the watchtower: lions vs. Rams

>> 10.30.2009

Rob Milanov over at the Bleacher Report captured the feelings of Lions fans everywhere when he wrote, “What Do You Do When Your Football Team Is Actually Favored To Win?”  That’s right—for the first time since the 2008 season opener, the Lions are four-point Vegas favorites.  What, really?  Yes, really—the Lions are expected to win this game by the greater football universe.  Let’s see if the historical data between these teams’ coaches supports that conclusion . . .

Scott Linehan versus Steve Spagnuolo:


Obnoxiously, both the Rams’ defense-minded head coach, Steve Spagnuolo, and their offensive coordinator, Pat Shurmur, have been extremely successful position coaches for a long time in the NFL—but Spags was only a coordinator for two seasons in New York, and this will be Shurmur’s first time calling his own signals.  Spagnuolo, for those who’ve been reading this blog since back when only seven or eight people were reading this blog, was my initial choice for Lions’ HC; I actually tagged him “Candidate 1A” after breaking down his resume:

That Spagnuolo's defense could simply plug in Justin Tuck and Matthias Kiwanauka and still be a fear-inspiring, quarterback-eating, Top 5 defense, speaks highly of the Giants' drafting, Spagnuolo's football teaching abilities, and Spags' scheming and system as well. It's worth comparing his system to his mentor Jim Johnson's in Philly: lots of good, decent, and/or okay DEs and LBs have rotated in and out of Johnson's defenses in the past decade, yet the Philly defense is always amongst the leagues' best (this year the Eagles were ranked 4th, 3rd, and 3rd in the categories above, respectively).

Fortunately, we do have a data point between Linehan and Spagnuolo from Spags’ coordinatorship.  I’m still going to look at data between Linehan’s Vikings and Spagnuolo’s mentor, the late, great Jim Johnson, as it includes two games in the same season—statistically, highly desirable.

In 2004, Linehan's Vikings were, of course, a juggernaut: 6th in scoring offense at 25.3 points per game, 7.16 yards per pass attempt, and 4.71 yards per carry.  Incredibly, though, Philly's defense was even more impressive that year.  Ranked 2nd overall, they allowed only 16.2 points per game, and just 5.84 YpA--though they were run on between the 20s, with a YpC of 4.31.

Given the slightly superior talent, it's no surprise that both games resulted in point totals near Philly's season average allowed--dead on with 16 in the first game, and then 14 in the outdoor, Philly-hosted playoff game.  The passing and rushing averages are right about where you'd expect, too. There's about a half-yard swing in the run-pass effectiveness balance from the September 20th game to the January 11th playoff game, but that's only natural, as well.

In 2008 (*cough* while Linehan was still the head coach *cough*), Linehan's Rams faced Spagnuolo's Giants.  This should be a better data point, as we have Linehan's offense versus a defense that is truly masterminded by Spagnuolo.  Unfortunately, it’s not a great data point because the Rams were terrible that season, and the Giants were excellent.

The Rams were 30th in points scored, eking out just 14.5 points a game, while the Giants were the 5th-best scoring defense in the NFL, allowing just 14.  The Rams were better at running than passing, averaging an okay 3.95 YpC, but only mustering 5.67 YpA.  The Giants were a fairly balanced defense, allowing 6.24 YpA and 3.97 YpC.  You’d expect the score to be well below the Rams’ season average, but it wasn’t: they scored 13 points, only 1.5 below their norm.  Linehan’s Rams mildly outperformed expectations on the ground, gaining a healthy 4.25 YpC.  YpA was right at their season average as well: 5.53 YpA actual vs. 5.67 YpA on the year (this includes their TD, a 45-yard bomb to Torry Holt).

Based on the sole data point between Linehan and Spagnuolo, I'd be tempted to conclude that there’s a massive systemic advantage for Linehan, given that the woeful Rams essentially performed to their season averages against one of the best defenses in the league.  However, giving some consideration to the strong Linehan/Johnson data, the correct conclusion is that given lesser or equal talent, there is a mild systemic advantage for a balanced Scott Linehan offense when facing an aggressive Steve Spagnuolo 4-3, especially when boasting an effective inside running game.

