. . . from the other perspective

>> 10.16.2009

The most recent Watchtower article has received a bit of attention over in the Packer blogosphere.  However, fellow Fantasy Players partner site PackerChatters.com graciously decided to host my article, in its entirety, on their site.  The responses ranged from:

The Packers are getting some key personnel back. The Packers haven’t had a starting caliber safety opposite Nick Collins since Week 1 which has forced them to play more conservatively and at times play with only 1 safety. That is going to change. Expect to see the defense that Jay Cutler saw in Week 1. It will be back and it isn’t going to be pretty for Culpepper or Stafford. When you don’t have two reliable safeties it really limits what you can do when blitzing due to blown assignments. Sorry but I just don’t see the Packers dropping a division game at home right after a tough division loss to the Vikings.
Are you serious the Lions win hahahahahahahah you must be as high as a kite. I have a better chance of having sex with Shakira than lions winning this one.

Though the PC community was pretty well split over the quality and worthiness of my breakdown, there’s no doubt in my mind that Larry and the rest of the (decidated, competent) crew over there deserved a Packer-friendly voice over here.  PC contributor Sam Oleson penned a very balanced keys-to-the-game-type article, "Can the Packers Bounce Back Against the Lions?".

Luckily, Green Bay plays the Detroit Lions on Sunday. The Lions, though not as bad as last year, are still one of the worst teams in the NFL. So this should be an easy win for the Pack, right? Wrong. Don’t get me wrong, the Packers are clearly much better than the Lions. But if the Packers play like they did in their two losses this year, any team could beat them.

Sam does an intelligent breakdown of the matchup; the article is honest and balanced. I suggest any reader interested in an fair counterpoint check it out.


the watchtower: Lions at Packers

>> 10.14.2009

Last week’s Watchtower, full of vim and vigor from the previous week’s accuracy, made the following projections about the Steelers game:

  • 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.
  • If Matt Stafford, Kevin Smith, and Calvin Johnson are healthy enough to play, and play well, this could be an intense shootout.
  • 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.

While I wouldn’t call 28-20 a “shootout”, that score doesn’t necessarily reflect the offensive output/efficiency of either team.  Big Ben’s stat line was astonishing, as predicted: 23-of-30 for 277 yards (9.23 YpA), 3 touchdowns, 123.9 passer rating . . . oh yes, and one interception.

Minus that beautiful defensive play, the final score is 28-13--and would have been 28-6 heading into the fourth quarter.  Culpepper did open it up a little bit, generating a much-improved 7.62 YpA—but again, he was sacked SEVEN times for a loss of 57 yards.  If you use the “Average yards gained per passing play” stat, that  robust-looking 7.62 YpA drops all the way down to a meager 5.1.  Not to mention, of course, his mistakes killed the drives before and after the only offensive TD.  Kevin Smith was almost completely ineffective, averaging a miserable 2.65 YpC.

However, there’s no question that the defense surpassed my expectations, especially on the ground.  While Mendenhall rushed for 5.13 YpC, it was just 15 carries for 77 yards, including one 27-yarder (the other 14 carries averaged 3.57 yards each).  The defense actually got to Big Ben three times, twice on third down--thereby killing drives where the Steelers might have scored.

The three Steelers drives that were killed by sacks and the pick-six definitely suppressed the Steelers’ scoring . . . and that’s wonderful news.  This sequence--the Steelers' second-to-last drive, immediately prior to the Northcutt TD--shows exactly how the Lions’ defense is supposed to work:

  • 1-10-PIT 49 (9:57): 7-B.Roethlisberger sacked at PIT 40 for -9 yards (sack split by 96-A.Fluellen and 92-C.Avril).
  • 2-19-PIT 40 (9:20) (Shotgun) 7-B.Roethlisberger pass short right to 86-H.Ward to PIT 45 for 5 yards (24-K.Pearson).
  • 3-14-PIT 45 (8:35) (Shotgun) 7-B.Roethlisberger sacked at PIT 45 for 0 yards (59-J.Peterson).

On the first play, you see the base nickel defense.  To an extent, this is a coverage sack; Ben has time to throw, but instead just pumps as he waffles about it.  Then, Fluellen, who was lined up on the right side, beats his man to the left, then cuts behind that guard inside.  As Flu launches to sack Ben, Avril--who'd doubled back from the edge--follows Fluellen, attacking the same gap.  They get to Ben at nearly the same time, preventing any Roethlismagic.  Note that Foote is also sent on a delayed blitz--so even if Roethlisberger had gotten away from Flu and/or Avril, or the protection had been different, the pressure would still have been there.

On 2nd-and-19, the offense doesn't have much it can do but take a bite out of the elephant--and so it does, hitting Ward for 5 and setting up a slightly-but-not-much easier 3rd-and-14.

