Both the Lions and the Eagles are coming off of excruciating fourth-quarter losses where their starting quarterback was lost, indefinitely, to injury. Both teams desperately need a win to keep their season from going far off-track. The Lions fell short of winning one of the very few winnable games in their early schedule; if they don’t get a win this week they’ll be looking hard at 0-4. If the Eagles open the season with consecutive losses, climbing out of the brutal NFC East and into the playoffs will be a tall task indeed. Lions fans will show up 65,000 strong, hoping against hope that their team can beat a perennial winner. At least that many Eagles fans will be waiting at the airport chanting for Andy Reid’s head, if their team drops one to a perennial loser.
Andy Reid vs. Gunther Cunningham
I broke down these numbers last season when the Lions faced the Rams, and their new offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur. Shurmur is a Reid disciple, and attempted to run Reid’s offense last season with St. Louis’ talent. It didn’t work well; the Rams were the worst offense in the NFL. They averaged only 10.9 points per game. Still, the Xs-and-Os were the same, and so into the numbers I delved. The conclusion:
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.
. . . 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, Andy Reid never had Steven Jackson against the Lions' run defense; the Rams trucked it for a whopping 5.77 YpC that day. However, they scored 17 points, and netted an average of 5.89 yards per pass attempt; rather close to my projection. I often use the master as a guideline for the student, but Pat Shurmur calling plays for The Worst Offense Ever Plus Steven Jackson doesn’t help us model the 2010 Eagles at all, so I can’t include those numbers for this projection. I’ll continue to presume that the Reid offense essentially meets expectations against Cunningham/Schwartz defenses.
But, what are expectations for the Reid offense this year? The switch from Donovan McNabb to Kevin Kolb threw a monkey wrench into one of the most stable units in football; a perennial top-ten offense was going to get a new signal caller for the first time in over a decade. Even if Kolb performs at Donovan McNabb replacement level this year, Kolb won’t take Ford Field on Sunday, Michael Vick will. The threat Michael Vick’s game represents to the Lions defense was brilliantly broken down by Michael Schottey at Bleacher Report:
Vick loves to run up the middle of the field as the pocket is collapsing, picking his way through and leaving jock-less linebackers in his wake.
The Lions defense invites that kind of up-the-middle scrambles with their defensive front alignment. The Lions defense eschews the normal 1-3-5-7 gap scheme and widens out their defensive ends creating (usually) a 1-3-7-9 look.
Even if Vick is perfectly suited to defeat this Fisher/Schwartz/Cunningham defense, though, the Eagles won’t necessarily be more difficult for the Lions to beat with Vick at the helm. Vick is an inconsistent decision-maker, and has never been an accurate downfield passer. We’ve seen so little of what Kolb and Vick can do that we don’t have any baseline for the 2010 Eagles’ offensive power. Either way, it’s safe to assume that the Eagles will be less proficient than last season’s fifth-best 26.8 PpG, though not dramatically less. Given their 20-point performance against a presumed-good Packers D, let’s peg the Eagles’ potential norm for 2010 23.0 PpG.
Just how good is the Lions’ defense? Well, they allowed a whole lot of yards against the Bears’ offense last week—but only 19 points. With a tiny one-week sample size, the Lions currently sit at 9th place in team defense, according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA stat. I don’t think this is an above-average defense, and the timely turnovers that kept dropping into the Lions’ lap won’t keep dropping all season long. I project the Lions to be a mediocre scoring defense, hovering around 20-22nd best, allowing about 21 PpG.
Given all the unknowns about the Eagles' offense, and tentatively mixing the Lions’ defensive performance on Sunday with preseason expectations and eyeball guesstimation, I project the Eagles’s offense to meet expectations on Sunday. They should score slightly more than my projection of their average for 2010: 24-27 points. I have medium-to-low confidence in this projection. According to my prior research, it is possible that the running game will be depressed—but with Vick likely to run well and often, the Eagles’ final team rushing numbers probably won’t look bad at all.
Obviously, Michael Vick is a walking, talking wild card, and his effect on the Lions defense may well be Kryptonitesque. Vick could run wild, drawing the safeties up—and DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin will be free to traumatize the Lions’ secondary. However, Vick also has a history of following a good game with a terrible one—and his “terrible” games are often turnover-laden, drive-killing-mistake-filled affairs. If Vick stops the Eagles’ offense for the Lions, the Eagles could have a long day ahead of them. Also, Vick was brought off the bench in surprise Week 1, and provided a spark—but this will be his first start since Leavenworth. Will a full week to prepare for Vick, Gunther and The Grandmaster may well come up with something to slow #7 down. Indeed, Gunther says such efforts are well underway:
"He's not just a quarterback, he's a runner. So the game changes and your preparation is different. You stay up late at night and you get up early in the morning. If you look at our coaching staff, they all look like zombies today."