So far this season, the Lions have mustered a respectable 17.2 points per game, good enough to be ranked 23rd in the league.  That doesn’t sound impressive unless you are a Lions fan.  Averaging a (pretty poor) 5.50 yards per pass attempt and (kinda okay) 3.74 yards per rushing attempt, the Lions haven’t had a talent/execution advantage over, really, any of the teams they’ve faced so far.  Then again, they haven’t yet faced the Rams.

Ranked 30th in the NFL, the Rams’ defense has been allowing 30.1 points per game, an appalling 7.83 YpA, and a not-much-better 4.30 YpC.  Given a definite execution advantage and a mild systemic advantage, the Lions should strongly outperform expectations--and their season averages.  I would expect 24-27 points, 6.5 to 6.75 YpA, and 4.0 to 4.25 YpC. I have medium confidence in this projection.


I credited much of Linehan's systemic advantage over Spagnuolo to a strong inside running game--it may have drawn coverage up, reopening the deep pass.  However, the Lions have struggled with this.  Spotty interior line play has led to a constant rotation of personnel, culminating this week with the insertion of veteran reserve RT Jon Jansen at LG.  Also, I’d like to note that while the sack numbers put up by Spagnuolo defenses versus Linehan offenses are alarming, those Spagnuolo defenses were all top five defenses.  These Rams are ranked 22nd in the NFL in sacks, with 12.

While both Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson are listed as questionable, Stafford took all the first-team reps on Friday, but Megatron still appeared limited.  At this point it’s unquestionable that the Lions are  a much better offensive team with them both in the lineup; it remains an open question as to how much better the Lions are with just one able to go.

Ultimately, Stafford’s return should give the Lions improved QB play over their season average.  Combined with St. Louis’ horrific pass D, the Lions should still strongly outperform their averages on offense.  Therefore, I’m calling the intangibles a wash, and presuming that Megatron’s presence, or lack thereof, will simply push the Lions’ performance to the high end, or low end, of my projections.

Pat Shurmur versus Gunther Cunningam:


Really, this should be a very, very, very short section, consisting of one sentence: this is Pat Shurmur's first season as an offensive coordinator.

However, much like Jim Zorn, Shurmur has been a position coach, primarily the quarterbacks coach, under a 10th-degree Walsh Offense Ninja Master--in this case, Andy Reid. While Shurmur has been a valued assistant to Reid since 1999, he's not even been the second banana at any points in that stretch. Therefore, this limited data is of questionable use--though Shurmur has indeed "forklifted" Reid's offense from Philly to St. Louis.

In 2002, Reid’s Eagles met Schwartz/Gun’s Titans, and the Eagles were an impressive offense: ranked 4th in the league with 25.9 PpG, passing for 6.18 YpA (doesn’t sound amazing, but remember, short Walsh passes), and running for a thumping 4.54 YpC.  Still, the Titans weren’t a wet-tissue defense.  Ranked 11th in scoring D with 20.2 PpG, they were beatable through the air (6.30 YpA), but stouter against the run (3.83 YpC).  The results were right in line with expectations: the Eagles scored 24 points, slightly under their average.  They were held to 5.89 YpA, slightly under their average.  However, they were also held to 3.64 YpC, nearly a full yard less than their average.  Interestingly, Reid’s Eagles were also intercepted twice, and sacked 6 times for –31 yards.

In 2005, Reid's Eagles met Cunningham's Chiefs. The Eagles were much less terrifying that season, ranked 18th with 19.4 PpG.  Passing for slightly fewer yards per attempt (5.93) and, significantly, rushing for far fewer yards per carry (3.92).  The ‘05 Chiefs were ranked lower than the ‘02 Titans (16th vs. 11th) despite having very similar numbers in PpG (20.2 vs. 20.3), YpA (6.30 vs. 6.58), and YpC (3.83 vs. 4.10).  Astoundingly, the Eagles went completely gonzo: 37 points, and 7.69 YpA.  However, most of that can be explained by one Terrell Owens abusing a poor KC secondary for 11 catches, 171 yards, and a score.  Also, note just one INT and one sack, down quite a bit from the previous matchup’s disruption numbers.  However, there is one key data point: the Eagles ran 17 times for only 28 yards against those Chiefs, for a miniscule 1.65 YpC.

