Gameday chat: Thanksgiving

>> 11.26.2009


We, as Lions fans, don’t have a whole lot to be thankful for—at least, not when it comes to our team.  However, we do have one special day: today.  Our team has been synonymous with this holiday for three quarters of a century.  Today, the record goes out the window, and the blue bonfire roars.  Today, Ford Field sells out, no problem.  Today, the entire nation will tune in to see the new-look Lions.

Of course, they probably won’t see the new-look Lions.  Matthew Stafford is officially doubtful, and Megatron is questionable.  The stage has been set for yet another Thanksgiving bloodbath, and yet another chorus of national fans and media grousing about having to watch the lousy Lions.

Fortunately, the new head coach knows the importance of this game—both to the franchise itself, and to its fans.  Even having been on the opposing sideline here last year—and thus contributing the most complete dominations of one football team by another I’ve ever seen—he knows how important it is that this game remain the national showcase for the Lions, and for Lions fans everywhere.

Please, share your thoughts on the game, your warm Lions memories, and your Thanksgiving thanks in the comments.  Happy Thanksgiving, to you and yours.


The Watchtower: Packers at Lions

>> 11.25.2009

Traditionally, I start each Watchtower with a postmortem analysis of the previous game’s Watchtower.  Suffice it to say, the Lions and Browns completely blew all of my predictions out of the water.  Regular commenter Matt actually did much better than I:

"You have to put the Browns' defense in perspective: MY perspective. My fantasy football team went into that game needing the Browns to hold Joe Flacco AND Ray Rice to less than 14 points. They combined for 13! This threw me into a 4-way division tie (all 5-5) instead of being two games back. The Browns D also aided this by keeping the Ravens' kicker in check. So, even though the team lost, the Browns D was simply stepping up to help out a fantasy football geek. :-) We can now extrapolate this to next week's Lions/Browns game. The only player from this game on either fantasy roster is Matt Stafford (my opponent as no Lions or Browns). He will be on my bench behind Brett Favre. This surely means that Stafford will have his break-out game, throwing for 400 yards and 5 TDs, as the Lions completely trounce the Browns while my Las Vegas Kings lose a heartbreaker. :-)"

When I initially penned the last Watchtower, it was on the heels of a game where the Browns had played the Ravens; they threw the ball further than five yards downfield only a handful of times.  Not only did the announcers in the booth call this out as it happened, the postgame analysts carped on it as well--and then the Cleveland media, national NFL media, and entire football blogosphere spent the next entire week flogging the Browns for their total lack of downfield balls.

Pun intended.

It only stands to reason, then, that with the 31st-ranked scoring defense--minus some starters in the secondary, and minus some of the replacements for those starters—next on the schedule, the Browns would give downfield passing a whirl.  The results were, well, typical.  Meanwhile the Lions, rather than getting ahead early and turning to Kevin Smith as I’d predicted, again abandoned the run and asked Stafford to win the ballgame.  This time, it worked.

Okay, the Packers:

Mike McCarthy vs. Gunther Cunningham


The Packers are the second team to feel the searing gaze of the eye atop the Watchtower twice in one season.  The first time around, I concluded 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.

Then, in the midseason review of the Watchtower feature, I smugly pointed out that:

  • The Packers scored 26 points, which exactly matched their average on the season to that point.
  • 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).
  • The Packers as a whole did not score a touchdown after cashing in on the opening-drive Culpepper turnover.
Of course, things are a little different now.  The Lions’ secondary has been decimated, degrading said unit from “suspect” to “dumpster fire”.  The Packers’ offense has clicked a little more, too, with the OL protecting better than, you know, not at all, and the WRs beginning to get open deep again.  Though my conclusions about McCarthy’s offense and Cunningham’s defense proved to be spookily correct the first time around, merely projecting a repeat of the prior game would be hubris.

Let's instead look at the Packers’ current stats, the Lions’ current stats, and then apply the same advantage to those figures.  The Packers are now the 8th-best scoring offense, averaging 26.2 PpG.  They’re passing for an impressive 7.41 YpA, and rushing for a surprising 4.46 YpG.  Meanwhile, the Lions are allowing 30.1 PpG, surrendering 7.84 YpA, and being run on to the tune of 4.47 YpG. 

