The Packers are sitting at 8-4, one game behind the Bears in the race to the top of the NFC North. The Lions are sitting at 2-10, three games ahead of the Vikings in the race to the bottom of the NFC North. By the Simple Ranking System, both teams are much, much better than their record implies: the Packers’s value is 10.0; #2 in the NFL. Meanwhile, the Lions are valued at 0.0, and ranked 16th. Statistically speaking, the Lions are the median team: right smack dab in the middle of the NFL, in terms of relative strength. But is that enough to compete with the mighty Pack, even before a sold-out Ford Field?
Mike McCarthy vs. Gunther Cunningham
In the last Watchtowering of the Packers, I discussed the very strong statistical trend we’ve seen when Mike McCarthy faces Gunther Cunningham:
Given equal or greater talent, Gunther Cunningham’s aggressive 4-3 disproportionately disrupts Mike McCarthy’s downfield flavor of the Bill Walsh offense. Given lesser talent, Gunther’s 4-3 will cap offensive production with sacks and turnovers, even while allowing better-than-average offensive effectiveness between the 20s.
In the last two meetings, however, the Packers’ offense has underperformed even this. In both cases, the Packers scored the amount of points I projected—but with the help of a defensive touchdown, meaning the offense was a full TD below what expectations project. Last time, I projected the Packers to do the following:
With the Lions possessing a systemic advantage against the Packers’ already injury-weakened running game, and in depressing the Packers’ scoring, I project the Pack will fall just short of their season average, scoring 24-27 points. I have very high confidence in this projection.
Given the depth and specificity of the data we’ve got, and the special circumstances surrounding the matchup, I’ll take the opportunity to get a little more specific: I cite my Whack-A-Mole principle, and project that the Lions will concede the run to the Packers, allowing 3.75-4.0 YpC, in order to focus primarily on the pass, which should yield 7.5-8.25 YpA. Further, I predict the Lions will sack the Packers four to six times.
The Pack did bomb it down the field, picking up 10.65 YpA—but with only 17 attempts, and two of those picked off, that only amounted to 181 yards. The Lions did cede the run to the Pack in the process: 4.28 YpC. The Lions sacked the Packers twice (on only 19 dropbacks), though, and recovered two fumbles in addition to those two INTs. The disruption in scoring is obvious: the Packers are the 7th-best scoring offense in football this year, averaging 25.2 PpG, and the Lions—the 25th-ranked defense—held them to just 21 offensive points. Keep in mind, the Lions have been allowing 25.5 points per game on the average; to hold the 7th-best offense to less than what you’ve been allowing on average all year is an impressive feat.
So. The Lions are allowing 25.5 points per game, the Packers are scoring 25.2 points per game. The Lions have since put their #1 DE, Kyle Vanden Bosch, and #2 corner, Alphonso Smith, on Injured Reserve. However, the Packers have since lost #1 RB Ryan Grant, and #1 TE Jermichael Finley to injuries, as well. The last game was at Lambeau, but this game will be a a Packer-fan-filled Ford Field. As I said last week, rarely do two meetings between two teams in the same season end up with the same result, but all the factors seem to cancel each other out.
It seems unlikely that the Lions’ defense does that well against an offense that good twice in a row, though, so I’m going to project the Packers to slightly underperform scoring expectations: gaining 23-26 points. I expect the Lions to be more successful defending the pass with zone coverage, allowing 8.0-8.5 YpA, at the expense of fewer interceptions. The Lions will likely cede the run to the Packers again, allowing 4.25-4.5 YpC. I have high confidence in this projection.
Again, with such a consistent trend, and a prior game this season, everything above is a mitigating or aggravating factor—we’re just looking to see what will modify what happened before. As I said, in Week 4, the Lions managed to hold the Packers’ offense to as few points as can be expected, given how effective they were on a per-play basis. If the same offense shows up this week, I don’t see the Lions being so fortunate. On the other hand . . .
This week, ESPN NFC North blogger Kevin Seifert pointed out that Greg Jennings has put the team on his back, much like the (uproariously NSFW-audio-laden) Madden clip we all know and love:
Look for the Lions to drop eight men into coverage on a regular basis, essentially the same game plan we saw against the Patriots on Thanksgiving. The idea is to get enough rush from the front four to slow down the Pack’s offense just long enough for the Lions’ offense to outscore them. Greg Jennings will be the key to this game for the Packers’ offense. If the Lions can stop him with double- and triple-teams, I don’t think Donald Driver and Donald Lee will be enough to score more than the 23-26 I project, if enough to score that much at all.