Given how loosely connected these two data points are to Pat Shurmur, and how wildly they vary between each other, I cannot draw a firm conclusion, other than Reid/Shurmur Walsh-style offenses run the football well below expectations when facing a Schwartz/Cunningham aggressive 4-3.

So far this season, the Lions’ defense has been barely better than 2008’s disastrous unit: ranked 31st in points allowed (31.3 PpG), allowing a whopping 7.83 YpA (yes, the exact same number as the Rams’ D, I triple-checked), and slightly better 4.30 YpC.  However, this week brings the cure for what ails them: the dead-last-ranked Rams’ offense is averaging only . . . 8.2 points per game.

Oh, my stars and garters.  That is epically, shockingly, terrifically bad.  I hate to disrespect so proud of a Spartan as Pat Shurmur, but his unit has to be well on the way to being the worst NFL offense ever.  Of course I’m not saying it’s his fault; it’s the fault of the patchwork offensive line, UFL-caliber wideouts, and terrible quarterback play.  Still, as they say, it is what it is.  The Rams absolutely cannot score points. Given their really pathetic 5.25 yards per attempt, their stout 4.38 YpC hasn't really mattered.


Literally right now, while writing this, Theismann, Papa, and Sharpe just started breaking down this game on the NFL Network. Their consensus was that Steven Jackson is the best player on the field in this game. Combined with the "fact" that the Rams "like" to throw the ball, and the Lions' secondary is weak, all three analysts picked the Rams to win.

For starters, at 5.25 YpA, the Rams can “like” to throw the ball as much as they want, but they don’t throw the ball.  They’re the worst offense in the NFL, even with a stud runningback.  I mean, even if the Rams drastically outperform their averages through the air, they’ll still be subpar. 

Moreover, Steven Jackson has been Steven Jackson for years now, and it hasn’t helped the Rams win lots of games this year any more than it did last year or the year before.  When you have no defense, and no receivers, and no offensive line, and your quarterback has turned to dust . . . well, having a workhorse power back who grinds out 4.5 YpC 4.5 yards at at time isn’t going to score enough points to outscore any better offense--and this year, every offense in the NFL is better than the Rams'.

Therefore, given no talent advantage for either side, and only a very questionable systemic advantage for Cunningham defenses against the running game of Reid/Shurmur offenses, I expect the Rams' output will meet expectations.  This means they should outpace their season averages: I project 10-13 points, 5.60-5.80 YpA, and 4.5-4.75 YpA.  I have medium-low confidence in this projection.

Well, there you have it, folks: 24-27 points for the Lions, 10-13 points for the Rams.  According to my analysis, the Lions should not only win, but cover the spread.  That is interesting news indeed.  Again, I deeply apologize to you, my readers, for the lateness of the post--but I hope you'll find it the most worthwhile Watchtower yet.  If the Lions win 24-13 we're all going to Vegas next week, okay?  For now, though, I'll be happy if I could just find a place to watch the game . . .


introducing: fireside chats

>> 10.27.2009

Warning: Heavy “Meta” content!  Do not inhale, consume or expose to eyes if you are easily bored. 

In school, I had a torrid affair with the written word.  Often, I’d get called out in class--even hit by the teacher!—for reading, instead of paying attention to the lesson.  Similarly, I loved to write.  I’d read books on writing and write stories and read more and write more.  Every once in a while, I’d even take the very serious step of thinking about submitting something for publication. 

I’m not sure what happened, but when I went to college, that torrid affair turned tepid.  I had to read and write, often, for school—but hey, there’s this new Internet thing, and golly gosh WOW this thing is wicked sweet!  My passion for long-form reading and writing became an addiction to quick-hit forums, message boards and what would eventually come to be called "blogs".  Instantly sharing my hobbies and passions and feelings with thousands of others, all over the world; spouting off about Lions vs. Vikings, malt vs. hops, full manual vs. dual-clutch automatic . . .

