The Watchtower: Lions vs. Eagles

>> 9.17.2010


Both the Lions and the Eagles are coming off of excruciating fourth-quarter losses where their starting quarterback was lost, indefinitely, to injury.  Both teams desperately need a win to keep their season from going far off-track.  The Lions fell short of winning one of the very few winnable games in their early schedule; if  they don’t get a win this week they’ll be looking hard at 0-4.  If the Eagles open the season with consecutive losses, climbing out of the brutal NFC East and into the playoffs will be a tall task indeed.  Lions fans will show up 65,000 strong, hoping against hope that their team can beat a perennial winner.  At least that many Eagles fans will be waiting at the airport chanting for Andy Reid’s head, if their team drops one to a perennial loser.

Andy Reid vs. Gunther Cunningham

Reid Gun Ornk PgG YpA YpC Drnk PpG DYpA DYpC PTS YpA INT YpC Fum Sack
PHI TEN 4th 25.9 6.18 4.54 11th 20.2 6.30 3.83 24 5.89 2 3.64 1-1 6-31
PHI KCC 18th 19.4 5.93 3.92 16th 20.3 6.58 4.10 31 7.69 1 1.65 3-1 1-1

I broke down these numbers last season when the Lions faced the Rams, and their new offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur.  Shurmur is a Reid disciple, and attempted to run Reid’s offense last season with St. Louis’ talent.  It didn’t work well; the Rams were the worst offense in the NFL.  They averaged only 10.9 points per game.  Still, the Xs-and-Os were the same, and so into the numbers I delved.  The conclusion:

Given how loosely connected these two data points are to Pat Shurmur, and how wildly they vary between each other, I cannot draw a firm conclusion, other than Reid/Shurmur Walsh-style offenses run the football well below expectations when facing a Schwartz/Cunningham aggressive 4-3.

. . . Therefore, given no talent advantage for either side, and only a very questionable systemic advantage for Cunningham defenses against the running game of Reid/Shurmur offenses, I expect the Rams' output will meet expectations. This means they should outpace their season averages: I project 10-13 points, 5.60-5.80 YpA, and 4.5-4.75 YpA. I have medium-low confidence in this projection.

Well, Andy Reid never had Steven Jackson against the Lions' run defense; the Rams trucked it for a whopping 5.77 YpC that day.  However, they scored 17 points, and netted an average of 5.89 yards per pass attempt; rather close to my projection.  I often use the master as a guideline for the student, but Pat Shurmur calling plays for The Worst Offense Ever Plus Steven Jackson doesn’t help us model the 2010 Eagles at all, so I can’t include those numbers for this projection.  I’ll continue to presume that the Reid offense essentially meets expectations against Cunningham/Schwartz defenses.

But, what are expectations for the Reid offense this year?  The switch from Donovan McNabb to Kevin Kolb threw a monkey wrench into one of the most stable units in football; a perennial top-ten offense was going to get a new signal caller for the first time in over a decade.  Even if Kolb performs at Donovan McNabb replacement level this year, Kolb won’t take Ford Field on Sunday, Michael Vick will.  The threat Michael Vick’s game represents to the Lions defense was brilliantly broken down by Michael Schottey at Bleacher Report:

Vick loves to run up the middle of the field as the pocket is collapsing, picking his way through and leaving jock-less linebackers in his wake.

The Lions defense invites that kind of up-the-middle scrambles with their defensive front alignment. The Lions defense eschews the normal 1-3-5-7 gap scheme and widens out their defensive ends creating (usually) a 1-3-7-9 look.

Even if Vick is perfectly suited to defeat this Fisher/Schwartz/Cunningham defense, though, the Eagles won’t necessarily be more difficult for the Lions to beat with Vick at the helm.  Vick is an inconsistent decision-maker, and has never been an accurate downfield passer.  We’ve seen so little of what Kolb and Vick can do that we don’t have any baseline for the 2010 Eagles’ offensive power.  Either way, it’s safe to assume that the Eagles will be less proficient than last season’s fifth-best 26.8 PpG, though not dramatically less.  Given their 20-point performance against a presumed-good Packers D, let’s peg the Eagles’ potential norm for 2010 23.0 PpG. 

