The Watchtower: Lions at Packers

>> 9.30.2010

The Lions find themselves in a desperate position.  Having lost three difficult, but winnable games to open the season, they travel to Green Bay to face their most toughest test yet.  Oh, and stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but the Lions haven’t won at Lambeau since 1991.  Vince Workman scored all of Green Bay’s touchdowns in that game.  Mel Gray took a punt to the house.  The Lions finished the season 12-4, and the Packers limped to a 3-12 record.  Shortly thereafter, the first President Bush authorized the first attack of the first Gulf War.

The Packers have dominated the Lions to an almost mythic degree; I’d love to know if there’s a similar streak at any level of any team sport.  Eighteen seasons without a road win, against a divisional rival?  Unthinkable—and yet, here we are, and there they are.  Let’s do this.

Mike McCarthy vs. Gunther Cunningham

McC Gun Ornk PgG YpA YpC Drnk PpG DYpA DYpC PTS YpA INT YpC Fum Sack
NOS TEN 14 21.2 6.43 4.46 29th 27.2 8.05 4.62 12 8.04 0 1.53 3-2 3-20
NOS KCC 14 21.8 6.62 3.96 16th 20.3 6.58 4.10 27 9.59 1 5.83 2-0 4-19
GBP DET 3rd 28.8 7.56 4.30 32nd 30.9 5.42 4.42 26 9.68 1 3.57 3-1 5-30
GBP DET 3rd 28.8 7.56 4.30 32nd 30.9 5.42 4.42 34 8.92 0 2.96 2-2 1-6

The first Watchtowering of the Packers led me to the following conclusion:

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.

What happened in that first game?  As I crowed in the Watchtower for the November Lions-Packers matchup:

  • The Packers scored 26 points, which exactly matched their average on the season to that point.
  • Aaron Rodgers completed 29 of 37, for a whopping 358 yards (and 9.68 yards per attempt!).
  • Rodgers, however, was sacked five times, and intercepted once. The Lions also forced three fumbles, recovering one.
  • Rodgers passed for only two touchdowns, and those were on the first two drives (one of which started on the Lions' 17).
  • The Packers as a whole did not score a touchdown after cashing in on the opening-drive Culpepper turnover.

This is exactly what the trend predicted: with lesser talent, Gunther Cunningham’s defense held the Packers to their norms for the season with sacks and turnovers—despite being victimized for great chunks of yardage between the 20s.  However, over the course of the season, the Packers’ offense had picked up steam—and the Lions had suffered their usual rash of secondary losses.  My conclusion:

One would expect the Packers to significantly outperform their season averages—that is, score well over 26 points, and gain passing and rushing yards at a pace well over their typical per-play average. However, if we apply the systemic advantage it appears Gunther Cunningham’s aggressive defenses have against Mike McCarthy’s offense, scoring should be somewhere above the Lions’ allowed average—the Packers are a well-above-average offense—but below, like, a zillion points. Meanwhile, the Pack should be able to move between the 20s more or less at will.

Therefore, the Packers should score 34-38 points, pass for 9.00-10.00 YpA, and run for 4.50-4.75 YpC. I have very high confidence in this prediction.

At first blush, this was once again spot-on: the Packers scored 34 points.  However, one of those touchdowns came on a Charles Woodson interception return; the Packers’ offense was only responsible for 27 of those 34 points.  YpA was 8.92, just under the lower bound of my projection, but running?  That was held to a meager 2.96 YpC.  Given that the Lions also held the Packers to 3.57 YpC in the first meeting (their season average was 4.30), this is an interesting trend.

It’s tempting to suggest that the Packers were not running well because the pass offense was working—but the Packers rushed 30 and 27 times in the two games.   It’s further tempting to suggest that the Packers were merely “putting it in the cooler,” but the score of the second game was 13-7 at halftime; it didn’t become a blowout until the middle of the third.  Don’t forget, the Lions were allowing 4.42 YpC on the ground last year; this was not a stout run defense.  Clearly, there’s something systematic depressing Packer rushing yardage, even when the defense should be coming in terrified of the aerial assault.