This blog was a way to focus all of that manic energy.  To capture all of that Web browsing, forum trawling, article reading, and message board posting, and turn it into a constructive, creative long-term project.  To harness the thousands of ephemeral words I’d have broadcasted into the void, ground them, and build them them into something that will stand tall for ever after; something that I can point to with pride.

Moreover, it was a way to sharpen my tools, to hone my craft, to polish my skills.  I wanted to quit being “a guy who used to want to write”, and start being a writer.  I have no delusions that I can do this as well as the folks who do it for a living—but from the feedback you folks have been so kind to give me, I’m at least making it worth your while.  For that, I’m thrilled.

That all having been said . . . some of the most valuable stuff here happens when I use the Web as something greater than a Massively Multiplayer Online Typewriter: charts to organize numbers, pictures to bring description to life, and video to transubstantiate chalk into football.  In recognition of that, I’ve decided to take the next step.

I’ve been invited to join Fan Vs. Fan, a site where sports bloggers debate with one another a la Around the Horn or PTI.  Topics are discussed via 60-second video clips, and voting determines the winner.  It’s an awesome opportunity to hoist my blue torch and carry it into battle, fighting the good fight for Lions fans everywhere—moreover, it sounds like a hell of a lot of fun.  However, it won’t stop there.

I'm going to begin producing a series of video clips, using the power of moving picture and sound to tell stories, do analysis, and generally be entertaining. Because I don't do anything fast or easy, I'm not just going to fire up a webcam and go.  Instead, I'm setting up a little "studio" area in my basement, brushing up on video editing, and getting a quote on fixing the auto-focus on my DV minicam.

While brainstorming about this idea, a very dim bulb flickered in the rickety attic of my mind: “fireside chats”.  In 1933, with the nation mired in a wicked recession triggered by a finance market collapse (sound familiar?), FDR came up with a brilliant idea: winning mass support for his recovery plans with a national radio broadcast.  Using unadorned language and strong, descriptive imagery, FDR’s populist “fireside chats” were incredibly popular--and effective.  Over the ensuing seventy-five years, the weekly radio address became such a fundamental part of the political landscape that Americans now ignore it entirely.  Did you know President Obama now gives a weekly YouTube address?

It's in that spirit that I'll be producing these clips: bringing intelligent, dedicated, hopeful Lions fandom to the masses, by the glow of the burning blue flame.  In the meantime, check out Fan Vs. Fan, have some fun, and get ready for what I hope will be only mildly horribly embarrassing video of me.


Three cups deep: the watchtower

>> 10.26.2009


I began this series six weeks ago, as a way to scratch two different itches simultaneously: 1) creating a unique way to preview upcoming Lions games, and 2) exploring the interplay of offensive and defensive systems.  It seems like this is something that almost completely ignored by the greater football-watching public; what happens when one specific offense meets one specific defense.  Even when delving into the dark heart of football knowledge, I don’t see as much consideration given to this aspect of the game. For example, when I read an explanation of an offensive system, it's often chalked up in a defenseless vacuum, or matched against a vanilla defense:


Chris Brown – Smart Football

In my mere two decades of consciously watching football, many offensive and defensive systems have fallen in and out of favor--sometimes in direct response to one another.  Famously in Detroit, we saw the June Jones/Mouse Davis “Run n’ Shoot”.  Its pure, original form was shorn of much of its effectiveness by the rise of the Lebeau/Capers zone blitz–based defenses.  The R&S often employed a rollout or half-roll, and the RB would be used either to pass protect, or to chip and then release to a screen.  Traditional blitzes would be picked up by the RB, and LBs in zone coverage would assume the RB was blocking—and disregard him.