On the third play, we get the payoff.  Whereas the first set looked like a soft nickel and became a five-man rush, this play begins with all three linebackers up on the line of scrimmage: one between each defensive lineman.  Ben is already in the shotgun to try and nullify the heat--but at the snap, all three linebackers drop back into coverage.  Ben, who was ready to get rid of the ball to a target just beyond the blitzing linebackers, now has to wait for deep routes to develop.  Julian Peterson, lined up as the rush end, simply outruns the LT to the outside, though overrunning Ben to do so. Ben feels the heat and tries to roll out, but he has no options. Peterson doubles back and runs Ben down.

You see how this is supposed to work: pressure (and the threat of pressure) dictating what the offense does, throwing them out of rhythm, killing drives, and denying points.  If the execution was just a little bit better, this defense as a whole could be a LOT better.

In Green Bay, the same talent may indeed be a little more effective; the Packers have allowed a league-high 20 sacks so far, and appear to be incapable of protecting their franchise QB, Aaron Rodgers. . . well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.


What we have here are GB Head Coach Mike McCarthy’s ‘03 and ‘04 New Orleans Saints (he was OC under Jim Haslett), squared off against Jim Schwartz’s ‘03 Titans and Gunther Cunningham’s ‘04 Chiefs.  In the first contest, the Saints are a middle-of-the-road offense, scoring 21.2 PpG, gaining 6.43 YpA, and a very healthy 4.46 YpC (Deuce McAllister had a 1,600-yard season that year).  Meanwhile, the Titans were ranked 13th in scoring defense, allowing an average of 20.2 points a game.  They were a little firmer against the run than the pass, holding opponents to under well under 4 YpC, but allowing 6.6 YpA.

The defensive lockdown that occurred is impressive indeed.  The Titans held the Saints to just 10 offensive points (their D came up with a safety), completely neutralized McAllister—8 yards on 11 carries!—and sacked Aaron Brooks 3 times for -20 yards.  Brooks was efficient when he did get the ball off, completing 15-of-23 for 185 yards, a score, and no picks—but it didn’t translate into points until the fourth quarter, when the score was sitting at 20-5 and the game was functionally over.

In the second matchup, the Saints were again ranked 14th in the NFL in scoring, with very similar output (21.8 ppg).  However, McAllister tweaked his ankle that season, and wasn’t nearly as effective; Aaron Stecker picked up some of the load, but the Saints ran for a half-yard less per carry in 2004 than in ‘03.  Meanwhile, Gun had jumped from the maturing Titans defense to the clean-slate Chiefs unit, and it showed.  The 29th-ranked scoring defense allowed 27.2 ppg, a whopping 8.05 YpC, and less-whopping-but-still-not-good 4.62 YpC.

Though the Saints, in line with expectations, scored a touchdown above their season average—right at the Chiefs’ season average—they actually gained yardage at clips well above their norms.  At 9.59 YpA and 5.83 YpC, the Saints were moving the ball extremely well—it’s the 4 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, and a pick that depressed New Orleans’s score.  Wait a minute, that sounds familiar . . .

Clearly, McCarthy was working with a substandard QB in Aaron Brooks, and clearly, this Lions’ defense is much closer to the 2004 Chiefs than the 2003 Titans.  However, those Chiefs damn near won that game: the final score was 27-20, after a 42-yard Joe Horn bomb broke a 20-20 fourth-quarter tie.  So despite being hopelessly overmatched on talent, Gun’s D stood up to McCarthy’s O, all the way until the last drive.

Combining the results of that game with the defensive Alcatraz Jim and Gun contained the ‘03 Saints in, I'm willing to conclude 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.


Last week, I gave us a sneak preview of this week.  While trying to get a handle on Steelers DC Dick LeBeau, I included some data from his disciple, Dom Capers.  That data was his Texans against Scott Linehan’s Minnesota Vikings.  I’ll just quote what I said last week:

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.

Obviously, the Lions didn't significantly outperform expectations against the Steelers--they only scored 13 offensive points--but with Kevin Smith playing hurt (and ineffective), Daunte being Daunte, and Megatron missing a significant fraction of the game, Linehan's offense wasn't exactly "balanced", either. If we look briefly at the season so far for the Steelers and Packers . . . we see that the Steelers are the 14th ranked scoring defesne, at 19.6 PpG, and the Packers are 21st-ranked, at 23.6 PpG. Obviously, that's just the average of five and four games, respectively, for these teams, so those numbers aren't anywhere near airtight--but there is a clear gap in talent and execution between the Steelers and Packers. With Ryan Pickett instead of Casey Hampton, and an out-of-position Aaron Kampman instead of Lamar Woodley, the Packers' defense should be a significantly flimsier obstacle between the Matt Stafford and the end zone than the Steelers.

Yes, that presumes that Stafford will play--but unlike last week, he's already practicing. It's true that Megatron may not be able to go--but if Stafford is under center, I still like the Lions’ chances to be effective.  Northcutt and Williams should have a good day in between the Packers' excellent corners, and Aaron Kampman on Brandon Pettigrew is an incredible mismatch that Scott Linehan is more than smart enough to relentlessly attack.