The Packers are coming off a brutal Monday Night Football loss, where reserve tailbacks John Kuhn and Brandon Jackson combined for 43 yards on 13 carries; the 3.31 YpC a clear indicator that they miss starter Ryan Grant.  Moreover, the willingness to completely abandon the run shows the Packers are well aware of what they do well, and what they do not.

One thing they do very, very well is get the ball to Jermichael Finley, who’s got 17 receptions for an incredible 265 yards.  I expect the Packers to try to exploit this advantage, especially given the Lions’ weakness at outside linebacker (even with the return of Zack Follett) and safety (C.C. Brown, anyone?).

In terms of the data, things are ever-so-slightly less bleak for the Lions this year.  The Packers boast the 4th-ranked scoring offense, racking up points at at 26.0 PpG clip; the Lions are allowing points at the exact same rate, 26.0 PpG.  The expectation would be that the Packers will score well above their average.  But 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.

Mitigating/Augmenting Factors:

I’ve mostly covered the whys and wherefores above.  If the Lions’ pass rush can’t hit home, they will have a devil of a time depressing scoring; the Packers will likely throw it fifty times against an extremely susceptible back seven.  Rodgers, however, is not known for getting rid of it quickly, and an extra step for KVB, Avril, Suh, and Williams to get there may make all the different in the world.  The possibility exists that the Lions’s pass rush actually drives a better-than-expected performance here; with no effective running game and nothing to lose, I expect Cunningham to be extremely aggressive.

On the other had, we are talking about Rodgers, Jennings, Finley, Driver, et al., in Lambeau.  The scoring could also get completely out of hand.  I’m pretty confident in these numbers, though.

Scott Linehan vs. Dom Capers

Lin Capers Ornk PgG YpA YpC Drnk PpG DYpA DYpC PTS YpA INT YpC Fum Sack
MIN HOU 6th 25.3 7.16 4.71 21st 19.3 6.89 3.92 34 7.92 0 4.69 0-0 3-8
STL MIA 30th 14.5 5.67 3.95 21st 21.6 6.61 2.35 12 4.26 3 4.30 0-0 0-0
DET GBP 24th 18.1 5.60 3.91 12th 20.3 6.17 4.46 0 4.20 3 4.33 2-0 5-34
DET GBP 32nd 30.9 7.80 4.42 7th 18.6 5.96 3.59 12 4.95 4 3.17 1-1 2-14

In the first Packers Watchtower, I made some pretty big statements, based on the performance of the Lions against 3-4 defenses of Capers-like lineage:

Let's look briefly at the scorched-earth napalming that Linehan's 6th-ranked Vikings offense put on Dom Capers' 21st-ranked Texans defense. 34 points, 7.92 YpA, 4.69 YpC. Culpepper was 36-of-50 for 396 yards, 5 TDs, and 0 INTs. Vikings backs ran 26 times for 122 yards. It probably would have been worse if the Vikes hadn't been flagged 10 times for 75 yards. Given the only data point on LeBeau, and fitting it into the broader picture painted by the Capers and Williams info, I think I'm safe to say that Scott Linehan's balanced offense significantly outperforms expectations against aggressive, blitzing 3-4 defenses like LeBeau's.

. . . As we've seen with Gregg Williams and Dick LeBeau, Scott Linehan's balanced, conventional offense is disproportionately successful against an aggressive, blitzing 3-4. This will be the third such defense that the Lions face, and they've outperformed averages against the two prior units. If Kevin Smith is his usual, steady self, and Matt Stafford is able to play, I expect the Lions to score between 24-28 points.

Zip.  Zero.  Zilch.  Nada.  Bupkus.  Donut.  Shutout.  Matthew Stafford did not play, Daunte Culpepper was Culpepperific in the extreme, and the Lions didn’t score a single point.  They passed (4.20 YpA) no more effectively as they ran (4.20 YpC), and they answered the Packers’ opening drive TD with an interception that was converted into a second touchdown.  They were down by 14 within minutes of the opening gun, and never got anything going after that.

The second time around, I learned my lesson:

I have to project this based on the assumptions that Daunte Culpepper and Bryant Johnson will be starting in the stead of the newly-christened avatar of the Lions franchise and, arguably, the most dangerous downfield threat in football. Given the way the Packers defense has been playing (12-ranked scoring defense!), this is an insurmountable challenge.