As Chris Brown of Smart Football explains, the zone blitz threw that for a loop:

Back in his days with Texas A&M, Bob Davie was an innovator. Against run and shoot teams like the University of Houston, he would run his 3-4 defense, blitz his outside LBs (thus forcing the RB to stay in and block), and drop off defensive linemen and interior linebackers so he could still play zone with six to eight defenders. As a result the R&S's protection and formation scheme broke down. They blocked with six, had the running back on a bad matchup with a good OLB, faced an unblocked rusher, but the defense still had 6-8 guys in coverage, so the R&S's "hot reads" and breakoffs did not work either.

This is pure scheme-on-scheme interaction; it's nothing but a numbers game.  Without the zone blitz, there's a threat of one more receiver than defenders.  With the zone blitz, there's one more rusher than can be blocked, and no open options.  The zone blitz team will have “a good day” on defense, and the R&S team will have “a tough go of it” on offense, almost entirely due to the interaction between the two schemes.  

Many game previews are either a position-group-versus-position-group breakdown, or a laundry list of mitigating/extenuating circumstances that might alter hinder or augment each team’s typical performance to date.  I was not satisfied doing that type of breakdown; there are plenty of sites that already do it well.  Further, I was curious: was there a way to analyze—and, possibly, predict—how the Lions’ Xs-and-Os would interact with their upcoming opponent’s?

I am not a football coach, and I can't throw 80 hours a week into this stuff; I can't "gameplan" for upcoming opponents, replicating the Lions’ coordinators’ work as they do it.  However, I CAN analyze historical statistics to capture the end results of previous interactions between the schemes, and then project them forward.  Using each team’s annual per-game averages for points scored (/allowed), and per-play averages for passing and rushing gained (/allowed), I can see when there’s a statistically significant deviation.  I can also factor in the end-of-year ordinal rank for each scheme’s scoring offense and defense, which gives us an idea of overall skill level.

In the inaugural installment of the Watchtower, I first looked at Scott Linehan versus Saints DC Gregg Williams.  I concluded:

Given equal talent and execution, Gregg Williams’s attacking 3-4 defense will disproportionately disrupt Scott Linehan’s balanced offense. Given superior talent and execution, and/or excellent pass protection, Scott Linehan’s balanced offense disproportionately gives Gregg Williams’ attacking 3-4 defense fits.
Given that the Saints' D has been suspect for several seasons in a row, and the Lions’ bevy of young talent on offense, it seemed rational to expect the Lions to score "above expectations"—but, then I had no idea what those expectations should be. 

The Lions did score 27 points against the Saints--more than they had all year in 2008--but 7 of those were from a defensive TD.  Moreover, the Lions had an unusually strong performance from their return game, shortening the field and making it easier on the offense.  Removed from the “first game as a pro” context, Stafford’s 16/27, 205 yard, 3 INT performance could only be considered awful.  Ditto for Kevin Smith’s 15-carries-for-20-yards showing.  Frankly, the Lions were lucky to put up 20 in this game.  In this case, my initial analysis was right—the Lions’ equal-or-lesser talent should underwhelm against Williams’ defense, and it did, on a per-play basis.

On the defensive side of the ball, my analysis of prior Sean Payton/Gunther Cunningham matchups led me to conclude:

Given equal talent, Cunningham’s hyperaggressive 4-3 is extremely effective against Payton’s pass-heavy offense, but only if that aggression leads to mistakes and turnovers—otherwise, the holes in the defense will be exploited. Effective quarterback play may neutralize the defensive advantage.

. . . would you call 26/34 for 356 yards and 6 TDs “effective”?  Good, because so would I.  Mike Bell, of all people, gashed the space underneath the traumatized Lions’ secondary for 143 yards on 28 carries. 