Just how good is the Lions’ defense?  Well, they allowed a whole lot of yards against the Bears’ offense last week—but only 19 points.  With a tiny one-week sample size, the Lions currently sit at 9th place in team defense, according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA stat.  I don’t think this is an above-average defense, and the timely turnovers that kept dropping into the Lions’ lap won’t keep dropping all season long.  I project the Lions to be a mediocre scoring defense, hovering around 20-22nd best, allowing about 21 PpG. 

Given all the unknowns about the Eagles' offense, and tentatively mixing the Lions’ defensive performance on Sunday with preseason expectations and eyeball guesstimation, I project the Eagles’s offense to meet expectations on Sunday.  They should score slightly more than my projection of their average for 2010: 24-27 points.  I have medium-to-low confidence in this projection.  According to my prior research, it is possible that the running game will be depressed—but with Vick likely to run well and often, the Eagles’ final team rushing numbers probably won’t look bad at all.

Mitigating/Augmenting Influences:

Obviously, Michael Vick is a walking, talking wild card, and his effect on the Lions defense may well be Kryptonitesque.  Vick could run wild, drawing the safeties up—and DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin will be free to traumatize the Lions’ secondary.  However, Vick also has a history of following a good game with a terrible one—and his “terrible” games are often turnover-laden, drive-killing-mistake-filled affairs.  If Vick stops the Eagles’ offense for the Lions, the Eagles could have a long day ahead of them.  Also, Vick was brought off the bench in surprise Week 1, and provided a spark—but this will be his first start since Leavenworth.  Will a full week to prepare for Vick, Gunther and The Grandmaster may well come up with something to slow #7 down.  Indeed, Gunther says such efforts are well underway:

"He's not just a quarterback, he's a runner. So the game changes and your preparation is different. You stay up late at night and you get up early in the morning. If you look at our coaching staff, they all look like zombies today."

Scott Linehan vs. Eagles Defense

Lin JJ Ornk PgG YpA YpC Drnk PpG DYpA DYpC PTS YpA INT YpC Fum Sack
MIN PHI 6th 25.3 7.16 4.71 2nd 16.2 5.84 4.31 16 7.30 1 4.11 3-1 4-11
MIN PHI 6th 25.3 7.16 4.71 2nd 16.2 5.84 4.31 14 6.72 2 4.62 1-0 3-28
STL PHI 30th 14.5 5.67 3.95 6th 18.1 5.55 3.51 3 6.08 0 2.40 1-0 4-28

The Eagles’ defensive coordinator’s name is Sean McDermott, but he has inherited one of the richest legacies in the NFL: the late, great, Jim Johnson’s defense.  Johnson ran a one-gap, blitz-heavy 4-3, and the Eagles’ creative assaults on the quarterback became their calling card for a decade.  For more reading material, check out Sports Illustrated’s Tim Layden’s brilliant breakdown of Johnson’s double A gap blitz.  The system McDermott runs now is nearly identical to the one Johnson ran; comparison is definitely valid. 

In 2004, Scott Linehan’s Vikings faced Johnson’s Eagles twice—as always, an ideal set of circumstances for comparison, since you get two results from the same talent matchup.  Of course, the Vikings were ranked 6th in the NFL in scoring offense, averaging 25.3 points per game.  They were extremely balanced, netting 7.16 YpA and 4.71 YpC.  Meanwhile, the Eagles were the second-best scoring defense in the NFL; they allowed only 16.2 points per game, 5.84 YpA, and 4.31 YpC.  As you can see, their pass defense was much more stout than their run defense—but as Ron Jaworksi will repeatedly tell you, points come out of the passing game.

