The Bears were the first team I Watchtowered this season. They were also the first team to be Watchtowered in both the 2009 and 2010 seasons. Now, they’re the first team to be Watchtowered twice this season. The situation this time around is much different than in Week 1. The Lions, at the time, seemed poised for a breakthrough season; they had a clear vision and direction, and were primed with the talent to achieve it. The Bears, meanwhile, were all over the place: loads of flashy talent, lots of money spent—but two new coordinators, and a sense that Death was lurking over the shoulder of Lovie Smith’s coaching tenure.
Of course, we know what happened: the referees insanely ruled that Calvin Johnson’s touchdown was not a touchdown, the Lions lost, and the Bears have been winning games ever since. At times they’ve looked wobbly—even farcically inept—but eight times out of eleven, the Bears have beaten their opponent.
. . . well, at least seven times out of eleven.
Scott Linehan vs. Lovie Smith
Last year, I thought I’d identified a strong trend when Linehan offenses meet Lovie Smith defenses, and then the Bears spent last year proving me wrong. In the first Watchtower of this year, I modified my theory slightly:
Given greater or equal talent, Lovie Smith's relatively aggressive Tampa 2 will surrender a disproportionate amount of yards to Linehan's balanced offense, but also generate high numbers of sacks and turnovers, disproportionately disrupting scoring. Given mediocre or poor talent, Lovie Smith’s Tampa 2 surrenders disproportionately high yardage and points, respective to the Linehan offense’s talent level.
. . . I’ll say that based on extremely weak data, the most likely outcome of the game is a close Lions loss, with lots of sacks and turnovers for both sides, and a final score of 24-30.
The Lions only scored 14 points in the official reckoning—but of course, we know they actually scored at least 20, and would likely have gone for 2. Even assuming they don’t convert the two, scoring 20 points slides the average/actual delta from -40% to -15%. The Lions scoring 15% below their mean is not unexpected for the 12th-ranked offense going up against the 2nd-ranked defense. The “sacks and turnovers” certainly were present, though: the Lions were sacked twice for –32 yards, fumbled three times (and lost two), and threw an interception, to boot. Still, though, the Lions produced points when they absolutely needed to. Here was my reaction in the Watchtower Review:
If the Lions were the beneficiary of a systemic advantage that allowed them to move the ball better than usual, either the Lions have an epically bad offense this season, or the Bears are much, much better than commonly thought.
It’s the latter. The addition of Julius Peppers, and the return of Brian Urlacher to form, has this Bears defense playing like Bears defenses of old. Allowing only 15.6 points per game on the average, and equally stiff against the run and pass, the Bears’ defense has been keeping the erratic offense in games. In fact, only the Seahawks and Eagles have topped the Lions’ “20-point” performance against these 2010 Bears. But, can the Lions repeat the feat?
Of course, the big difference between these two games is that Matthew Stafford and Jahvid Best started the first game, and Drew Stanton and Maurice Morris will be starting this one. However, Stafford famously didn’t finish that game—and Best mustered only 20 yards on 14 carries. So, then, the Lions shouldn’t be too far off their typical pace, unless Stanton completely implodes. Also, note that the Lions’ mean YpA- and YpC-gained figured nearly match the Bears’ means allowed (5.86/5.77 YpA, 3.59/3.58 YpC). Therefore, given a mild yard-producing advantage for Scott Linehan balanced offenses against Lovie Smith aggressive Tampa 2 defenses, I project the Lions to roughly meet expectations: 17-21 points, 5.50-6.0 YpA, and 3.50-3.75 YpC. I have medium-to-high confidence in this projection.
Besides injuries (the Lions are missing their top two quarterbacks, and functionally missing their top two running backs), the main factor is the swing from a season-opening road game to a somewhat-meaningless home game. This is a classic trap game, and it’s already a sellout. If Drew Stanton (and the offensive line) can play like he did (and they did) against the Giants, the Lions could do at least this well, and possibly better. If Drew implodes with turnovers, as he did in his only previous start . . . disaster.
