The Jets are coming off of an embarrassing loss at home. The Lions are coming off of an ugly victory at home. The Jets are a national media darling, a preseason Super Bowl contender coming off an improbable run to the AFC Championship. The Lions are a national media whipping boy; if they’re ever mentioned, it’s as a punchline. The 5-2 Jets are a game behind the Patriots in the AFC East, and need a win to keep pace. The 2-5 Lions are effectively three games behind the Packers and Bears, likelyplaying for nothing more than pride.
Brian Schottenheimer vs. Gunther Cunningham
In prior Watchtowers, I’ve struggled sometimes to distinguish between a coordinator and their mentor. Bears DC Rod Marinelli is a slavish disciple of Monte Kiffin’s Tampa 2; schematically, Marinelli and Kiffin are interchangeable. I can then fairly translate Scott Linehan’s success against one to his success against the other. On the other end of the spectrum, Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians learned under everyone from Ken Whisenhunt to Butch Davis to Bear Bryant (!). With Brian Schottenheimer, there’s an obvious mentor: his father and longtime boss, Marty. However, the obvious avatar is a false one.
Brian Schottenheimer didn't learn offense by studying at his father’s knee; didn’t kneel before the altar of the run-first offense they call Martyball. No, Brian Schottenheimer learned offense by playing for Steve Spurrier. According to an excellent piece by Thomas George at NFL.com, Schottenheimer displayed an astonishing level of self-awareness for a college kid. After playing quarterback at Kansas for a year, he realized he’d never play in the pros—so he transferred to Florida, with the intention of becoming a three-time All-American clipboard holder.
Schottenheimer then worked as an assistant under Dick Vermeil in St. Louis, Marty at Kansas City, Paul Pasqualoni at Syracuse, and Paul Hackett at USC. Finally, he got his first full-fledged quarterbacks coach gig, as part of Marty’s Redskins staff. Unfortunately, it lasted only one year—when Marty was then broomed to make way for . . . Steve Spurrier. If that’s not ironic enough for you, that second stop—“Marty at Kansas City?” Yeah, guess who was standing on the sidelines with him, running the defense? None other than Gunther Cunningham. I’m sure these men know each other very well, personally and professionally.
Schotty the Younger followed his father to San Diego, where for four seasons he served as quarterbacks coach. He mentored both Drew Brees and Philip Rivers there, earning him a reputation as a QB groomer. For 2006, new Jets coach Eric Mangini hired Brian to his first offensive coordinatorship; it’s here where I’d prefer start Brian’s track record as a schemer and playcaller.
Unfortunately, Gunther Cunningham hasn’t faced Brian Schottenheimer since then. I thought about using data from Spurrier’s time in the NFL, but when I looked at the schemes and philosophies of the Jets offense and Spurrier’s, I realized that the end result is closer to Martyball than Fun n’ Gun—the Jets have almost perfect 50/50 run-pass balance, and they’re much better at running than passing. So, with caveats in place, we go to work:
In 2004, the Chargers had a juggernaut of an offense. With Drew Brees having his breakout year (3,159 yards, 27 TDs, 7 INTs), and a 25-year-old LaDanian Tomlinson rolling everybody, San Diego was the 3rd-most potent offense in the NFL (27.9 ppg). Gunther’s Kansas City Chiefs (under Dick Vermeil, another Brian S. mentor) were a miserable 29th, allowing 27.2 points per game. It went about as you’d expect, with San Diego scoring 34 points, averaging 10.22 yards per attempt, and gaining 4.10 yards per carry.
But Gunther had some tricks up his sleeve for his old boss in the second meeting. This time, he essentially surrendered the run (4.78 YpC), and attacked the pass, forcing 2 sacks, 4 fumbles, and an interception, lowering YpA to 7.48, and holding the San Diego offense to just 24 points. It’s not often that the 3rd-ranked offense faces the 29th-ranked defense and scores less than its average for the year . . .
In 2005, the gap between the two units was much smaller. The Chargers were the 5th-best offense, scoring 26.1 PpG. The Chiefs’ D was vastly improved: ranked 16th, allowing 20.3 PpG—a full touchdown per game less than the year before. The results of the first matchup, however, were more like the the first meeting in 2004: 28 points for the Chargers. They gained 341 yards through the air at a 8.07 YpA clip—though Tomlinson’s 17-for-69 effort dragged the Chargers down to a meager 3.77 team YpC. Again, these results exactly meet expectations when the 5th-ranked offense faces the 16th-ranked defense: the O does a little bit better than usual.
In the second matchup, however, Cuther returned to his prior strategy: attack the pass. Brees completed just 18-of-33 passes (54.5%), for a meager 161 yards, 1 TD, and 1 INT. He was sacked once (by Jared Allen), and receiver Eric Parker lost a fumble. Holding the passing attack to just 4.88 YpA, the vaunted Chargers’ offense scored only seven points.
From this data, the inescapable conclusion is that regardless of talent level, Marty Schottenheimer’s run-heavy offenses meet expectations against Gunther Cunningham’s defense—when the passing game is exceptionally effective. Marty Schottenheimer offenses perform profoundly below expectations against Gunther Cunningham defenses when the passing game is ineffective.
