times and surrendering at least two turnovers. Despite moving the ball as well as they have all season, the Lions should score below expectations (currently 19, though a 3-game average is nearly useless). This is much less well defined, but my guess is that the Bears will match or slightly outperform their scoring expecations (also currently 19, equally shakily), with one dimension of the offense working much better than the other.
  • Stafford was sacked five times, for a loss of 42 yards.
  • Stafford lost a fumble on one of those sacks, and threw an interception.
  • The Lions generated a season-high 398 yards of total offense, and scored 24 points--for reference, they scored 20 points off of 231 offensive yards in Week 1.
  • The Bears scored 41 offensive points. As a team, they ran 20 times for 151 yards (7.55 YpC) and 3 TDs. They passed 28 times for 141 yards (5.04 YpA) and 2 TDs.
That's some profound prognostication. Unfortunately, I threw the data to the wind and kept talking:
I'm calling for another low-scoring, ugly, sack-and-turnover filled game, and a probable (but probably narrow) Bears victory.
I've said before that I'm going to continue to expand the data sets as I find appropriate.  I've decided to start including average defensive yards-per-attempt and yards-per-carry numbers. It should help highlight when the fit of offensive and defensive scheme are actually resulting in performance deltas.

Unfortunately, this week is another matchup with a paucity of reliable data. Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Bruce Arians technically came up through the NFL ranks as an assistant to Tom Moore, joining him in Peyton Manning's rookie season. However, he also spent many years in the college ranks, even serving as an assistant Bear Bryant . . . so he clearly has had many influences, and doesn't come from any specific "tree".

His first stint running his own offense was calling the plays for Butch Davis in Cleveland. After a few subpar seasons, Davis was swept aside, and Arians was hired as a WR coach by his old colleague, Bill Cowher.  Arians assisted then-OC Ken Whisenhunt for several years, ascending back into the playcalling role when Whisenhunt left for the Cardinals.

Trying to find more details about Arians' scheme, I gleefully stumbled upon a Bruce Arians breakdown by Chris Brown of Smart Football.  Arians, as Brown explains, tried to port what he learned from Tom Moore over to Cleveland, but a lack of quality quarterback play tripped him up.  Brown asserts that Arians, today, executes those principles from a modified version of the Whisenhunt offense with the Steelers.  My own eyeballs tell me there are a lot of Colts-esque 3-wide and 4-wide packages being trotted out in the Steel City than there were in ‘05.

The Whisenhunt/Arians Steelers didn’t face a Cunningham or Schwartz/Cunningham defense (for the record, new readers, I don’t count the 2006-2008 Chiefs as a “Cunningham defense”, because he merely executed Herm Edwards’ Tampa 2 scheme).  The only data we have to look at is Arians’ Browns against the Schwartz/Cunningham Titans defense.

I’ve used the Schwartz/Cunningham data sparingly in previous weeks, because we heard a lot of talk about 40% blitz and 3-3-5 nickel and Derrick Thomas and Julian Peterson and whatnot.  However, the inability of the Lions’s secondary to cover anybody at all has constricted Cunningham to calling a more conservative 4-3, in the style of Schwartz’s Titans.  


In 2001, pre-re-alignment, the Browns and Titans shared a division.  This is cool because, as regular readers of this feature know, the numbers get much stronger when there are two data points from the same year to work with.  Arians's Browns were not a potent crew, ranked 25th in the NFL with 17.8 points per game. They averaged 6.01 yards per attempt through the air, and 3.24 yards per carry on the ground.  Meanwhile, Schwartz's Titans weren't any great shakes either: also ranked 25th; allowing an average of 24.2 PpG, getting torched for 7.31 YpA, but holding runners to 3.53 YpC.

The expectations for this game would be the Browns scoring around 21 points, passing more effectively than usual, and running about at their average.  Astonishingly, the Browns' passing attack was bottled up, gaining only 5.89 yards per attempt.  Rushing for 3.82 YpC could only do so much: between 2 lost fumbles, a pick, and two sacks for seven yards lost, the Browns' ineffectiveness through the air held them to just 15 points scored.

Immediately upon seeing these numbers, I went sensed something was up. Ahh, there's the problem.  Tim Couch was rotten that day, and benched midgame. Kelly Holcomb got his first taste of NFL action that afternoon, and was mildly decent.

The second matchup between Arians's Browns and Schwartz's Titans was interesting indeed: a 41-38 shootout!  The Browns exploded for 12.44 yards per passing attempt, eviscerating the Titans' suspect pass defense.  We see that Tim Couch was every bit the Golden Boy on this day, going 20-of-27 for 336 yards and 3 TDs.  He also threw a pick, and was sacked 3 times--but when the ground game got only 87 yards on 29 caries (3.00 YpC), there's only so perfect you can be.

This illustrates Brown's point above: quality quarterback play makes Arians's downfield passing offense much more powerful.