So, where does that leave us? As we've seen with Gregg Williams and Dick LeBeau, 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. If history is any indicator, and the finally-awakening Lions pass rush can really get going against the hapless Packers offensive line, Gunther Cunningham's aggressive 4-3 should be able to limit the Packers below their (admittedly tiny-sample-sized) season average of 26.0 PpG.

Based on the Packers' reliance on the passing game, inability to protect the quarterback, and a decided systemic advantage for the Lions on both sides of the ball, the most probable outcome is a medium-scoring, close-margin game that the Lions win.


three cups deep: apple turnovers

>> 10.12.2009

On Saturday, Clan TLIW went to an apple orchard with several other families and friends.  It’s always a big event; we mark our calendars months ahead for the still-warm pumpkin donuts and fresh-pressed hot apple cider.  Whether it’s so warm we need to cool off with cider slushies, or--like Saturday--cold enough to demand jackets on top of sweatshirts, the weather’s always great.

There really isn’t anything quite like picking apples right off the stem: fresh, juicy, delicious, crisp, waxless.  There’s nothing like biting into an apple that was part of a tree three seconds ago, the juice running down your chin--and seeing dozens more apples on that tree, dozens of trees in that row, and knowing there are many more rows in the orchard.  Unlike at the supermarket, where apples are pretty much apples, the wildly different flavors of the various varieties-sweet, tart, spicy, sour, savory, tangy--hit you in the mouth like a blitzing linebacker.

What? Oh yeah:

Daniel Mears / The Detroit News

Sunday, we saw Daunte being Daunte: 282 yards passing, a 32-yard scramble, a beautiful drive and TD pass that turned a rout-in-the-making into a close, winnable game . . . and three fumbles, the ugliest interception I've ever seen, and seven sacks.  Three of those, as you all know, came just after the two-minute warning--when the Lions had 1st-and-10, deep in the Steelers' side of the field, down 20-28, and just 21 yards away from taking the reigning world champions to overtime.  Then, as Mitch Albom said, “Sack.  Sack.  Sack.”

When I say that Daunte isn't a winning quarterback, this is what I'm talking about.  When I say that he compiles decent stats, but loses games with his at-the-worst time mistakes, this is what I’m talking about.  When I say that he's the opposite of clutch, this is what I'm talking about.

In a sad, wierd, twisted sort of way, this was the best we could have hoped for.  The defense, who I'd dismissed as having no chance at keeping the Steelers under 30, did so. Will James, a player I’d often pigeonholed as a scrub, had a beautiful pick-six--the only Lions TD in the first three quarters; it kept the game a game. The running game wasn't exactly working, per se, but the Lions staff neither abandoned it completely, nor stuck with it longer than was useful. Third down efficiency was a stunning 11-of-18 (61%)--especially stunning when you realize how many of those were 3rd-and-7, 3rd-and-8, -11, -16, etc.

It was also the best we could have hoped for in terms of the quarterback situation. Daunte proved himself a worthwhile backup—and indeed, exactly that.  Anyone who is claiming that Daunte "gives us a better chance to win" than Matt Stafford going forward is safely ignorable on all Lions-related (and probably football-related) subjects going forward.  While Stafford may or may not have made a few of the plays that Daunte did, he never would have done this, and he probably would have noticed, you know, all of those angry Steelers coming to kill him.

Stafford, for his part, was the emergency quarterback on Sunday—per NFL rules, he could have come in in the fourth quarter if he was healthy enough to go.  However, coming in cold, having taken so few reps in practice, wouldn’t have been putting Stafford in a position to win.  Tom Kowalski has suggested that if the Lions coaches think Daunte can play well enough to not make the Lions lose next week, they’d rather sit Stafford and bring him back after the bye—fully healed, and facing the tender underbelly of the Lions’ schedule.

This is sort for the best of both worlds for the Lions: they get a confidence boost from hosting the world champs and taking them down to the final minute.  They'll go to Lambeau, probably play the Packers tough--and maybe even win.  Then, after a week of rest, and with a little luck, the franchise quarterback comes back just in time to administer the first real live tail whoopin' seen ‘round here in a long, long time.

My wife was kind enough to bring me an apple at work--a Spygold, if memory serves. I can tell you with absolute certainty that it's clean, midly tart flavor and crisp, juicy texture goes horribly with my third cup of coffee.


The Lions Congregation: Week 5

>> 10.11.2009

It’s time once again for the the some of the best and brightest lights in Lions webdom—and me—to answer the call to worship, and answer three pressing questions about our favorite franchise.  This week, the questions are:

  • Special Teams obviously cost us the game last week. Is Derrick Williams the answer? And how do you contain explosive ex-CFLer Stefan Logan?
  • With the emergence of Rashard Mendenhall and the maturation of Ben Roethlisberger, how do you defend the Steelers?
  • What’s your prediction for Steelers - Lions?

As always, the flock is informative, eclectic, and entertaining in their response. Check it out!


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