One would expect the Packers to significantly outperform their season averages—that is, score well over 26 points, and gain passing and rushing yards at a pace well over their typical per-play average.  However, if we apply the systemic advantage it appears Gunther Cunningham’s aggressive defenses have against Mike McCarthy’s offense, scoring should be somewhere above the Lions’ allowed average—the Packers are a well-above-average offense—but below, like, a zillion points.  Meanwhile, the Pack should be able to move between the 20s more or less at will.

Therefore, the Packers should score 34-38 points, pass for 9.00-10.00 YpA, and run for 4.50-4.75 YpC. I have very high confidence in this prediction.

Mitigating/Augmenting Influences:

If it weren't for the frequent turnovers by, and rampant futility of, the Lions offense, the Packers might not have scored even the 26 points that they did. Moreover, the Lions were without Matt Stafford and Calvin Johnson--which, as we've discussed before, absolutely destroys the Lions' offense.

Of course, the Lions may not have Stafford or Megatron available this time, either, but if they do play, the defense won’t be hung out to dry as badly as before. Also, the Lions’ defense was even more banged up last time—3/4ths of the starting defensive line was out---so the crappy secondary being even more crappy might not be as big of a factor.

Another interesting factor to note: instead of the Lions trying to break a 19-year-old losing streak at LLLLAAAAAMMMMMBOOOWWW FEEEEEEEEEELLLD, they'll be playing at home, in front of a sellout crowd, on national TV, in the Lions’ annual showcase game.  I don’t think this will matter anywhere near as much as Stafford/Culpepper, or Megatron/no Megatron, but the Lions have been much “better” at home than on the road. 

Scott Linehan vs. Dom Capers


Okay, the last time we did this, I concluded:

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.
This is why I started breaking the analysis out from the "influencing factors"!  There was a monstrous whopper of an “if” in there, and I utterly failed to account for it.  Still, I don’t think anyone would have predicted how poorly Daunte Culpepper would play.  4.20 yards per attempt?  That’s criminally bad.  For what it’s worth, the Lions did rush for a very respectable 4.20 YpC.

It’s almost impossible to tell what’s going to happen here.  Given the Culpepper/Stanton in-and-out, no Megatron, and the immediate TD/turnover/TD sequence putting the Lions on their heels two minutes in, I’m not going to attribute the shutout earlier this year to scheme-on-scheme interaction.  That leaves us with the earlier conclusion, that Linehan’s offenses are unusually good against blitzing 3-4s, especially when the running game is working well.

Unfortunately, given the loss of Stephen Peterman, I don’t see Kevin Smith rushing any better than he did the first time around.  If the Lions, as probable, are playing from behind early again, a rushing attack averaging 4.2 yards a carry is not going to force the Packers to adjust to stop it.

I have to project this based on the assumptions that Daunte Culpepper and Bryant Johnson will be starting in the stead of the newly-christened avatar of the Lions franchise and, arguably, the most dangerous downfield threat in football.  Given the way the Packers defense has been playing (12-ranked scoring defense!), this is an insurmountable challenge.

Even accounting for the systemic advantage I still believe a fully realized Linehan offense has against a Capers-style 3-4, the Lions should meet, or slightly underperform, their season averages: 14-17 points, 5.25-5.50 YpA, and 3.85-4.15 YpC.

Mitigating/Augmenting Influences:

Yeesh, this Linehan/Capers section has been almost all “influences” already, but here we go.  Obviously, Matthew Stafford is now THE QUARTERBACK, and losing him is a great loss indeed.  Megatron is the only weapon that defenses respect, and losing him is an even bigger loss.  However, last Sunday, the Packers have lost both their top corner, Al Harris, and their top pass rusher, Aaron Kampman, for the rest of the season.

While I’m not exactly salivating over the Charles Woodson-versus-Bryant Johnson matchup, the Lions’ remaining wideouts should have much better looks than they did the first time around.   Moreover, as miscast as Kampman has been this season, he’s still a naturally gifted pass rusher, and losing him partially de-fangs a defense whose bite has been much worse than its bark this season.

