Last week’s game against the Eagles had a hint of desperation: both teams were coming off the heels of a painful loss, and both teams lost their starting quarterbacks in the process. But if that game had a hint of desperation about it, this game is absolutely dripping with desperation. The Lions are 0-2, and fans would give almost anything to get on the board and know 0-16 won’t happen again. The Vikings dragged Brett Favre back from Mississippi, kicking and screaming, to win a Super Bowl—and yet, they also find themselves at 0-2.
Brad Childress vs. Gunther Cunningham
All the in-division foes grant me the luxury of two meetings a year. The 2009 Vikings were especially Watchtowerable opponents; serving as a perfect case study for why I do this. In the first Vikings Watchtower analysis, I concluded:
We see the same pattern in all three games; therefore I feel safe concluding the following: 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.
In the second Vikings Watchtower, I fairly well crowed about the how the offensive output of the Vikings was indeed much lower than expected, and boldly predicted the pattern would repeat itself in the second game as well:
Rather than attempt to decide which dimension of the Vikings' offense holds the iocaine, let's go right back to the data. Despite the second-best offense in the NFL meeting the second-worst defense, that offense underperformed its season averages. I originally concluded that the Gunther Cunningham 4-3 disproportionately disrupts Childress’ conservative flavor, and that conclusion was indisputably correct.
Now, I didn’t make an actual prediction for the game beyond “a medium-to-low scoring slugfest”; I was just starting this feature, and hadn’t refined it to the level I have now. Therefore, I’ll simply refine my original prediction: Given a huge talent and execution advantage, but a definite systemic disadvantage, I expect the Vikings will meet or slightly underperform their season averages: scoring 27-30 points, passing for 6.75-7.0 yards per attempt, and rushing for 3.75-4.0 yards per carry. I have very high confidence in this prediction.
I stuck my neck pretty far out there with that “very high confidence” bit, especially as it’s quite rare for two teams to play each other twice in one season and have duplicate results. Nevertheless, that’s exactly what happened; the Vikings were again held to 27 points. Twice the second-ranked, scoring-29.4-points-per-game Vikings offense faced the dead-last-ranked, allowing-30.9-points-per-game defense, and twice they scored only 27 points. Clearly, whether it’s through scheme or playcalling, the Lions’ defense “has the Vikings’ number.”
Astoundingly, the Vikings have the second-lowest-scoring offense in the NFL, averaging just 9.5 points through the first two games. Granted, those two defenses are the Saints and the Dolphins, currently 10th and 1st in the NFL in scoring defense, but still—the Vikings aren’t playing like they did in 2009. With a mere 6.3 YpA, the passing offense that was so successful last season looks completely pedestrian in 2010.
I’m not certain I buy it. It’s true that Favre is missing his favorite target from last season, Sydney Rice—and it’s true that Favre’s offensive line is in the process of crossing the line between “experienced” to “old”. Still, I don’t think the Silver Fox is completely out of magic. An awakening is due, and a home game against the Lions seems like the perfect wake-up call.
Still, Rice isn’t coming back this week, and new WR addition Hank Baskett is unlikely to make an impact in his first game in purple. If we blame the Vikings’ precipitous drop in effectiveness on Rice, and a rusty Ironman, the Lions should still be facing these Vikings as they are. The Vikes are averaging ten points a game, having faced two top ten defenses. We can posit that against the Lions’ twenty-seventh ranked scoring defense (27.0 ppg), they should score something more like 20-23 points.
Given a slight advantage in execution, and a proven systemic advantage, I expect the Vikings to perform slightly below expectations. With little data about the Vikings’ 2010 offensive norms, I project them to score 17-20 points. I project them to throw for 6.5-7.0 YpA, and rush for 4.5-4.75 YpA. I have medium confidence in this projection.
Well, Brett Favre is Brett Favre, and when Brett Favre Brett Favres ya, you just never know what’s coming and then BOOM! The Lions, as a franchise, have never beaten Brett Favre on his own turf, and there’s a reason for that: Favre is the greatest quarterback of all time, and the Lions have been perennially terrible on the road, and against the pass. They may be better at both this season, but enough to finally take down #4? That’s still a big ask, as humbled as the great one may currently be.
Scott Linehan vs. Leslie Frazier
In the first Vikings Watchtower, I concluded:
given greater or equal talent, Scott Linehan’s balanced offense significantly outperforms its averages when facing a Dungy-style Tampa 2, especially against 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.
Though I wasn't projecting specific point totals at that point in my Watchtowering, I felt as though the 13-point, 2-sack, 2-INT performance by the Lions' offense bore out my conclusion. From the second Watchtower:
I originally concluded that given lesser talent, Scott Linehan’s balanced offense meets or slightly exceeds expectations against a Dungy-style defense, even while allowing more sacks and/or turnovers. This conclusion was confirmed by the results of Week 2.
Again, I’ll refine my original prediction: with lesser talent, and therefore a small-to-zero systemic advantage, the Lions will slightly underperform, or approach, their season averages: 14-17 points scored, 5.0-5.25 YpA, and 3.75-4.0 YpC. I have very high confidence in this prediction.
The Lions actually fell slightly short of this projection, mustering only ten points. Stafford didn’t throw an interception—but this was accomplished by almost never taking a risk. The miniscule 4.39 YpA (51 attempts for only 224 yards!) shows the extensive degree to which the Lions were ankle-biting. If they have any hope of beating Brett Favre and the Vikings this time around, they will not be able to do it by throwing it no farther than they could run it.
So far this year, the Lions are scoring at a well-above-average clip, 23.0 PpG. This is good for 10th-best in the NFL (though, of course, with only two games played, it’s hard to assign that fact much weight). The Vikings’ offense has slipped, but the defense is as stout as ever—through two games, they’ve allowed only 21 offensive points to the Saints and Dolphins combined. It’s worth noting that this same Saints offense averaged 31.9 points last season!
It’s safe to assume the Vikings’ defense will remain a top ten unit. Given their performances with Shaun Hill in, it’s tempting to say that the Lions’ offense will remain a top ten unit as well. Given the propensity for the Lions to outperform averages, especially on the ground, against Minnesota, I think we need to look at their current scoring average, 23.0 points, and make it the target. Given an equal (or slightly lesser) level of talent and execution, and a mild systemic advantage, the Lions should roughly meet their season averages, scoring 20-24 points. They should pass for 6.0-6.5 YpA, and rush for 3.5-3.75 YpC. I have medium confidence in this projection.
There are a slew of these. The Vikings’ defensive averages, as well as the Lions’ offensive averages, are far from solid—they’re both based on just two games. The Lions have played against two (presumably) stout defenses in the Bears and Eagles; yet their average is certainly inflated by the two TDs scored against the Eagles’ prevent defense. Then again, they had a TD on the Bears erroneously taken off the board, so that may be a wash.
Meanwhile, the Vikings have held the vaunted Saints offense to just 14 points, and the much-less-vaunted-but-nothing-to-sneeze-at Dolphins offense to only 7. Even with a systemic advantage tilting the field towards the Lions, this is an extremely stout defense. It makes me very, very nervous.
All the stars are aligning for the Lions: the Vikings offense is in disarray, the numbers seem to point their way, and they've played well enough to win (without winning) for two games. It seems like the dam has to burst, like the time has finally come. Paula Pasche of the Oakland Press has already gone out on a limb and predicted victory; the numbers compel me to do the same. The Brett Favre loss streak, the road loss streak, the axemen ready to chop that limb to the ground? Well, I’ll just have to brave them with her. The most likely outcome of the game is a close Lions win, with above-average rushing performances from both sides, and a 21-17 final score.