Scott Linehan vs. Eagles Defense
The Eagles’ defensive coordinator’s name is Sean McDermott, but he has inherited one of the richest legacies in the NFL: the late, great, Jim Johnson’s defense. Johnson ran a one-gap, blitz-heavy 4-3, and the Eagles’ creative assaults on the quarterback became their calling card for a decade. For more reading material, check out Sports Illustrated’s Tim Layden’s brilliant breakdown of Johnson’s double A gap blitz. The system McDermott runs now is nearly identical to the one Johnson ran; comparison is definitely valid.
In 2004, Scott Linehan’s Vikings faced Johnson’s Eagles twice—as always, an ideal set of circumstances for comparison, since you get two results from the same talent matchup. Of course, the Vikings were ranked 6th in the NFL in scoring offense, averaging 25.3 points per game. They were extremely balanced, netting 7.16 YpA and 4.71 YpC. Meanwhile, the Eagles were the second-best scoring defense in the NFL; they allowed only 16.2 points per game, 5.84 YpA, and 4.31 YpC. As you can see, their pass defense was much more stout than their run defense—but as Ron Jaworksi will repeatedly tell you, points come out of the passing game.
In the first contest, the Vikings scored only 16 points—far below their season average, and exactly matching the Eagles’ season average. This means that the 6th-best offense in the NFL played just like an average victim of the Eagles’ fearsome 2004 defense. Interestingly, the Vikes’ per-play passing effectiveness wasn’t affected. My theory on the scoring depression is that the interception, lost fumble, and four sacks had something to do with the depressed scoring output—that, and the running game’s effectiveness being dropped by half a yard.
In the second contest, the results were nearly identical: only 14 points scored by the Vikings. This time, the passing game was depressed by half a yard per play while the running game met expectations; I chalk this up to what I call the “Whack-a-Mole Effect”. Either way, the vaunted Vikings offense was bottled up again. No lost fumbles this time, but two picks, and three sacks for –28 yards, contributed to the profound lack of points.
As the final data point, we have the 2008 Rams. Their wretched, 30th-ranked unit got Linehan fired—and they went up against the Eagles’ typically sixth-ranked defense. Between the Rams’ average of 14.5 points scored, and the Eagles’ average of 18.1 points allowed, the final result was a pathetic three points, and even that was on a last-quarter field goal in a game that was long since over.
The inescapable conclusion is that given equal or better talent, Jim Johnson’s hyperaggressive one-gap 4-3 defense disproportionately disrupts Scott Linehan’s balanced, conventional offense. Scoring is typically depressed, partially via increased sacks and interceptions. Typically, one dimension of the offense is dramatically less effective than season norms.
Given a strong systemic advantage, and a presumable talent advantage, I project the Lions’ offense to perform below expectations. Even giving the Lions credit for the erroneously discounted touchdown in their projected season scoring average, the Lions should score 13-17 points. I have medium confidence in this projection. If we’re calling 14 the baseline for this season, this is a single-digit number, but I don’t believe that’s the correct performance level for this offense.
Any time you subtract Matthew Stafford from this offense, you’re subtracting an awful lot of scoring potential. If Shaun Hill can step up, and Jahvid Best can find his groove in the lanes not being blitzed through, maybe the Lions can muddle along and meet expectations. Or, you know, the lack of Stafford will allow the Eagles to go crazy with the blitzes, and it’s even worse than it looks like it’ll be. One ray of hope: the Eagles may be without starting middle linebacker Stewart Bradley.
As much as I desperately want to find a reason to hope, as much as I’d like to have found proof that the Eagles are vulnerable, I’ve found nearly the opposite. The offense, which we know will be handcuffed without Stafford, is at both a systemic and talent disadvantage. Even if the defense can bottle up Vick—or if Vick hands the game to the Lions on a turnover platter—the offense will be lucky to score more than twice. The most likely outcome of this game is a “closer than the scoreboard shows” loss by the Lions, with a tense back-and-forth ultimately giving way to a 14-24 final score.