For a Lions fan, it seems like there’s no longer wait than the one between the Thanksgiving Day game and second Sunday after that. For me, it’s been a little over a week since I posted the Watchtower for that game, but it seems like a month-long blur of stuffing, friends, sausage stuffing, family, chestnut stuffing, and stuffing myself.
In said Watchtower, I projected:
If we apply the systemic advantage it appears Gunther Cunningham’s aggressive defenses have against Mike McCarthy’s offenses, 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.
Let the record show: 27 offensive points, 8.92 YpA, and 2.96 YpC. Clearly, the defense did even better than expected, despite a decimated secondary attempting to cover one of the more prolific passing offenses in the NFL. The effect I’d isolated in prior McCarthy/Cunningham matchups, of the Packers moving the ball well but not scoring, was clearly seen in Week 6, and it was clearly seen on Thanksgiving as well. Despite being thoroughly outclassed, the defense’s ability to generate timely disruption kept the Lions in the game.
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.
Again, for the record: 10 offensive points, 4.95 YpA, and 3.17 YpC. My projections here were a little bit optimistic; I place the blame entirely Schwartz’s decision to kick a field goal from the 4-yard-line while down by 18 in the fourth quarter.
Stafford, unbelievably, started and played the whole game--though the cortisone/adrenalin was clearly wearing off in the second half. Megatron suited up, too, but he didn’t appear to be anything like his usual self. Besides failing to be unstoppable, he had to be helped up on several occasions, and took himself out of the game at least twice. Kevin Smith ran hard, but didn’t have much room. There were a couple of runs where he was literally one step away from taking it to the house—but as we’ve repeatedly seen, that’s the one step he just doesn’t have.
At this point, the Lions are what we know they are: a team with good coaches, a few young, foundational players, and nearly nothing else. Because they can’t run the ball, they are asking a rookie quarterback to beat teams by throwing it 40-50 times a game. Because they can’t rush the passer, they are asking an injury-decimated secondary to hold the line while they blitz. There’s no getting around it: the Lions do not have enough talent on the roster to beat good teams.
Who's next on the schedule? Oh, yes, the 8-3 Bengals. Sigh.
Bob Bratkowski vs. Gunther Cunningham
When I saw Bob Bratkowski’s name, my blood ran cold. I knew he’d been an OC in the NFL for a very long time, and when I saw that he’d spent four years coaching in-division against Guntherball . . . well, I was smothered in an avalanche of data. For those of you who spent Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday where this piece was, well, here it is.
Bratkowski is a disciple of Dennis Erickson, having been Erickson’s OC both at Washington State and with the Seahawks. Yet, unlike the aerial offenses that Erickson employed at Wazzou and elsewhere, with the Seahawks Bratkowski employed a balanced offense with a strong running game.
This may be partially due to personnel—the Seahawks quarterbacks of the mid-90s were a Rogue’s Gallery of has-beens and never-weres. However, the consistency of the yards per attempt and carry from year to year (despite constantly fluctuating personnel) indicate an intentional approach to run/pass balance—and this is borne out in his approach at Cincinnati as well.
The ‘95-‘98 Seahawks teams were consistently strong offensively. In ‘95, the were the 10th-best scoring offense, averaging 22.7 points per game. The passing offense was unimpressive, averaging just 6.05 yards per attempt—but Chris Warren led the rushing attack to 4.57 YpC. The Chiefs, however, were the #1 defense in the NFL—led by Hall of Famer Derrick Thomas, whose #58 jersey will be retired this weekend. The result was predictable: 15 points for the ‘Hawks in the first game, and only 3 in the second. Tellingly, the ‘Hawks moved the ball a bit in the first game, 6.28 YpA and 4.33 YpC, but did no such thing in the second—a pathetic 4.06 YpA and 1.68 YpC.
What was the difference between an on-par-with expectations first performance and the #10 scoring offense eeking out just a field goal? Weather and quarterback play. The first game was Week 1, and Rick Mirer threw it around a little bit, if not efficiently. The second game was in Arrowhead on Christmas Eve, back when Arrowhead was Arrowhead, and most of the snaps went to John Friesz--who was horrific. There may be a little something here in terms of schematic advantage, but I’m chalking that performance up to talent, execution, and one of the most notorious home field advantages in modern NFL history. On an incredible side note, monster returner Tamarick Vanover took a kickoff to the house in both games!
In 1996, Seattle’s offense fell off slightly, to 19.8 PpG, making them the median offense in the NFL (16th-best). The Chiefs were slightly less stingy as well, allowing an average of 18.8 PpG (11th-best). The results were right in line with what you’d expect: 17 and 16 points scored by the Seahawks, just a little bit less than their ‘97 season averages. Interestingly, rushing and passing per-carry averages were depressed in the first game, at home: 5.13 YpA, and 3.03 YpC—and yet, they were elevated well above averages on the road: 7.00 YpA, and 5.50 YpC. Either way, though, the Chiefs defense held scoring to just below the Seahawks’ season averages.
