The Lions find themselves in a desperate position. Having lost three difficult, but winnable games to open the season, they travel to Green Bay to face their most toughest test yet. Oh, and stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but the Lions haven’t won at Lambeau since 1991. Vince Workman scored all of Green Bay’s touchdowns in that game. Mel Gray took a punt to the house. The Lions finished the season 12-4, and the Packers limped to a 3-12 record. Shortly thereafter, the first President Bush authorized the first attack of the first Gulf War.
The Packers have dominated the Lions to an almost mythic degree; I’d love to know if there’s a similar streak at any level of any team sport. Eighteen seasons without a road win, against a divisional rival? Unthinkable—and yet, here we are, and there they are. Let’s do this.
Mike McCarthy vs. Gunther Cunningham
The first Watchtowering of the Packers led me to the following 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.
What happened in that first game? As I crowed in the Watchtower for the November Lions-Packers matchup:
- 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.
This is exactly what the trend predicted: with lesser talent, Gunther Cunningham’s defense held the Packers to their norms for the season with sacks and turnovers—despite being victimized for great chunks of yardage between the 20s. However, over the course of the season, the Packers’ offense had picked up steam—and the Lions had suffered their usual rash of secondary losses. My conclusion:
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.
At first blush, this was once again spot-on: the Packers scored 34 points. However, one of those touchdowns came on a Charles Woodson interception return; the Packers’ offense was only responsible for 27 of those 34 points. YpA was 8.92, just under the lower bound of my projection, but running? That was held to a meager 2.96 YpC. Given that the Lions also held the Packers to 3.57 YpC in the first meeting (their season average was 4.30), this is an interesting trend.
It’s tempting to suggest that the Packers were not running well because the pass offense was working—but the Packers rushed 30 and 27 times in the two games. It’s further tempting to suggest that the Packers were merely “putting it in the cooler,” but the score of the second game was 13-7 at halftime; it didn’t become a blowout until the middle of the third. Don’t forget, the Lions were allowing 4.42 YpC on the ground last year; this was not a stout run defense. Clearly, there’s something systematic depressing Packer rushing yardage, even when the defense should be coming in terrified of the aerial assault.
The Packers are coming off a brutal Monday Night Football loss, where reserve tailbacks John Kuhn and Brandon Jackson combined for 43 yards on 13 carries; the 3.31 YpC a clear indicator that they miss starter Ryan Grant. Moreover, the willingness to completely abandon the run shows the Packers are well aware of what they do well, and what they do not.
One thing they do very, very well is get the ball to Jermichael Finley, who’s got 17 receptions for an incredible 265 yards. I expect the Packers to try to exploit this advantage, especially given the Lions’ weakness at outside linebacker (even with the return of Zack Follett) and safety (C.C. Brown, anyone?).
In terms of the data, things are ever-so-slightly less bleak for the Lions this year. The Packers boast the 4th-ranked scoring offense, racking up points at at 26.0 PpG clip; the Lions are allowing points at the exact same rate, 26.0 PpG. The expectation would be that the Packers will score well above their average. But with the Lions possessing a systemic advantage against the Packers’ already injury-weakened running game, and in depressing the Packers’ scoring, I project the Pack will fall just short of their season average, scoring 24-27 points. I have very high confidence in this projection.
Given the depth and specificity of the data we’ve got, and the special circumstances surrounding the matchup, I’ll take the opportunity to get a little more specific: I cite my Whack-A-Mole principle, and project that the Lions will concede the run to the Packers, allowing 3.75-4.0 YpC, in order to focus primarily on the pass, which should yield 7.5-8.25 YpA. Further, I predict the Lions will sack the Packers four to six times.
I’ve mostly covered the whys and wherefores above. If the Lions’ pass rush can’t hit home, they will have a devil of a time depressing scoring; the Packers will likely throw it fifty times against an extremely susceptible back seven. Rodgers, however, is not known for getting rid of it quickly, and an extra step for KVB, Avril, Suh, and Williams to get there may make all the different in the world. The possibility exists that the Lions’s pass rush actually drives a better-than-expected performance here; with no effective running game and nothing to lose, I expect Cunningham to be extremely aggressive.
On the other had, we are talking about Rodgers, Jennings, Finley, Driver, et al., in Lambeau. The scoring could also get completely out of hand. I’m pretty confident in these numbers, though.
Scott Linehan vs. Dom Capers
In the first Packers Watchtower, I made some pretty big statements, based on the performance of the Lions against 3-4 defenses of Capers-like lineage:
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.
. . . 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.
Zip. Zero. Zilch. Nada. Bupkus. Donut. Shutout. Matthew Stafford did not play, Daunte Culpepper was Culpepperific in the extreme, and the Lions didn’t score a single point. They passed (4.20 YpA) no more effectively as they ran (4.20 YpC), and they answered the Packers’ opening drive TD with an interception that was converted into a second touchdown. They were down by 14 within minutes of the opening gun, and never got anything going after that.
The second time around, I learned my lesson:
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.
Underperform they did, netting 10 offensive points (2 more came from a safety), gaining 4.95 YpA, and rushing for 3.17 YpC. Clearly, I was still either overestimating the effect size of the Linehan/Capers thing, or overestimating expectations of the 27th-best scoring offense when facing the 7th-best scoring defense. I think I’ll assume the former for now, and adjust my predictions downward—especially since Stafford will still be out, Burleson will be out, and Best will be far from full-speed.
The Lions’ offense is a sight better from last season, even with Shaun Hill at the helm. Ranked 18th, and averaging 18.7 PpG (not counting Megatron’s wiped-out TD), the Lions go up against a similarly-stingy Packer defense this time around. Green Bay’s still ranked 7th, allowing a mere 15.7 PpG, and holding opposing quarterbacks to only 5.47 YpA. However, the Packers are getting gashed for 5.00 YpC . . . it’s not helping opposing teams much, but Green Bay is not stopping anyone on the ground right now.
Given the season averages so far, and taking into account (but not overemphasizing) the systemic advantage Scott Linehan has against Dom Capers, I project the Lions to mildly outperform expectations, meeting or falling just short of their season averages: 15-20 points, 5.50-to-6.00 YpA, and 4.00 YpC. I have medium to high confidence in this projection.
If Jahvid Best were healthy, I could see him really catching fire against the Packers’ substandard run defense. If that happened, the secondary could be drawn closer to the line, opening up opportunities downfield. But even if so, could the Lions capitalize without Stafford and/or Burleson? Further, Best isn’t healthy; even if he plays it will be with a high degree of pain. Unfortunately, that's the only chink in this doomy armor I can find.
I'd love to say that this Packer team, struggling so mightily to run and stop the run, is primed for an upset. But the talent gap between these teams is still too large, especially when considering the almost-two-decade-long streak of Lambeau futility the Lions are riding. I project another tantalizingly close game, with an outstanding day by the defensive line—marred by the back seven yielding to one of the best passing attacks in the game. This will be an extremely painful 17-24 defeat.