In the first contest, the Vikings scored only 16 points—far below their season average, and exactly matching the Eagles’ season average.  This means that the 6th-best offense in the NFL played just like an average victim of the Eagles’ fearsome 2004 defense.  Interestingly, the Vikes’ per-play passing effectiveness wasn’t affected.  My theory on the scoring depression is that the interception, lost fumble, and four sacks had something to do with the depressed scoring output—that, and the running game’s effectiveness being dropped by half a yard.

In the second contest, the results were nearly identical: only 14 points scored by the Vikings.  This time, the passing game was depressed by half a yard per play while the running game met expectations; I chalk this up to what I call the “Whack-a-Mole Effect”.  Either way, the vaunted Vikings offense was bottled up again.  No lost fumbles this time, but two picks, and three sacks for –28 yards, contributed to the profound lack of points.

As the final data point, we have the 2008 Rams.  Their wretched, 30th-ranked unit got Linehan fired—and they went up against the Eagles’ typically sixth-ranked defense.  Between the Rams’ average of 14.5 points scored, and the Eagles’ average of 18.1 points allowed, the final result was a pathetic three points, and even that was on a last-quarter field goal in a game that was long since over.

The inescapable conclusion is that given equal or better talent, Jim Johnson’s hyperaggressive one-gap 4-3 defense disproportionately disrupts Scott Linehan’s balanced, conventional offense.  Scoring is typically depressed, partially via increased sacks and interceptions.  Typically, one dimension of the offense is dramatically less effective than season norms.

Given a strong systemic advantage, and a presumable talent advantage, I project the Lions’ offense to perform below expectations.  Even giving the Lions credit for the erroneously discounted touchdown in their projected season scoring average, the Lions should score 13-17 points.  I have medium confidence in this projection.  If we’re calling 14 the baseline for this season, this is a single-digit number, but I don’t believe that’s the correct performance level for this offense.

Mitigating/Augmenting Influences:

Any time you subtract Matthew Stafford from this offense, you’re subtracting an awful lot of scoring potential.  If Shaun Hill can step up, and Jahvid Best can find his groove in the lanes not being blitzed through, maybe the Lions can muddle along and meet expectations.  Or, you know, the lack of Stafford will allow the Eagles to go crazy with the blitzes, and it’s even worse than it looks like it’ll be.  One ray of hope: the Eagles may be without starting middle linebacker Stewart Bradley.


As much as I desperately want to find a reason to hope, as much as I’d like to have found proof that the Eagles are vulnerable, I’ve found nearly the opposite.  The offense, which we know will be handcuffed without Stafford, is at both a systemic and talent disadvantage.  Even if the defense can bottle up Vick—or if Vick hands the game to the Lions on a turnover platter—the offense will be lucky to score more than twice.  The most likely outcome of this game is a “closer than the scoreboard shows” loss by the Lions, with a tense back-and-forth ultimately giving way to a 14-24 final score.


Tinderbox: Sellout!

>> 9.16.2010

ford-field-seating  . . . or close enough.  The Lions have been granted a 24-hour extension to sell out Sunday’s game, which typically means they have an agreement in place to sell any remainders to a local business.  This means those of us who live close enough to Detroit to root for the Lions, but far enough from Detroit to make going to the games a chore, will be able to watch on TV without dragging themselves (and their children, if applicable) to a far-flung bar.  This is good.

Louis Delmas and DeAndre Levy practiced Thursday morning, meaning it’s highly likely they’ll be available against the Eagles—and thank goodness; the defense will need all the help it can get.  The picture is murkier, though, when it comes to Cliff Avril.  Avril had surgery on his broken finger on Tuesday—but, as the Wayne Fontes Experience tells us,  Jim Schwartz has kept the details of his knee injury a state secret . . .

In TLiW, news, I’m working on the Eagles Watchtower; hoping to get that up tomorrow rather than Sunday this time!


Watchtower Review: Lions at Bears

>> 9.15.2010

Last season, I did the review of each Watchtower as the opening portion of the next one.  This made some sense, as I was still fine-tuning the process, and I was reviewing how I was writing them as much as what the results were.  However, looking back through the archives, putting half the analysis of one game into the article for the next make finding stuff really, really hard.  To that end, I’m breaking out the Watchtower review into its own little piece.