Scott Linehan vs. Dom Capers
Last year, I thought I’d identified a systemic advantage for Scott Linehan against Dom Capers (and most 3-4 defenses), where the running game was disproportionately effective, and scoring was therefore disproportionately higher. Then, Daunte Culpepper went out and Daunte Culpeppered the Lions to a big stinky shutout in their first matchup against the Pack, seemingly blowing my theory out of the water. However, this season has shown that my initial conclusion has legs.
This year, the Packers have the #1 scoring defense in the NFL. Yes, that’s right, let me say that again: this year, the Packers have the #1 scoring defense in the NFL. You wouldn’t know it from how little attention this fact has received, but it’s true. Nevertheless, Shaun Hill led the Lions to a 26-point day against these Packers on the road, and his 40-yard scramble led the Lions’ rushing attack to an impressive 5.86 YpC.
In the comments on the last Watchtower, commenter Matt pointed out that a lot of the Packers’ rushing yards allowed to that point were gained by Michael Vick—and sure enough, the Packers allowed the Lions some significant scramble yardage, as well. I replied in the Watchtower Review:
My notion that Green Bay is generally struggling against the run this year was false. However, we may have stumbled upon something interesting: are Green Bay’s nickel packages especially susceptible to quarterback runs? With a three-man front attempting to rush the passer, and one or more linebackers blitzing, it would make sense that there’s a giant gaping hole in the middle of the field. I’ll be keeping an eye on this throughout the season . . . and for the next Watchtower.
Well, I can’t find an quick answer for how many yards the Packers have been surrendering to rushing quarterbacks, or if that total’s unusually high. However, the Packers are allowing 4.49 YpC on the ground, 7th-worst in the NFL—so clearly, my notion that the Packers are generally struggling against the run was true. Further, the Lions will be starting Drew Stanton, whose running ability is well-known, and whom the Lions have never hesitated to call designed running plays for. I expect to see at least one rushing touchdown, or 20-plus-yard scramble, from Drew Stanton on Sunday.
Typically, the Lions are outgained by their opponents, but keep games close with red-zone defense, sacks, and turnovers. However, against the Packers, the Lions actually far outgained the Pack, outrushing them 123 to 91, and outpassing them 331 to 181. It was only a slew of costly penalties that kept the Lions from scoring thirty or more the last time around. I don’t expect the Lions to put up 454 yards against the Packers this time around, but I do project them to be more productive with their yards: scoring 17-23 points, gaining 4.50-5.00 YpC, and throwing for 5.75-6.00 YpA.
First, this presumes that Drew Stanton plays like he did last week: an efficient, effective, conservative backup quarterback. If Stanton has a regression to his “2009 49ers game” form, this will be an ugly blowout. However, there’s an X factor here named Jahvid Best. We saw a return to form last week, and if he still has that burst, that bounce, he could do an awful lot of damage against a Green Bay defense that’s lost three of its top five linebackers for the year. Finally, in the first matchup, Brandon Pettigrew made a lot more headlines for the two or three crucial passes he dropped, than the eight he caught for 91 yards. Likely being matched up against A.J. Hawk, as 49ers TE Vernon Davis was last week (4 catches, 126 yards, 1 TD) could result in a field day for Jumbotron.
The Lions gave the Packers their best shot in Week 4, and lost the game mostly by shooting themselves in the foot. Between a truly massive amount of penalties (13 for 102 yards), and the now-obligatory Charles Woodson pick-six, the Lions let the Packers off the hook. As I said above, it’s hard to believe that the Lions could play that well against a team as talented as Green Bay twice in once season—and yet, it’s there. It’s there for them, again. They lost by two on the road before, they can win this one at home. They can . . . but they won’t. Here’s what I said at the end of the last Watchtower:
I'd love to say that this Packer team, struggling so mightily to run and stop the run, is primed for an upset. But the talent gap between these teams is still too large, especially when considering the almost-two-decade-long streak of Lambeau futility the Lions are riding. I project another tantalizingly close game, with an outstanding day by the defensive line—marred by the back seven yielding to one of the best passing attacks in the game. This will be an extremely painful 17-24 defeat.
CTRL-C, CTRL-V, folks. This will be an extremely painful 17-24 defeat.