In ‘97, both teams rebounded: Seattle was the 9th-best scoring offense with 22.8 PpG, and the Chiefs reclaimed the top spot by allowing a miserly 14.5. Once again, they met in the middle, 17 and 19 points scored in the two times they met. Before we move on to ‘98, check out the sack numbers! In six games, 25 sacks for –151 yards. This was not extraordinary for those Chiefs--who were to the 90s what the Ravens have been in the aughts--but it’s remarkable to note.
Finally, we get to 1998. During this season, the Chiefs' defense got markedly worse with similar personnel: they were they 22nd-best scoring defense, allowing 22.7 points per game. However, for a clue as to why Gunther Cunningham was promoted to the head coach position after the season anyway, when it was his unit that faltered, look at the season-average YpA and YpC numbers; they held steady even though the scoring defense melted. For another clue, look at the sack numbers: the Chiefs had 54 sacks as a team in 1997, but only 38 in 1998.
Surprisingly, the Seahawks, despite having the best offensive output of the Erickson/Bratkowski era at 23.2 PpG, didn’t fare any better against Gunther’s Chiefs, scoring 6 and 17 offensive points in their annual pair of games. Neither turnovers nor sacks played any more role than they usually did in these meetings—in fact, the defense had far fewer sacks against the ‘Hawks than in ‘95-‘97.
When Erickson was broomed after the '98 season, Bratkowski didn't coach again until Dick LeBeau tabbed him to coordinate the Bengals’ offense in 2001. The Bengals, using Jon Kitna, Scott Mitchell, and Akili Smith at quarterback, somehow finished 31st of 31 teams in scoring offense that season (14.1 PpG). I’ll give you all a moment to recover from the shock . . .
Gunther, for his part, had been axed as Kansas City’s coordinator, and was working with Jim Schwartz in Tennessee. The Titans weren’t much better on defense--ranked 25th and allowing 24.2 PpG, Tennessee would be expected to allow the Bengals some of their better games. Not so much the first time around; Cincy’s only score was a Kitna-to-Ron-Dugans touchdown. YpA and YpC were . . . awful. In the final contest of the season, though, the Bengals got two scores from Corey Dillon, and three field goals from the inimitable Neil Rackers. Kitna, throwing 47 times for 340 yards, may have been taking advantage of Titans D that was 7-8, tied for 3rd of 5th place in the AFC Central, and had nothing left to play for.
Finally, in 2005, Bratkowski brought his career’s best offense to bear against Cunningham: the 4th-best scoring offense that year, the Palmer-Johnson-Johnson-Houshmandzadeh quartet averaged 26.3 PpG, 7.10 YpA, and 4.16 YpC. Meanwhile, the Chiefs were the median defense, allowing 20.3 PpG, 6.58 YpA, and 4.10 YpC. My projection would be that the Bengals would replicate their season averages against the median defense, but no—they mustered only a field goal. I checked for injuries; both Palmer and Kitna played, but they both played well. It was the complete denial of a run game, only 1.68 YpA, that engendered this offensive collapse.
This allows me to conclude: regardless of talent or execution, if a Gunther Cunningham defense can stop the running game of a Bob Bratkowski balanced offense, Cunningham's aggressive playcalling completely disrupts the passing offense, as well. Otherwise, there is mild systemic advantage for a Cunningham defense against a Bratkowski offense, suppressing point production without affecting per-play effectiveness.
The 2009 Bengals' offense is a shadow of what it was in ‘05: right at the median, averaging 21.0 points per game, 6.47 YpA, and 4.11 YpC. In terms of run/pass effectivness, this looks exactly like Bratkowski's Seahawks teams of the late 90s: stout, solid, and flashless--but effective. Has Palmer's effectiveness ironically regressed to Jon Kitna levels? Was T.J. Houshmandzadeh that important? For this analysis, though, what's relevant is not that we figure out why this system hasn’t been as effective against other defenses, just that we figure out how effective this system will be against the Lions’ defense.
The Lions’ defense is, as we know, the worst in football. Allowing 30.5 points per game, a whopping 7.94 YpA, and 4.33 YpC, they’ve been a shot in the arm for every offense they’ve faced. While the Bengals’ offense hasn’t been spectacular, and Bengals fans have been calling for Bratkowski’s head for some time, they’re running the ball effectively, only throwing when they have to—and they’re winning games. Lots of games.
I don't believe that the Lions have the personnel up front to stop the Bengals' increasingly effective running game, ergo no triggering of the magical "Stop Bratkowski's offense cold regardless of personnel" effect we see above. Therefore, the Bengals will meet or slightly exceed their average point production, while greatly exceeding per-play averages through the air. I project 20-24 points, 8.0-8.5 YpA, and 4.25-4.5 YpC. I have extremely high confidence in this projection.