Though there's historical evidence that a decent Cunningham defense, when successful, is disproportionately disruptive of a Payton offense, the talent gulf between the Lions' D and the Saints' O is enormous. Unless the Lions generate three or more turnovers, I don't see their defense having any kind of success in slowing the Saints down. Therefore, the most probable outcome of this game is a shootout that the Lions lose. There is a chance that the Lions' defense disrupts the passing game early, and that the Lions score on their first two possessions, thereby allowing the defense to safely turn up the heat--and the offense to put it in the cooler. However, the offense will have to overcome a systemic disadvantage with talent, and the defense will have to overcome a significant talent gap with a perfectly-executed gameplan.
On the balance, this prediction was roughly accurate: the Lions defense didn't have any kind of success in slowing the Saints' offense down, the offensive gameplan wasn't perfectly executed, and when the Lions got down early the gameplan went out the window anyway. I think the data was here for an accurate conclusion, but A) I didn't take it far enough and B) we had no idea what to expect from the Lions, or their offense.

In the second Watchtower piece, I looked at Scott Linehan’s track record against Vikes’ DC Leslie Frazier.  I saw some strong patterns emerge, and concluded:

Given greater or equal talent, Scott Linehan’s balanced offense significantly outperforms its averages when facing a Dungy-style Tampa 2--especially with the run. Given lesser talent, Linehan’s offense meets or mildly outperforms expectations against a T2. However, a disproportionate amount of sacks and turnovers seem to be created by a Tampa 2 when facing a Linehan offense.

The Lions did indeed turn in a better overall offensive performance against the Vikings, despite scoring fewer points.  Stafford completed 18/30 (60%) of his passes, for 152 yards, his first TD, and 2 picks.  Kevin Smith turned in a much more Silent Bob-like performance, grinding out 83 yards on 24 carries against one of the most feared run defenses in football.  However, those two picks, 2 sacks that killed the opening drive of the second half, and a horribly-timed Smith fumble snuffed out the Lions’ chances of shocking the world with a home-opener upset of the (currently undefeated) Vikes. 

On defense, I analyzed Brad Childress’ track record against Gunther Cunningham, and found that:

Given equal or lesser talent and execution, Gunther Cunningham’s hyperaggressive 4-3 disproportionately disrupts Brad Childress’s conservative Walsh-style offense, especially in the running game. However, a very effective deep passing game can stretch the defense, reduce QB pressure, and produce points.
Now the Vikings never got the deep pass working. However, after being shut out (!) in the first half, Childress and Favre adjusted to the surprisingly effective Lions defense in another way . . . In fact, let me just quote's Bucky Brooks:
The Vikings turned to a quick passing game to thwart the Lions’ blitz-heavy tactics. Brett Favre spent the early portion of the game under siege, but the decision to use an assortment of bubble screens, quick slants and underneath routes allowed the Vikings to move the ball against Detroit’s extensive use of Cover-0 (all-out blitz) in key situations. While the Lions mixed in some two-deep coverage, the host of quick throws helped Minnesota move the chains and eventually enabled the Vikings to give the ball to Adrian Peterson in the late stages of the game to run out the clock.
Yeah, that pretty much covers it.  My prediction for the game as a whole was:
Therefore, the most likely result of this game is a closely contested, medium-to-low scoring slugfest, with a lot of turnovers and penalties. It is slightly more likely that Minnesota’s talent overcomes Detroit’s systemic advantages, but this will be a volatile game in Detroit’s home opener.

In this case, the general conclusion I drew was spot-on; the Lions lost, 27-13, in a tug-of-war that was closer than the final score suggests. There weren't a "lot" of turnovers--Stafford threw two picks and Favre none; both teams fumbled twice and lost one--but they played a huge part in the game.  I pointed out some of the more specific successes in the following installment: 

  • I found that Linehan's offense seems to be unusually successful against Dungy-style Tampa 2 defenses; Detroit was so successful on the ground that the Vikings abandoned their base defense, and put eight men in the box.
  • Linehan's teams seem to turn the ball over frequently when facing a Dungy-style defense. I noted that avoiding that would be key to the Lions' chances for victory. Instead, the Lions turned it over three times, and that was arguably the difference in the game.
  • I projected that Minnesota's lack of a consistent deep threat would allow Gunther to blitz, thereby disrupting the Childress offense. It did, he did, and it did; the Lions nearly carried a shutout into halftime. In the end, the turnovers--and resultant short fields for the Vikes--were too numerous to overcome.
  • It was indeed an ugly game marred by sacks, turnovers, and controversial calls--most notably the phantom Gosder Cherilus "chop block" that negated a long gainer by Megatron.
This analysis isn't anything more than that: analysis. But rather than pretend that Dominic Raiola had some sort of secret Pat Williams kyrptonite in his pocket, I prefer to believe that the interaction of schemes provided an opportunity for Kevin Smith to succeed . . . and I know of no other way to project or predict such interactions. I said as long as I find this analysis to have predictive value, I'd continue--and I do, and so I shall.
Right on, four-weeks-ago me!