Mike Martz vs. Gunther Cunningham:
Here’s what I said in the previous Watchtower:
When the two teams faced one another, it was a study in averages: Martz’s offense produced exactly to its season mean in points, and very nearly so in YpA. Now, the Chiefs did manage to bottle up the run game, allowing only 3.3 YpC—and they also snared three interceptions, and garnered four sacks. Then again, Martz’s offense was notorious for surrendering both picks and sacks in the name of scoring. So, we only have one data point, and it points toward neither side having a systemic advantage or disadvantage. The two teams should play to their (relatively unknown) talent and execution levels.
Given that the Lions allowed 30.9 points last season, and given that they’re presumably improved, I’ll presume that they’re presumably good enough to allow the Bears to reach their season averages for 2010—which, of course, is a total guess anyway, since the one thing Martz does everywhere he goes is inflate scoring over the prior year. Let’s just call it thirty points. This is a guess and not a prediction, and I have extremely low confidence in it.
. . . and in the review:
On defense, Cutler and the Bears moved the ball with incredible ease; 10.62 YpA show that yards were coming in chunks through the air. Despite averaging only 3.25 YpC, the Bears continued to feed the ground game, too: 31 carries at that rate is good for 101 yards. Fortunately, the Lions managed to snare an interception, recover three fumbles, and sack Jay Cutler four times—and the timeliness of said turnovers kept points off the board. Even better was the tremendous four-down goal line stand. It was a signature performance by the defensive line, and it kept the game in the Lions’ control—for a little while, at least.
Going forward, the defense will probably be less spectacularly vulnerable; the Martz offense specifically attacks the Lions' defense's greatest weaknesses. Then again, the defense may well be less spectacular; the Martz offense’s greatest weaknesses played to the Lions’ defense’s strength. Even given the way the back seven was—for the most part—traumatized by the Bears, the Lions’ D played with enough heart, and enough pass rush, to make me think there’s hope for this team despite the painful loss.
That’s proved to be prescient: the Lions have played with a lot of heart, and a lot of pass rush, to this point—but there’s also been an awful lot of trauma in the back seven. Hope? Well, sure, there’s been that, but more for the 2011 harvest than the 2010 vintage. The only important cogs missing for either unit will be Bears’ OLB Pina Tinoisamoa, and Lions’ DE Kyle Vanden Bosch—who put up one of the most amazing individual performances I’ve seen in the first game. With luck, a finally-healthy-ish Cliff Avril, Lawrence Jackson, and Turk McBride will keep up the intensity. Oh, and the Lions will play with DeAndre Levy, who wasn’t available for the first matchup.
It looks as though the only statistical trend for these two coaches, when facing off against one another, is that both units will play to their means: the 20.2-ppg Bears scored 19 against the 22.4-ppg Lions. Note, however, that that included about thirty minutes of shutout play in between Matt Forte receiving touchdowns. Given the data at hand, I’m inclined to project a repeat performance: 17-21 points, 7.50-8.00 YpA, and 4.0-4.25 YpC. I have medium confidence in this projection.
Not many. The Bears have been slowly evolving from a high variance, pitch-it-around scheme to a more safe and predictable spread-then-run approach. Cutler’s cut down on some of the wildness, and the offensive line’s been bailed out with shorter routes and drops. What they’ve done is take some of the teeth out of the offense, in exchange for committing fewer mistakes—the end result, though, is mostly unchanged: the defense is winning games for the Bears. The major difference is, they’ve realized it and are playing to that strength. Unless Martz releases the hounds, and the Bears go full-out track meet against the Lions’ secondary, I see a similar, if less wild, final result.
The one thing I’ve learned over the past two years of doing this preview, is that when the same teams play twice in a season, the results are rarely the same. But the data points to a repeat—and the injury problems for the Lions should be offset by the difference between a season-opening road game, and a midseason sellout. This is a statement game in many respects, and turnovers will likely make the difference. Last time, there were five fumbles (three lost), two picks, and 6 sacks for –42 yards. I see a similarly messy game this time around; how those turnovers and sacks are distributed will be the difference in the outcome. I am tempted to call this a draw, but at this point in the season, I’ll go out on a limb one more time—despite having a limb hacked out from underneath me three times already this season. I hesitantly project a 21-20 Lions victory, if for no other reason than the Lions need it much more than the Bears want it.