On Sunday, the Lions will make their first trip to Your Company Name Here Stadium, colloquially referred to as “New Meadowlands.” There they will take on New York Giants and Justin Tuck—who dramatically guaranteed on Tuesday that there would be “no ties.” The Lions are 1-4, coming off of a 44-6 blowout of the previously-surprising St. Louis Rams. The Giants are 3-2, feeling their oats after two consecutive wins over the Bears and Texans—during which their fierce pass rush netted 13 sacks. What will happen with the Lions’ red-hot offense meets the Giants’ red-hot defense? As always, I turn to the track record each coordinator has against the other . . .
Scott Linehan vs. Perry Fewell
Okay, you know what? Let’s just get this out of the way right now.
Perry Fewell’s coaching track record is short and sweet. He was initially hired by Tom Coughlin in Jacksonville, in 1998, to serve as the defensive backs coach. Fewell held that post through under defensive coordinators Dick Jauron (!), Dom Capers (!!), Gary Moeller (!?!), and John Pease (???). When Coughlin was broomed after the 2002 season, Fewell caught on with Lovie Smith in St. Louis for 2003 and ‘04, and came with Smith to Chicago in ‘05. When Dick Jauron got hired as the Bills’ head coach in 2006, he tabbed Fewell, his old DB coach, to run the defense. When Jauron was broomed after last season, Tom Coughlin tabbed Fewell, his old DB coach, to run the defense.
What jumps right out at you is the number of “mentors” Fewell has had, and the variety of alignments and systems they play out of. Jauron, Moeller, and Pease ran variations on the traditional one-gap 4-3, Capers runs a 3-4 zone blitz, and Smith is a Tampa 2 disciple. More confusingly, Jauron hired Fewell to install a Tampa 2 variant in Buffalo, and Coughlin hired Fewell to run whatever Fewell wanted in New York. Fewell is one of those rare coaches who is a mixture of the sum of his influences, rather than the heir of a coaching legacy.
One of the most interesting things Justin Tuck said during Tuesday's Subway event was that Fewell listens intently to the players, and tweaks his scheme and playcalling based on what they feel is working, and what they’re seeing on the field. Kawika Mitchell, the former Bills’ linebacker, Tweeted this about Fewell upon the Giants’ hiring of him:
"on the rise. Creative. Listen 2 his players. Gr8 experience especially when u add n his time as interim HC. A lot of respect 4 PF"
So we know that Fewell is flexible and creative, favoring zone defenses behind a one-gap four-man front. The best possible data to use for comparison would be from within this season with New York, or his early Jacksonville days under Coughlin and Jauron. Unfortunately, Scott Linehan didn’t take over an NFL offense until 2002, so there’s no Jacksonville data. Instead, we’ll use Fewell’s time with the Rams (an aggressively-called, but archetypal, Tampa 2) and the Bills (a mix of T2 and traditional 4-3).
In 2003, the Vikings’ offense was in full bloom: 6th in the NFL and scoring 26.0 points per game. The Rams’ defense was 17th, allowing 20.5—though they were likely having to defend more possessions than most, thanks to The Greatest Show on Turf scoring quickly and often. When the two teams met, the Vikings mustered a pathetic 17 points against the Rams’ 48. A first-quarter Culpepper-to-Moss TD pass, a second-quarter field goal, and a 1-yard Moe Williams TD plunge on the next possession accounted for all of the Vikings’ points.
The thing is, the Vikes moved the ball like crazy: 330 passing yards at a 6.88 YpA clip, plus 186 rushing yards at a stonking 7.27 YpC each. This includes a 42-yard scramble by Culpepper—but even without that, we’re talking 5.88 YpC, total domination on the ground. As I noted in my Watchtowering of the Bears, this performance is part of the historical evidence of a systemic advantage for Linehan-offense rushers against Lovie Smith defenses. However, that advantage wasn’t evident against the Bears in Week 1. With the Lions rushing for a limpid 3.63 YpC so far this season, and the Giants not even allowing that much, on the average (3.55 YpC), things look dim for the Lions’ ability to run the ball on Sunday.
How could the 2003 Vikings generate 519 yards of offense and only score 17 points? Well, Daunte Culpepper was at the helm, so the answer is easy: 8 sacks for 54 yards, 3 fumbles, two of which were lost, an interception, and 11 penalties for 65 yards. Now, the fumbles and turnovers are par for the course with the Culpepper-era Vikings, but 8 sacks is egregious even for Daunte. This indicates another factor I’ve seen in previous Watchtowers of aggressive Tampa 2s: an inordinate amount of sacks surrendered.
The other data point we have is much more recent, and likely a better representation of what Fewell’s doing these days (as he was the DC): 2008, when Dick Jauron’s Buffalo Bills took on Scott Linehan’s St. Louis Rams. Unfortunately, this is the worst possible sample of Linehan data: the Rams were rock-bottom awful, and this game is the last one he coached for them.
30th in the NFL, scoring just 14.5 PpG, Linehan’s Rams were the definition of a stoppable force. Their scoring that day was exactly you’d expect when a team scoring about 14 points a game faces a 14th-ranked defense: 14 points. However, they once again dominated on the ground, racking up 167 yards and 2 TDs on 29 carries (5.76 YpA). Their passing effectiveness was well above their season average, too: 7.15 YpA (5.67 on the season). Our conclusions must be similar to what we saw with Lovie Smith's tendencies:
Given greater or equal talent, Perry Fewell's aggressive 4-3 front, zone coverage defenses will surrender a disproportionate amount of yards to Linehan's balanced offense, but also generate high numbers of sacks and turnovers, disproportionately disrupting scoring. Additionally, regardless of talent level, Scott Linehan's inside running game is disproportionately effective against Perry Fewell defenses.