In the Watchtower for Sunday’s Lions road game against the Bears, I recited my findings from previous seasons:

“Given greater, equal, or lesser 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.”

I went on to analyze the 2009 data, and found that that all held true—except for the “scoring” bit.  In their two games last season, the Bears allowed the Lions to score 24 and 23 points, compared to the Bears’ 2009 average of . . . 23.5 points.  That’s right, the bottom-feeding Lions offense performed about as well as everyone else did against the Bears last season.  This was well above the Lions’ average scoring rate of 15.9 ppg.  The only difference in the Bears’ defense last season was an unprecedented lack of talent and execution for a Lovie Smith defense—so I added an “unless they’re bad” clause:

"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."

Given the above, and the lack of 2010 scoring averages for the Lions (for) and the Bears (against), and the presumable-but-unknown improvement by both the Lions’s offense and Bears’ defense, I projected the following:

The Lions should score between 20 and 24 points.  I have low confidence in this prediction.

I note, ruefully, that Calvin Johnson's game-winning touchdown being wiped off the board reduced a confidence-boosting 20 (or 22) to a depressing 14.  On defense, there was only one data point, and it precisely bore out expectations—leading me to conclude:

"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."

Taking a wild stab in the dark, "I projected":

"Let’s just call it thirty points. This is a guess and not a prediction, and I have extremely low confidence in it."

It was appropriate that I had extremely low confidence in it, because it was totally wrong.  In the conclusion, I summarized:

"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."

Of course, the official final score of the game was 14-19, depressed as predicted by many sacks and turnovers for both sides.  The Lions had a harder time moving the ball than the Bears—Chicago racked up a whopping 463 yards of total offense, compared to the Lions’ meager 168.

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.  One factor skewing these numbers: the swapout of Matthew Stafford for Shaun Hill.  In last seasons’ games, we saw that the Lions had no chance at victory without Stafford behind center—and it showed in the statistics.

Probably the most alarming thing we saw yesterday—besides the miscarriage of justice that stole the win, and the injuries to the franchise quarterback and best young pass rusher—was the total lack of effectiveness from the rushing game.  Jahvid Best ran for only 1.4 yards per carry on Sunday, which dramatically limited the effectiveness of the passing game—and in turn, the offense.  It’s possible that this Bears defense, with a healthy Brian Urlacher, has returned to its prior-to-2009 fearsomeness—and it’s also possible that the running game we saw in the preseason was only a mirage.

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.


“Touch Down”: Lions Should Be 1-0

>> 9.14.2010

Chris Spielman once scored a touchdown for the Lions.  When he got into the end zone, he got both knees on the ground, and touched the ball to the turf—just as, many years ago, was required for a “touch down” to be scored.  He did it to pay his respects to the men who played the game sixty, seventy, eighty years ago—before multiple referees and a panoply of high-speed HD digital cameras continuously observed every square inch of the field.  Apparently, this is the standard we need to return to.

It's been beat to death by now.  The fires of my rage—not easily stoked—have cooled down.  Injustice has been done; the Lions had their game-winning touchdown against the Bears wiped off the books by a bad call.  As infuriating as it is, it is—and we either have to deal with it, process it, and move on, or seriously question our faith in the entity that rules the sport, and team, we love.

As The Big Lead and Pro Football Talk both explained very well, NFL officials incorrectly—or at best, zealously—applied one clause in the rule book, while steadfastly ignoring another.  The result is that the Lions lost what would have been a tremendous season-opening road win, and started back down the path to an 0-and-who-knows-how-many losing streak.

First, let's talk about what a catch is.  Per the NFL rule book:

Article 3. Completed or Intercepted Pass. A player who makes a catch may advance the ball. A forward pass is complete (by the offense) or intercepted (by the defense) if a player, who is inbounds:

(a) secures control of the ball in his hands or arms prior to the ball touching the ground; and (b) touches the ground inbounds with both feet or with any part of his body other than his hands.