Unfortunately, for the second week in a row, we find the Watchtower’s view obfuscated.  This offense without a healthy Stafford and Megatron simply isn’t the same offense—and while it’s only on the low end of mediocre with them, it’s absolutely wretched without them.  Let’s be real, here, folks: if both Stafford and Megatron can’t go, this is going to be another bloodbath, regardless of who is out on the other side, or what logo is at midfield.  It kills me to say it, but unless the young binary stars of this franchise take the field on Turkey Day, the national audience is going to get treated to yet another Thanksgiving fiasco.


three cups deep: celebration

>> 11.23.2009


A bar full of people going completely wild; strangers high fiving and shouting and yelling and pounding the tables.  Cell phones ringing, hands clapping, chants, and glasses being drained.  In the middle of it all, a young man and his three-and-a-half-year-old son: screaming, yelling, signalling "TOUCHDOWN", and revelling in the moment.

As much as the victory over the Redskins marked the end of an era--of Matt Millen, Rod Marinelli, and total futility--this moment marked the beginning of a new one: the era of Martin Mayhew, Jim Schwartz, and Matthew Stafford.  At this point, if you're reading these words, you already know the story.

Matthew Stafford, after scrambling all over the field and back, with time long since expired, let fly a Hail Mary to the back of the end zone--and got driven hard into the turf, destroying his left shoulder.  After Hank Poteat was flagged for shoving Bryant Johnson out of bounds, Stafford was helped up; he staggered to the sideline, and collapsed.  As team doctors worked on the Forty Million Dollar Man, Daunte Culpepper took the field.

There was a buzz throughout the stadium (and the bar)--both concern for Stafford, and excitement for what was to come; after all, here it was!  The Lions had one yard to go to win!  While I'm no fan of Daunte Culpepper, if you tell me I need one yard on one play to win, and give me a 6’-6”, 260-pound quarterback who can run . . . well, I like those odds.

Suddenly, the Browns called timeout—and suddenly Matthew Stafford, visibly in pain, gamely gimped back out to onto the field.  One play in hand, one yard to go, and zero seconds on the clock . . . touchdown.  With that, Stafford became both the first rookie to throw 5 TDs in a game since 1937, and the unquestioned leader of this franchise.  In the words of Kevin Smith:

"It makes me feel good, I almost want to cry -- knowing you've got a teammate out there like that, he's willing to put it all on the line and there's no telling what his injury is, how serious it is. You define the type of player you are, the type of person you are. It comes down to one play with everything on the line. He could've easily let Daunte (Culpepper) come in and take the play. But he wanted to be out there.

This will be Matt Stafford's signature win.  If he flames out in a blaze of interceptions, people will point to this win and wonder what might have been.  If he goes on to be the next Elway, and the Lions win multiple Super Bowls with him at the helm, this will be the game they point to and say “It all started when . . .” 

There’s no word yet on whether the new avatar of the franchise will be available to lead his team in the annual celebration of Lions football, Thanksgiving.  X-rays showed no broken bones; an MRI is set for today.  Still, even if he’s out for the remainder of the season, he’s proven what kind of quarterback he is, he’s proven what kind of man he is, and he’s made this team his own.

As the surge of euphoria quieted to beaming joy, Lions fans at the bar all buzzed and chatted and laughed.  A few came up to my son and exchanged high-fives with the biggest little fan in the place.  One fan came over to me and said, “Are you . . . Ty?  Is your name Ty?”  It turned out to be Minker, a regular reader and well-spoken commenter.  We shook hands, caught up, and then left for home with dozens of other fans, buzzing about the incredible win we’d just witnessed.

The Lions may be 2-8, folks, but the blue fire still burns.  Lions fans everywhere have been desperate for this win, desperate for a reason to hold their heads high and be proud.  Today, folks, do it.  Hold your head high.  Wear your colors, if you can, and speak out loud.  Go on the forums and the message boards and set blue fire to everything.  We’ll remember this day for the rest of our lives . . .

. . . and judging by the way my son raved about it for the rest of the night, maybe he will, too.


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