In the final meeting between these two coordinators, Arians's Browns were the 19th-ranked scoring offense, scoring 21.5 PpG on the wings of a pretty-potent 6.65 YpA passing attack.  They also improved their ground attack, using a two-back combo of Jamel White and William Green to gain 3.98 YpC.  However, Schwartz's Titans had taken a much bigger step forward, being the 11th-ranked scoring defense, allowing 6.30 YpA and only 3.83 YpC.

I'd expect scoring to be right about at average for the Browns--and instead, they put up 31 points.  Couch was again incredibly efficient, completing 36 of 50 passes for 326 yards, 3 TDs, and just one INT. He wasn't blowing the Titans up downfield, as the 6.52 YpA shows--but completing 72% of your passes, and throwing one pick in 50 attempts is truly excellent quarterback play.  If the Browns hadn't lost three fumbles, and if Couch's only pick hadn't been taken back to the house by Andre Dyson, this would have been a Browns blowout.

The evidence is clear, and the verdict is terrifying: With quality quarterback play, and/or suspect secondary play, Bruce Arians's multi-WR downfield passing offense is disproportionately successful against Jim Schwartz's balanced 4-3, regardless of talent.


This table looks a little stubby; that's because we only have one real data point to work with.  I fleshed it out a little with his protegĂ©, former Steelers DC Dom Capers, but that data point is really for "entertainment purposes only".

In 2007, Linehan's hobbled Rams offense met Lebeau's typically terrifying Steeler defense.  The Rams were the 28th-best scoring offense, mustering 16.4 PpG.  They passed for only 5.63 yards per attempt, but managed to grind out 3.78 yards per carry behind a decimated O-line.  Meanwhile, the vicious Steelers D allowed only 16.8 points per game, 5.27 YpA, and 3.98 YpC.  Note how eerily similar those numbers are . . . it’s almost like the Steelers were the #2 defense in the league just by turning every team they played into the Rams.

One would expect that the Terrible Towels would transform the Rams into, like, the Double Rams, with a logarithmically smaller offensive output. What happened instead was a relative offensive explosion: 24 points. The Rams balanced their typical 5.60 YpA passing game with a surprisingly effective ground game; they averaged six yards per carry. Though they carried only 15 times, pounding Steven Jackson inside was clearly enough to keep the Steelers honest; Bulger was sacked only once.

One might think that the Rams came back in garbage time, but no: the Rams trailed 17-24 at the half, 24-31 after three quarters, and the final margin came on a Bulger pick-six at the bitter end. The Rams were legitimately in this game, moving the ball and keeping pace for 50+ minutes, despite having no real business doing so. We saw a similar effect with Linehan's track record against Gregg Williams's similar defense: the balance of an inside running game and downfield passing game gives a high-edge-blitz defense fits.

Let's look briefly at the scorched-earth napalming that Linehan's 6th-ranked Vikings offense put on Dom Capers' 21st-ranked Texans defense. 34 points, 7.92 YpA, 4.69 YpC. Culpepper was 36-of-50 for 396 yards, 5 TDs, and 0 INTs. Vikings backs ran 26 times for 122 yards. It probably would have been worse if the Vikes hadn't been flagged 10 times for 75 yards.

Given the only data point on LeBeau, and fitting it into the broader picture painted by the Capers and Williams info, I think I'm safe to say that Scott Linehan's balanced offense significantly outperforms expectations against aggressive, blitzing 3-4 defenses like LeBeau's.

Roethlisberger should have an incredibly effective day, smoking the Lions' subpar secondary; completing at least 70% of his passes. Whether that's for 350 yards and 4 TDs or 250 yards and 2 TDs will depend on the Lions' ability to stop Rashard Mendenhall--and then blitz to get pressure on Ben.

Likewise, if Matt Stafford, Kevin Jones Smith [Great Googily Moogily! I knew I'd make this typo someday], and Calvin Johnson are healthy enough to play, and play well, this could be an intense shootout. The Steelers will likely give Johnson & Johnson plenty of cushion on the outside, and blitz the OLBs. Look for Linehan to attack this space with routes out of the backfield and TEs. Likewise, the Steelers will do a lot of blitzing off the edge; Smith should be able to find seams up the middle.

Duante Culpepper proved last week that he's a dumpoff artist and no more. If Stafford can't go, the corners will press, the safeties will creep up, and the ground game will be ground to a halt. Either way, though, I think we're just talking about margin of loss. As I said about the similar pass-first, blitz-heavy Saints, the most likely outcome of this game is a shootout that the Lions lose. Unless and until the Lions can rush the passer and cover the pass . . . get used to this.