The first factor that mitigates these results is the Lions’ evident lack of a power inside running game. Steven Jackson is Steven Jackson, and the Vikings’ offensive line in 2003 was a thing to behold. Unless Stephen Peterman suddenly regains his 2009 form, Jahvid Best will again struggle to find creases inside. However, Michael Schottey brought up an excellent point on Twitter: The Lions may well use Kevin Smith much more in this game, since he’s the stronger blocker. Smith also runs harder—and he’s clearly much stronger now than he was at the beginning of the season.
The key to the Lions’ offensive performance will be in the running game’s ability to make the defense stay home and contain, rather than pin their ears back and attack—and if Smith (or Best) can make hay in between the tackles, the Lions could be in business. If not, it could be a very long day. Also—turnovers. If the Lions do not turn the ball over at all, they’ll get to turn all those yards between the 20s into points.
Expectations would be that the Lions underperform their season average (25.2 points), and the Giants would allow more than theirs (19.6). Given the Lions’ systemic scoring disadvantage, I project the Lions to score 17-21 points, even while outpacing their season averages through the air (6.50-7.00 YpA) and on the ground (4.00-4.25 YpC). I have medium confidence in this projection.
Gunther Cunningham vs. Kevin Gilbride:
Kevin Gilbride is even more infuriating than Fewell. Gilbride came up as a pure Run ‘n Shoot guru, even working with June Jones. He was the architect of the pinball R&S offenses in Houston, opening up the throttle with Warren Moon, and putting up huge numbers. Gilbride was also Tom Coughlin’s offensive coordinator for his first two seasons in Jacksonville . . . noticing any trends here? Unbranched coaching trees aside, Gilbride used journeyman Steven Beuerlein to great success, and the Jags’ air attack helped them reach a 9-7 record in just their second year of existence.
Enamored of the Jags’ success, the Chargers fired the staid, stuck-in-the past Bobby Ross, and hired Gilbride to be their head coach. They wanted Gilbride’s wide-open passing attack to lead them into the future, and drafted him the triggerman he needed to do it: Ryan Leaf.
That worked about as well as might be expected. Two seasons later, Gilbride was run out on a rail—but was then picked up by none other than Bill Cowher and the Pittsburgh Steelers. Gilbride realized that Kordell Stewart’s slow decision-making ability and often-inaccurate passes wouldn’t be a great fit for the run ‘n shoot, so he simplified and customized his offense, using “Slash” all over the field to great effect. Just look at the first row of season numbers up there: 22 points per game (in the mid-90s, that was 7th-best in the NFL), 6.86 YpA, and—with a mix of Jerome Bettis and Kordell Stewart running the ball—4.78 YpC.
Unfortunately, that offense bears no resemblance at all to what Eli runs in New York, so comparing Gunther’s relative success (or lack thereof) against it would be folly. No, the the only even sort-of comparison we have is 2003, when Gilbride was running the offense in Buffalo under head coach Gregg Williams.
It’s a wretched data point for Gilbride, as Drew Bledsoe really struggled to execute Gilbride’s multi-WR sets. Even with an elite target in Eric Moulds, and a running game featuring Travis Henry and his 1,356 yards, Bledsoe only completed 58.2% of his passes, for 2,860 yards, 11 TDs, and 12 INTs. The Bills were 30th in the NFL in scoring offense, averaging just 15.2 points a game—and Gilbride would be headed for the bread line again at the end of the year.
Meanwhile, Cunningham was working with Jim Schwartz in Tennessee, and their defense was fairly decent: 13th in the NFL, with 20.2 PpG allowed, and especially stout against the run, surrendering only 3.79 YpC. The result seems to blow away expectations, 26 points for the Bills—but 7 of them came on a 28-yard fumble return by Pat Williams. Yes, that Pat Williams, the larger half of the Williams Wall. Has he run 28 consecutive yards before or since?
So, 19 offensive points for the Bills; still mildly above expectations. We see that passing effectiveness was right in line with the averages, but the Titans allowed the Bills to gain over a half-yard more per carry than the Bills usually did—is this indicative of something systemic? Without a second data point, I can’t be sure—and unfortunately, these two coordinators were in and out of work at similar times; I simply don’t have another time they faced off while running anything like the schemes they run today.
Given that Kevin Gilbride now runs a more conventional “New York Giants” offense that includes tight ends and multiple running backs, I do not have enough data to draw any firm conclusions about Gilbride’s offense against a Schwartz/Cunningham defense. There may, however, be a mild systemic advantage for the Giants’ ground game.
Well . . . without any firm conclusions, there’s really nothing to mitigate or augment, is there? Given the paucity of data, I can only conclude that the Giants’ offense will meet expectations against the Lions’ defense: scoring 24-27 points, gaining 7.00-7.50 YpA, and 4.50-4.75 YpC. I have low-to-medium confidence in this projection.
The Lions haven't lost in the Meadowlands since 1990 (H/T: Tom Leyden, via Twitter), which is an incredible thing—but the Lions’ road losing streak is an incredible thing, too, and unless the Giants simply fail to motivate themselves for this game, I don’t see it stopping. With sadness in my heart, I must admit that the mostly likely outcome of the game is a 20-24 Lions loss.