The Watchtower: Lions vs. Packers

>> 12.10.2010

packers_tower

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

McC Ornk PgG YpA YpC Gun Drnk PpG DYpA DYpC PTS PTSΔ YpA YpAΔ YpC YpCΔ
NOS 14 21.2 6.43 4.46 TEN 29th 27.2 8.05 4.62 12 -43% 8.04 25% 1.53 -66%
NOS 14 21.8 6.62 3.96 KCC 16th 20.3 6.58 4.10 27 24% 9.59 45% 5.83 47%
GBP 3rd 28.8 7.56 4.30 DET 32nd 30.9 5.42 4.42 26 -10% 9.68 28% 3.57 -17%
GBP 3rd 28.8 7.56 4.30 DET 32nd 30.9 5.42 4.42 34 18% 8.92 18% 2.96 -31%
GBP 7th 25.2 7.68 3.99 DET 25th 25.5 7.18 4.58 21 -17% 10.65 39% 4.28 7%
GBP 7th 25.2 7.68 3.99 DET 25th 25.5 7.18 4.58            

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.

Mitigating/Aggravating Factors:

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:

Ahem.

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

Lin Ornk PgG YpA YpC Dom Drnk PpG DYpA DYpC PTS PTSΔ YpA YpAΔ YpC YpCΔ
MIN 6th 25.3 7.16 4.71 HOU 21st 19.3 6.89 3.92 34 34% 7.92 11% 4.69 0%
STL 30th 14.5 5.67 3.95 MIA 21st 21.6 6.61 2.35 12 -17% 4.26 -25% 4.30 9%
DET 24th 18.1 5.60 3.91 GBP 12th 20.3 6.17 4.46 0 -100% 4.20 -25% 4.33 11%
DET 27th 16.4 7.80 4.42 GBP 7th 18.6 5.96 3.59 12 -27% 4.95 -37% 3.17 -28%
DET 13th 23.2 5.92 3.72 GBP 1st 15.7 6.02 4.49 26 12% 6.13 4% 5.86 58%
DET 13th 23.2 5.92 3.72 GBP 1st 15.7 6.02 4.49            

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.

Mitigating/Augmenting Factors:

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.

Conclusion

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.


9 comments:

SomeChoi December 10, 2010 at 7:32 PM  

Hey Ty,

Off topic I know.

What can we do as fans to get the NFL to start allowing penalty calls to get challenged? No more "game moves so fast I couldn't see it clearly so I threw a flag". Isn't that what replay is for?
Do you think it's an idea whose time has come?

Holly December 11, 2010 at 9:07 AM  

As always, a great look at the game. The only gripe I have is with your list of or injures. We lost RG in W1, not after W4. I'd argue that we hadn't figured out life without RG by then, but I think that's a fairly moot point.

Looking forward to tomorrow. Our D will be looking to settle the score against the team that's scored more than any other opponent. We'll see if they can get it done.

Matt,  December 11, 2010 at 9:38 PM  

SomeChoi, I don't think there's a thing you, me, or anyone else can do about that. There simply has to be a certain amount of infallibility that referees have. Besides, how often do you think the head zebra is going to go under the hood and come out saying "Oh yeah, my teammate's a moron; there's no way that shoulda' been a flag."?

That being said, my own personal belief is that absolutely everything should be challengable as long as the team has timeouts to burn. I really don't get the "Well, you have two challenges. . .unless you use them both and get both right, then you can have a third" system. As long as a team has a timeout to spend, I don't see why they shouldn't be able to throw the red flag. And then, IMHO, they should be able to throw the flag on A-N-Y-T-H-I-N-G.

Anonymous,  December 11, 2010 at 11:00 PM  

i'll be shocked if the lions don't get absolutely smoked tomorrow. we won't win another game until stafford comes back. and even then.

Ty December 12, 2010 at 1:12 AM  

SomeChoi--

No, you're absolutely right on this. That was the first thing I thought, too--when they announced that "judgement call" penalties wouldn't be subject to review, my first thought was, "Aren't those the ones that most need to be reviewed?" If there's a legal definition for a penalty, you ought to be able to determined if a given play fits that definition.

Peace
Ty

Ty December 12, 2010 at 1:17 AM  

Holly--

Ah, crap, you're absolutely right. Thanks for setting me straight! Glad you liked the piece; I'm always nervous going in depth into another team, because I know somebody out there knows them way better than I do. Like, you know, you. So yeah, thanks for the dap--and good game!

Peace
Ty

Ty December 12, 2010 at 1:18 AM  

Matt--

"As long as a team has a timeout to spend, I don't see why they shouldn't be able to throw the red flag. And then, IMHO, they should be able to throw the flag on A-N-Y-T-H-I-N-G."

You and I are in agreement on this issue.

Peace
Ty

Ty December 12, 2010 at 1:22 AM  

Anon--

"i'll be shocked if the lions don't get absolutely smoked tomorrow. we won't win another game until stafford comes back. and even then."

We damn near won last week, against the 8-3 Bears. We even damn nearer (in fact, SHOULD have) won against these Packers in Week 4. Why would you be shocked if it's another near miss?

Peace
Ty

Anonymous,  December 12, 2010 at 9:00 PM  

because it's the lions. haven't you learned your lesson yet?

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