In the third installment of the Watchtower, I had great data to work with for the Zorn/Cunningham matchup--four games, two of which occurred in the same year.  On the strength of those numbers, I concluded:

Given equal talent and execution, there is no systemic advantage for either Jim Zorn's WCO or Gunther Cunningham's hyperagressive 4-3. If this week's game follows the above trends, Clinton Portis will have an above-average day on the ground, but the Lions' blizting will disrupt and confound Jason Campbell and the Redskins' ho-hum passing game. Point production by the Redskins should be right at expectations--which, for 2009 so far, means 13.0; they're ranked 31st.

I had Portis and Campbell flip-flopped, but the Redskins’ offense was indeed one-dimensional.  Portis managed only 42 yards on 12 carries, whereas Campbell was 27/41 for 340 yards, 2 TD, and an INT. That 340 number looks huge, but not when you consider the number of points the Redskins scored: 14, or exactly 1 more than I’d predicted.  Nice. 

Unfortunately, the data for Skins' DC Greg Blache was totally specious; Blache’s Bears defenses weren’t anything like this Redskins defense.  Moreover, I fat-fingered one of the average calculations, so some of the data I was working from was flat-out wrong.  It showed in my assertions about the Lions’ O vs. the Redskins’ D:

Regardless of talent or execution, Greg Blache's philosophy of a strong front four and committment to run-stopping disproportionately slows Scott Linehan's balanced offense.

Oops. What actually happened was that the Lions ran all over the Redskins, carrying 36 for 154 yards; a stout 4.28 per-carry average. In the two-and-a-half quarters that Kevin Smith played, he gouged the Redskins for 101 yards on only 16 tries; that's an astounding 6.31 yards per carry. This was the exact opposite of the result that I predicted.

I really, really, really wanted to predict a Lions victory for the game, but I just couldn't bring myself to do it.  I wussed out, and instead predicted that “the team whose quarterback performs the best wins.”  Though I could argue that Matthew Stafford’s 21/36, 241 yard, 1 TD 0 INT performance was somehow “more efficient” or something, I’d be lying--and wrong.  The Lions won—won!—the game with a great running game, and a very good showing from the front seven.

In the the Watchtower article for Week 4, I only had one data point for Bears OC Ron Turner against Guntherball: The Bears at Kansas City, 13 years ago.  Knowing I'd be on shaky statistical ground, I used data from Turner's brother, Norv, against Cunningham's more recent units:

IF we consider Ron and Norv Turner interchangable--and we don't--then given greater, equal, or lesser talent, Gunther Cunningham's hyperagressive 4-3 appears to match expectations versus a Turner Bros. Coryell-style downfield passing offense (albeit while generating very high sack and turnover numbers). That is to say, there is no systemic advantage or disadvantage for either team.

Unfortunately, the Bears scored 48 points--counting a kickoff return TD--which exactly triples their average for every other game this year. Their numbers weren't impressive, partly because their average drive starting position was on the Lions' side of the 50, but suffice it to say that the Bears' offense did just fine. Given the turnovers, special teams, and field position, it's very hard to say how much better than expected the Bears really were. It's even harder to say how much of their success was due to intrinsic X-and-O advantage, and how much was due to victimizing a not-good Lions defense.

In the other matchup, Scott Linehan versus Lovie Smith, I had much better data. It led to a pretty specific conclusion:

Given greater, equal, or lesser talent, Lovie Smith's relatively aggressive Tampa 2 will surrender a disproportionate amount of yards to Linehan's balanced offense, but also generate high numbers of sacks and turnovers, disproportionately disrupting scoring.
  • 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.