If the player loses the ball while simultaneously touching both feet or any part of his body other than his hands to the ground, or if there is any doubt that the acts were simultaneous, it is not a catch.

The clause that was applied was the “going to the ground” clause:

Item 1: Player Going to the Ground.  If a player goes to the ground in the act of catching a pass (with or without contact by an opponent), he must maintain control of the ball after he touches the ground, whether in the field of play or the end zone. If he loses control of the ball, and the ball touches the ground before he regains control, the pass is incomplete. If he regains control prior to the ball touching the ground, the pass is complete.

It’s long been the rule that if a player catches the ball in midair, and lands on the ground, and the ball popped out, then it’s not a catch.  Picture a receiver with the ball cradled loosely in his arms, and then it popping out when he hits the turf—clearly, he never had possession.  If he didn’t have it secured enough to withstand hitting the ground, then he didn’t really have it at all.

But Calvin Johnson DID “maintain control of the ball after he touche[d] the ground.”  He caught the ball with his hands, landed with two feet, his knee hit, his butt hit, his other hand hit (possibly out of bounds, ending the play there if it already wasn’t over), and then Johnson touched the ball to the ground, and it popped out.  If that play occurs outside the endzone, he’s down by contact before the ball pops out.  But it wasn’t outside the end zone, he was in it.  That rule goes like this:

Item 3: End Zone Catches. If a player catches the ball while in the end zone, both feet must be completely on the ground before losing possession, or the pass is incomplete.

So we have several competing, conflicting standards in the rule book.  What we don’t have is any of the nonsense being spouted by Mike Pereira, former NFL Director of Officiating, and VP  of Officiating, and current FOX Sports analyst.  All the stuff we heard during the game, about “completing the process” isn’t in the rule rook.  Here’s his article on it for Fox:

Here's why: Rule 8, Section 1, Article 4.

A play from start to finish is a process. When you go to the ground, even after you've caught the ball, you have to maintain possession.

The rule states: If a player goes to the ground . . .

See what he did there?  He cited Rule 8, Section 1, Article 4, and then slipped in his own analysis.  The standards of a “complete process,” or of needing to complete a “second football act,” are not in the rule book, and should not be applied.  Calvin Johnson needed to maintain possession after he touched the ground, and he did that.  By rule, the play was a touchdown—and it was correctly signalled so by the side judge.

Mike Florio conducted a thought experiment that’s sure to illuminate (and infuriate):

Let's look at it this way. If Johnson's catch had occurred at the one, and if while swinging his arm to the ground he would have broken the plane of the goal line, the proper call under the "second act" exception would have been touchdown. And that's the heart of the problem. In an effort to take some of the perceived and/or actual unfairness out of a rule that takes away a catch that viscerally looks like a catch, the league has crafted an exception that isn't in the rule book, and that therefore doesn't -- and can't -- be applied with any consistency.

Tom Kowalski brought this up on 1130 AM this morning.  If everything happens the exact same way on the one-yard line, it would have been ruled a touchdown when he swung his arm down and broke the plane—OR, he would have been ruled down by contact at the one.  Yet, it occurred inside the end zone, where all he has to do is establish possession in bounds, and it ruled incomplete.

Of course, the fact that the Lions really needed this win can’t enter into the discussion.  That Matthew Stafford, and—how is no one talking about this?—Cliff Avril were lost in the effort doesn’t matter. That Shaun Hill’s outstanding job of leading the Lions down the field in the closing minute, and perfect rainbow thrown while being hit, were the kind of last-minute game-winning heroics we’re always the victims, and never beneficiaries of . . . none of it matters.  The refs couldn’t give the Lions the win because they wanted it, because they fought so hard for it, because they desperately needed it, or because they deserved it.

But they should have given the Lions the win, because the Lions won.