In 2010, Brian Schottenheimer’s Jets offense is ranked 12th in the NFL, scoring 22.7 points per game. The Lions’ defense is ranked 23rd, allowing 22.4 PpG. The Jets have only mustered 5.95 YpA—but their running game, featuring LaDanian Tomlinson (!), is bowling people over to the tune of 4.84 YpC. Yes, on the average. Yes, for the whole season. Meanwhile, the Lions are allowing 4.79 YpC—doubtlessly the Jets will be able to run. They may be able to pass, too, considering the Lions 7.13 allowed YpA.
If we assume that the 2004-2005 Chargers provide a representative sample of Brian Schottenheimer’s schematic and playcalling tendencies, the Jets’s offense will either meet—or vastly underperform—expectations against Gunther Cunningham’s aggressive 4-3 defense, depending on which phase of the offense the Lions attack. Given the recent success of the Lions’ pass rush and secondary, I expect the Lions to attack the pass—and therefore, I project the Jets to score 10-13 points. Unfortunately, because we’re working off of a possibly fallacious assumption—the 2004-2005 Chargers’s offense being interchangeable with the 2010 Jets—I have very low confidence in this projection. If there were no systemic advantage or disavantage, the expectation for the Jets’ offense against the Lions’ defense would be 24-27 points.
Obviously, there’s a lot of ifs, ands, and buts in the above paragraph—more than I usually allow myself. But seeing what the Packers did to the Jets’ offense on Sunday, and knowing the way the Lions’ defensive line is playing, and knowing what Gunther can do against offenses he knows well, I have to believe that they go after Sanchez hard. The success he had against Marty and Brian’s Chargers offenses—which were much better than this Jets unit—leads me to believe that’s the correct ballpark for the Jets’ offensive production. Then again, if Tomlinson and/or Greene can really get rolling, perhaps the Lions’ defense can’t get off the field on third down, and the baseline expectations will be what goes down. I really don’t see anything in between; either I’m right and the Jets are held to less than two TDs, or I’m wrong and the Jets score 24 or more.
Scott Linehan vs. Rex Ryan
There’s only one data point for this matchup, and it’s profoundly depressing. Linehan faced off against Rex Ryan in 2007—without Steven Jackson. Linehan’s 28th-ranked offense was scraping together 16.4 PpG; even Ryan’s worse-than-usual 2007 unit was way, way more than it could handle. Despite being ranked only 22nd itself, and allowing a rather healthy 24.0 PpG, the Ravens’ unit stomped the Rams into the ground. They held a committee of Travis Minor, Brian Leonard, and Antonio Pittman to just 2.48 YpC. They allowed only 5.48 YpA, sacked Gus Frerotte four times and intercepted him five times.
Given the paucity of data, I'm loathe to conclude anything, but that’s just too strong of an effect. There’s no way the 22nd-ranked defense should dominate the 28th-ranked defense like that, unless there’s a schematic advantage. What I’m saying here is, the Rams were really, really, really bad—but not that bad. Therefore, I’m going to conclude that given lesser talent, Scott Linehan’s balanced offense is disproportionately disrupted by Rex Ryan’s hyperaggressive 3-4 defense. Sacks and interceptions profoundly depress scoring output. The effect is unknown with greater or equal talent.
The 2010 Lions are the 6th-ranked offense in the NFL, averaging a robust 25.2 points per game. Amazingly, they’re doing it while averaging a mediocre 5.95 YpA, and less-than-mediocre 3.63 YpC. Meanwhile, the Jets are the #2 defense in the NFL, allowing just 15.7 points per game, 6.17 YpA, and 3.43 YpC. With no systemic advantage or disadvantage, expectations for the Lions’ offense versus the Jets’ defense would be set at 17-21 points. However, if we apply this perceived disadvantage when facing Rex Ryan defenses, I project the Lions will score 15-17 points. I have low-to-medium confidence in this projection.
Thanks to just the one data point, this is a pretty shaky conclusion. Further, it’s tough to tell just how bad the 2007 Rams were—that Ravens game was arguably the lowest point of their entire year, and some initial decent performances brought up their yearly average. Nevertheless, those Rams took an epic pounding; there’s a very real chance that Ryan fools Stafford with some looks, and the Jets get two, three, four, or more picks. If Stafford or Best step up and have a massive day, the Lions might be able to put more than what I’ve projected on the table—but I don’t expect that. These numbers are likely realistic.
The data that tells me Gunther knows how to stop his former boss (and his son, a former co-worker). My instincts tell me that a team the Packers shut out at home won’t put up 24-27 against this defense in front of a sold-out Ford Field. Despite all the ways I could be proven wrong, I’m going to go with the data and my gut. The most likely outcome of the game is a 17-13 Lions win. As a corrollary, I have a sneaking suspicion that a special teams or defensive touchdown may either widen the gap for the Lions, or flip the script in the Jets’ favor.