Chad Ochocinco has publicly called for the Bengals to throw it 50 times on Sunday—but lately, Bratkowski hasn’t thrown it at all unless he’s had to. While the Lions have been much stouter against the run than the pass, they’ve been only not-very-good against the run, as opposed to disastrous against the pass. I fear that even if the Bengals throw it only 10 times, it’ll be for 150 yards and two scores. The Lions might try double-covering The Ocho with Will James and Louis Delmas, and isolating Philip Buchanon on Laverneous Coles—but if the defensive line doesn’t get pressure, it’s only a matter of time.
The Lions will be helped by the lack of a dangerous pass-catching runningback or tight end; death by Andre Caldwell in the slot is a slow death indeed. Still, I see the defensive line being overwhelmed by the Bengals' enormous offensive line, and their deep rotation of power running backs. It's imperative that the Lions' offense finally be able to stick with the run, keep the defense fresh late, and keep the score close. If the Bengals unleash the deep ball, it will be over quickly.
It's almost laughable. After the Bratkowski/Guntherball matchup generated a mountain of data, more than twice as many games as I’d ever broken down before, Linehan’s only faced off against Lewis once. Unfortunately, one data point really can’t allow me to draw any kind of conclusion. However, this was at least a recent-vintage Bengals defense. Marvin has overseen many different defensive systems as both a coordinator and head coach—isolating just one would be practically impossible, even if there’d been a baker’s dozen meetings between the two coaches.
In 2007, Scott Linehan’s Rams were a mess; they had Steven Jackson and little else, and they didn’t have Steven Jackson much, either. Ranked as the 28th-best scoring offense in the NFL, the Rams average 16.4 points per game, 5.63 YpA, and 3.78 YpC. The Bengals’ defense of 2007 wasn’t a powerhouse either; the 24th-ranked unit allowed an average of 24.1 PpG, 6.83 YpA, and 4.25 YpC. The meeting between the two teams resulted in an almost-perfect replication of the Rams’ season averages: 5.46 YpA, and 3.67 YpC. However, the Rams scored only 3 offensive points, far short of their per-game average of 16.4.
It’s worth noting that those Rams lost almost their entire starting offensive line to in-season injuries; by December 7th (the date of this game) they were even losing the street free agents they'd signed to replace all the injured starters and backups. It's plausible to blame their below-expectations perfomance on that, but without even a second data point we can't determine if it's a fluke or a trend.
Looking at the 2009 data, it's absolutely painful. The Lions are nearly a statistical reproduction of that 2007 Rams offense. Take the phrase above: "Scott Linehan’s Rams were a mess; they had Steven Jackson and little else, and they didn’t have Steven Jackson much, either". Then, replace "Rams" with "Lions", and "Steven Jackson" with "Calvin Johnson" , and there you have it.
Meanwhile, the Bengals aren't the 24th-best scoring defense, they're the best in the NFL. Let me say that again: the Cincinnati Bengals have the best scoring defense in the NFL. Allowing only 15.8 points a game, 5.98 yards per attempt, and 3.80 yards per carry, the Bengals aren’t giving up anything to anybody . . . certainly not the Lions.
Therefore, the expectation would be that the Lions significantly underperform their season averages--and we have no evidence of a systematic advantage that would modify those expectations. Therefore, the Lions should significantly underperform their season averages: 7-9 points, 4.5-4.75 YpA, and 3.75-4.00 YpC. I have low confidence in this projection.
There are two ways I see the Lions exceeding the (extremely low) expectations set for them; one is in the interplay between defense and offense. If the Bengals play conservative, ball-control offense and don't score very much early, the Lions may finally be able to get Kevin Smith in a rhythm. If the Bengals never open up a three-score lead on the Lions, it'll only be one Matthew Stafford-to-Calvin Johnson play away from being anybody's game. Of course, the Bengals will be capable of opening it up the other way, too . . .
The only other source of optimism is the relative health of Stafford and Johnson. Both were visibly hurt on Thanksgiving, especially Megatron. IF the long break has allowed them both to return to 100%, then there is at least the potential that the Lions' downfield passing game will force the Bengals to abadon their ball-control game. However, see above; forcing Carson Palmer and Chad Ochocinco will beat us might well result in them beating us.
There are any number of scenarios that may play out. If the Bengals choose to slow it down, and the Lions can't make the downfield pass happen, the two teams might not score 20 points combined. On the other hand, if the Lions or Bengals are aggressive early, it could turn into a track meet--much like the Browns game did. On the third hand, if Leon Hall baits Stafford into three or four picks, which could happen, it could just be a good old-fashioned blowout.
Oh, one other factor: it's in Cincy. The Lions haven't won a road game since before Halloween 2007, and I don't think they break the streak against the best defense in football.
Given all of these contradictory and/or depressing factors, I'm going to stick with the data: 20-24 points for the Bengals, and 7-9 points for the Lions.