Fireside Chat Podcast, Week 1

>> 9.13.2010

Last night, I sat down behind the mic and laid down the first Fireside Chat of the regular season.  Those who tuned in live at 11:00 already heard it, but if you visit the Fireside Chat UStream site, or subscribe to the podcast free via iTunes, you can hear it, too.  It’s my raw first take on yesterday’s . . . injustice.  I recommend it.

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The Watchtower: Lions at Bears

>> 9.12.2010

Last season, I started a series of posts I called The Watchtower; intense statistical analyses of each opponents’ coaching staff, as they’ve faced their Lions counterparts throughout history.  By comparing the coordinators’ head-to-head performances with their statistical means for the year, I hoped to isolate and expose systemic advantages for either side.  Historians argue about how predictive the process is—but in terms of breaking down the upcoming game, it’s interesting, and unique.  So.

Scott Linehan vs. Lovie Smith
Lin Smit Ornk PgG YpA YpC Drnk PpG YpA YpC PTS YpA INT YpC Sack
MIN STL 6th 26.0 7.60 4.75 17th 20.5 7.60 4.75 17 6.88 1 7.27 8-54
MIN CHI 6th 25.3 7.16 4.71 13th 20.7 6.49 4.13 27 11.61 0 4.04 4-10
MIN CHI 6th 25.3 7.16 4.71 13th 20.7 6.49 4.13 14 8.45 3 6.64 5-34
STL CHI 10th 22.9 6.69 4.26 3rd 15.9 5.36 3.96 27 6.47 1 4.59 3-24
DET CHI 27th 15.9 5.30 3.95 21st 23.5 6.36 4.33 24 7.45 1 2.46 5-42
DET CHI 27th 15.9 5.30 3.95 21st 23.5 6.36 4.33 23 7.70 1 4.00 2-13
The massive advantage this year’s edition has over last year’s is the inclusion of actual Schwartz-coached Lions data—we’re not reconstructing the theoretical scheme from what these coordinators have run in the past, these are the actual systems in place today.  Further, when the Lions face opponents they faced last season, the results will be incredibly relevant.  Unless, of course, said opponents do something crazy like replace both coordinators.
Enter Chicago, a team whose 2009 results fell well short of preseason expectations—and as often happens in such situations, the coaches bore the responsibility.  They replaced OC Ron Turner with Mike Martz, and demoted LB coach Bob Babich—the nominal defensive coordinator—back to a pure LB coach.  Still, Lovie did most of the defensive playcalling last season, and Marinelli is a disciple of the same Tampa Two that Lovie runs.  Nothing should be different, schematically, on the defensive side of the ball.
Last season, looking at the data for the first Bears Watchtower, I concluded:
Given greater, equal, or lesser 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.
The most likely outcome involves Stafford getting rattled by the Bears, getting sacked 3-to-5 times and surrendering at least two turnovers. Despite moving the ball as well as they have all season, the Lions should score below expectations (currently 19, though a 3-game average is nearly useless).
At the top of the second Bears Watchtower, I lauded my own foresight by pointing out the results:
  • Stafford was sacked five times, for a loss of 42 yards.
  • Stafford lost a fumble on one of those sacks, and threw an interception.
  • The Lions generated a season-high 398 yards of total offense.
The symphony of accuracy ended with a clunk when it came to the points projection though; the Lions scored 24 points on the day, their highest total of offensive points in the the first ten weeks of the season.  However, that was only Week 4, and “normal” scoring expectations hadn’t been established.  After twelve weeks of Daunte Culpepper, Drew Stanton, and injured Matthew Stafford deflating the Lions’ season means, I tried again in the second Bears Watchtower:
If we apply that to the Lions’ current averages, and account for the Bears’ defense’s averages, my projection looks like this: 13-16 points, 6.00-6.25 YpA, and 4.50 YpC.  I have medium to high confidence in this prediction.
Of course, in one last glorious Screw You Ty Moment, Culpepper played the game of his Detroit life.  The Lions put up 23 points, as Culpepper’s stat line looked mysteriously NFL-caliber: 23-of-34 for 262 yards, 2 TDs, and only 1 INT.  The Lions did fumble twice, losing it once, but on the whole, the Lions clearly outstripped my “medium to high confidence” prediction.