That is the kind of accuracy that makes me want to keep honing this. With enough data, we get a great glimpse into how the upcoming game will go.  In the fifth installment of The Watchtower, I expanded the data I was looking at, by adding in average defensive yards per attempt/carry. This gives us a better handle on exactly how effective an offense is, aside from total points output.  I studied Pittsburgh OC Bruce Arians' historical matchups against Guntherball. My conclusion was:

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.
I then turned my eye to Scott Linehan’s historical success against Steelers DC Dick LeBeau--and found I had only one data point to
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.

Well no, I was not safe to say that; I forgot to include talent into the equation. With Stafford out, and Kevin Smith dinged up, the offense actually underperformed on a per-play basis. I was tantalizingly close, though; I could feel it. At this point my obsession with figuring this out was reaching fever pitch. In the sixth, most recent Watchtower, I spent the first several paragraphs breaking down the results of the fifth one--no need to regurgitate it all here.

I broke down the stats of Packers' head coach Mike McCarthy two prior meetings with Gunther Cunningham, and drew this conclusion:

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.

And what happened?

  • The Packers scored 26 points, which exactly matches their average on the season so far.
  • 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).
  • In fact, the Packers as a whole did not score a touchdown after cashing in on the opening-drive Culpepper turnover.

That is spot-on, to the letter, exactly what I'd predicted. The Lions' secondary was victimized by Rodgers and the Packers' WRs, but thanks to the sacks and turnovers and red zone defense, the Packers repeatedly failed to cash in. If the Lions offense could just outperform their averages a little bit . . .

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.
Well, there we have it.  All else considered equal, the Lions' defense should hold the Packers' defense at or just below their season average, and the Lions' offense should slightly outperform their season average. Essentially, it's a push.  The data says that if Stafford, Smith, and Megatron can go, it's a 50/50 shot.  However, I was feelin' my oats. I liked this matchup, and all the Packers info I could find had Pack fans assuming a blowout was a forgone conclusion.

I decided to stick my neck out; have a little faith. I not only called for a Lions victory (albeit a narrow one), I sent it out to Packers bloggers everywhere.  Immediately afterwards, it became obvious that Stafford and Megatron were not going to play, and I had a real problem on my hands.

Obviously, pure scheme-on-scheme interaction cannot account for everything. I have to account for outside influences--like, the Lions banged up and desperately needing a bye, the Packers coming off a bye, the wind at Lambeau Field, Daunte Culpepper.  However, I've been most inaccurate when I've let those sorts of things color my predictions--or when I've tried to fill gaps in historical data with subjective guesses.

So, going forward, The Watchtower posts will consist of two components.  One will be pure, objective analysis based on historical data--and I'll be noting my confidence level, based on the amount and quality of data I have to work with.  The other will establish relative talent and execution levels, and note mitigating or influencing factors.  This way, we'll have as good of a grasp as is possible on the results of scheme/scheme interaction--yet also understand what might prevent those Xs and Os from playing just the way they do on the chalkboard.

Critically, I will also begin incorporating 2009 data into The Watchtower.  Up until this point, the Lions were really an unknown quantity--but now, we have sufficient data to make the words "outperform expectations" have meaning; we now know enough about these Lions to have accurately expectations going forward.  Perhaps most intriugingly, this will factor heavily into the remainder of the divisional games.

So there we have it.  I'm not sure what the ulimate endpoint of this series is. Will I end up with incredibly accurate projected final scores, key player statistics, and mathematical levels of confidence in each, and us all winning millions of dollars in Vegas?  Probably not. Will the greater football analysis world lift me up on their shoulders carry me around and crown me King Of The Football Geeks and I rule wisely for ever and ever?  Unfortunately unlikely.  But even if I routinely make a complete and total jackass of myself, as I did last week, I think this is a very cool way of breaking down Lions games, and focusing on what makes this team succeed . . . and fail.


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