three cups deep: a heaping helping

>> 10.05.2009

The worst thing about being an "optimist", besides having my fandom labelled and pigeonholed by others, is that when the Lions--or an aspect of the Lions, or a Lion--fails, I am not only sad for the fact that they failed, I'm also frustrated for having been proven wrong.  Eating that breed of crow is a rotten meal indeed.
Two of the favorite targets for "pessimist" Lions fans over the past few years have been left tackle Jeff Backus, and special teams coordinator Stan Kwan. In both cases, I've defended them. Certainly, Backus doesn't earn the "Elite LT" paycheck he draws, and Kwan's coverage and return units have been lackluster.  But, you see, there are extenuating circumstances!
Backus being asked to protect Jon Kitna in Martz's seven-step-drop-heavy offense put him--and Kitna--in a position to fail. The Lions have auditioned dozens for the left guard role during Backus' time here, and still haven't cast his best supporting actor.  Further, Backus has never missed a start, despite some pretty bad owies over the years.  He's also a much better option than Ephraim Salaam or Jon Jansen, both of whom were released by their previous teams due to their complete inability to protect quarterbacks.
Stan Kwan, the hand-picked successor to the King of All ST Coordinators, Chuck Priefer, oversees the best kicker-punter-snapper combo in the NFL: Hanson, Harris, and Mulbach.  Kwan’s return and coverage units were okay in 2007—though yes, quite bad in 2008. I'd defended him throughout last season, noting that Rod Marinelli's dismissal of special teams in general had stripped him of most of his talent.  When your head coach keeps eleven defensive linemen on the 53-man roster, there's not much room left for gunners and upblockers . . .
Yesterday, a heaping helping of crow, braised in whine, was set at my table.
Jeff Backus was completely overwhelmed by the Bears' defensive linemen. Despite coming into the game blitzing at ludcrous rate for a Tampa 2 defense, the Bears were able to dominate with just 4 defensive linemen.  DEs Adewale Ogunleye and Alex Brown combined for three sacks, and DT Isreal Idonji contributed a sack-fumble that O-Gun recovered.  Backus was smoked by speed rushes, bowled over by bullrushes, and generally defeated by whoever lined up across from him.  I’ve never labored under the illusion that he’s a great left tackle, but for the first time I’m seeing his play as a governor on the output of the offense: until we can acquire someone better, there is only so good this unit can be.
As for Kwan . . . well, there is absolutely no excuse for what Stan Kwan’s coverage and return teams did to the Lions’ chances for victory on Sunday.  According to the official game book, the Lions’ average starting field position was their own 18-yard-line.  The Bears’ average starting field position was the Lions’48.  As pointed out by Killer, the defense allowed the Bears only 276 yards of total offense—but 277 yards of punt and kick returns.
Let me simultaneously highlight and dismiss the fallacy in the implied conclusion there: each yard allowed on a return is one less yard the defense has to go; the possible yardage output by the Bears’ offense is depressed in lockstep with the increase in return yardage.  Don’t take the bait dangled by those two statistics!  The low total yardage doesn’t prove that the Lions defense completely bottled up the Bears’ offense, nor that rotten special teams completely sold the Lions up the river.
Fortunately, we have other statistics.  Cutler completed 18-of-28 passes for 141 yards. That's a meager 5.04 yards per attempt.  Cliff Avril, in just his second quarter back from injury, teamed up with Louis Delmas for back-to-back sacks in the second quarter.  The Bears converted only 33% of third downs in the first half.  Up until halftime, Matt Forte, besides his 61-yard romp, carried just 4 times for only 10 yards.
It's true: despite the Bears' average starting position already at MIDFIELD by the end of the half, the Lions were winning the offense-defense battle enough to keep the score tied. Then, on the opening kickoff of the second half, Johnny Knox burned the coverage for a 102-yard touchdown, and that was that.
Much has been made of the Lions' "second half collapses", and how Jim Schwartz needs to "learn that there are four quarters in a game".  Let me tell you something right now: this is a 3-13 team, talent-wise.  In four games against four teams considered strong playoff contenders coming into the season, Jim Schwartz has coached and gameplanned and guided this mix of has-beens and aren’t-yets to one win, two halftime leads, and one halftime tie.  Schwartz, Linehan, and Cunningham can't play the game for their team; eventually the fact that they’ve got no D-line, no secondary, and an offense full of guys who can barely buy beer will catch up with them.
Need proof?  Just Google "Titans Defense".  From the first page alone:

UPDATE: appropriately, commenter "The Badge" caught me. That "Rams smash through . . ." link refers to a high school football game. Mea Culpa.
Last year, Jim Schwartz coached the same unit that generated those headlines into the second-best scoring defense in football.  Let's give him more than a few games with our wretched franchise before deciding he’s forgotten how many quarters makes a whole.
I suppose I should end this Three Cups Deep (and given it's lateness, more like Five) with an “optimistic” note, given the tenor of the opening paragraph.  Okay, here we go: Matt Stafford, before taking a seat with a knee injury, completed 24/36 passes for 296 yards.  Any “pessimists”/”realists” care to show me the game where Joey Harrington completed 67% of his passes for near-as-makes-no-difference 300 yards?  On the road?  Anyone?  No?
Okay cool. This sixth cup's for you, Matthew.


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