My original conclusion, that the Tampa 2 suppresses Linehan offense’s scoring through sacks and turnovers, even while allowing far more yardage than said offense usually amasses, didn’t apply to last year’s games.  The sacks definitely occurred at an above-average clip, especially against Matthew Stafford in the earlier contest.  Turnovers happened, though not at an extraordinary clip.  The yardage came in bunches—but so did the points.
What was different last year?  The talent level.  In prior seasons, Lovie’s defense was ranked 17th, 13th, and 3rd in scoring allowed—but last season, the Bears’ defense was mediocre indeed, ranked 21st.  They allowed the same amount of points to the Lions that they’d been allowing to their average opponent. Since the Lions’ offense was obviously poor, either the Bears were going easy on the Lions, or there’s a systemic advantage.  Given the unlikeliness of the former, we’ll go with the latter and say . . .
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.
Given the return of Brian Urlacher, and the addition of Julius Peppers, it’s safe to say that the talent and execution of the Marinelli/Smith defense will improve over last season’s iteration.  Assuming they improve to at least median level, I don’t anticipate this “unless they suck” qualification to be in effect.  So, back to lots of yards, sacks, turnovers, and probably-fewer points.  Now, what of the Lions?
Clearly, the Lions will be much improved over last season in both talent and execution; the additions of Jahvid Best, Nate Burleson, and Rob Sims have led to an obviously more potent attack.  Moreover, the offensive line as a unit looks much sharper, and Matthew Stafford’s decision making is much faster and much better.  I believe the offense will be above-average, ranked 8th-to-14th.  If we project the Lions to score to an average of 24 points per game, and the Bears’ defense to allow an average of 20 points per game, that leaves the Lions far short of what they’ll need to win.
Unfortunately, with zero real data as to the relative talent and execution levels, and a strong pattern suggesting that the Bears will bottle up scoring via sacks and turnovers if they’re notably better than last year, it leaves me high and dry.  But, from the data I have, the Lions should score between 20 and 24 points.  I have low confidence in this prediction.
Mitigating/Augmenting Circumstances
Given that the above section is almost entirely mitigating circumstances, this part seems redundant.  If the Bears are not improved over last season, and the Lions are as improved as we hope they are, the Lions will move the ball at will and score in bunches.  If either of those two conditions are false, this game could be much less exciting, and much more depressing, than we’re expecting.  Sigh.
Mike Martz vs. Gunther Cunningham
Martz Gun Ornk PgG YpA YpC Drnk PpG YpA YpC PTS YpA INT YpC Sack
STL KCC 1th 33.8 8.91 4.81 19th 22.1 6.32 3.83 34 8.48 3 3.30 4-28
The only data point we have is a rough one: deep in the heart of the Greatest Show on Turf, Mike Martz’s offense was the best in the NFL—and one of the best ever.  Scoring 33.8 points per game, averaging an astonishing 8.91 yards per attempt, and Marshall Falk still rolling up 4.81 YpC, this offense was a juggernaut.  Gunther’s defense, meanwhile, was waning in his tenure as Chiefs head coach/DC.  Only the 19th-best scoring defense, allowing 22.1 points per game, they were nonetheless successful in depressing per-play effectiveness in passing and rushing, 6.32 YpA and 3.83 YpC.
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.
Mitigating/Augmenting Influences
Yeesh.  It’d be shorter to list what the data tells us for sure than what it doesn’t.
There are limitations to what past performance can tell us about future performance, and this week I’ve frustratingly hit them.  With a strong trend from last year contradicting itself on Linehan vs. Smith, and no useful data from the other matchup, we’re left with a total crapshoot.  I’ll say that based on extremely weak data, the most likely outcome of the game is close Lions loss, with lots of sacks and turnovers for both sides, and a final score of 24-30.


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