Even accounting for the systemic advantage I still believe a fully realized Linehan offense has against a Capers-style 3-4, the Lions should meet, or slightly underperform, their season averages: 14-17 points, 5.25-5.50 YpA, and 3.85-4.15 YpC.

Underperform they did, netting 10 offensive points (2 more came from a safety), gaining 4.95 YpA, and rushing for 3.17 YpC.  Clearly, I was still either overestimating the effect size of the Linehan/Capers thing, or overestimating expectations of the 27th-best scoring offense when facing the 7th-best scoring defense.  I think I’ll assume the former for now, and adjust my predictions downward—especially since Stafford will still be out, Burleson will be out, and Best will be far from full-speed.

The Lions’ offense is a sight better from last season, even with Shaun Hill at the helm.  Ranked 18th, and averaging 18.7 PpG (not counting Megatron’s wiped-out TD), the Lions go up against a similarly-stingy Packer defense this time around.  Green Bay’s still ranked 7th, allowing a mere 15.7 PpG, and holding opposing quarterbacks to only 5.47 YpA.  However, the Packers are getting gashed for 5.00 YpC . . . it’s not helping opposing teams much, but Green Bay is not stopping anyone on the ground right now.

Given the season averages so far, and taking into account (but not overemphasizing) the systemic advantage Scott Linehan has against Dom Capers, I project the Lions to mildly outperform expectations, meeting or falling just short of their season averages: 15-20 points, 5.50-to-6.00 YpA, and 4.00 YpC.  I have medium to high confidence in this projection.

Mitigating/Augmenting Factors:

If Jahvid Best were healthy, I could see him really catching fire against the Packers’ substandard run defense.  If that happened, the secondary could be drawn closer to the line, opening up opportunities downfield.  But even if so, could the Lions capitalize without Stafford and/or Burleson?  Further, Best isn’t healthy; even if he plays it will be with a high degree of pain.  Unfortunately, that's the only chink in this doomy armor I can find.


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.

Technorati Tags: nfl,detroit lions,green bay packers,the watchtower,jim schwartz,gunther cunningham,scott linehan,mike mccarthy,dom capers,matthew stafford,jahvid best,shaun hill,aaron rodgers


Watchtower Review: Lions at Vikings

>> 9.29.2010

In the Watchtower analysis of the Lions and Vikings, I stuck my neck out for the first time—and predictably, the axe fell:

The most likely outcome of the game is a close Lions win, with above-average rushing performances from both sides, and a 21-17 final score.

What went wrong?  Well, there are two major components to the Watchtower breakdown: first,  an analysis of past performance when one coach meets another coach.  Attempting to control for the varying skill of the players, I try to find out if one coach has a schematic and/or playcalling advantage over the other—if one “has their number.”  I try to identify the mechanism too—say, a certain offense is typically depressed when facing a certain defense, because that defense tends to sack the quarterback more often than that offense usually allows.

The systematic advantage of Gunther Cunningham's defense over Brad Childress' offense is one of the most consistent that I've found.  Linehan's performances against Frazier (and Dungy) have been consistent, too.  As a result, my two Vikings predictions were quite nearly spot-on.  I was extremely confident in the respective effects I'd identified . . . but what was I saying about two major components?  Oh, yes.

The second part is identifying what the “expectations” are.  This is easy at the end of the season, when the teams have played ten or eleven games and their averages are fairly well-established—but at this point in the season, it’s mostly guesswork.  Technically, the Lions were averaging 23 points per game after the first two games--but, that doesn't count the Calvin Johnson touchdown that we all know actually happened.  Their "real" scoring average (obviously, mean of just two data points is  inadequate for a projection like this anyway) is 26.5.

I assumed that that will be their scoring average at the end of the season; a reasonable assumption given the defenses they've faced, the eventual return of Matthew Stafford, etc.  So, when I applied 26.5 ppg to the Vikings' 14 ppg allowed, that got me an expectation of 20 points.  Apply a mild systemic advantage, and you get this:

Given an equal (or slightly lesser) level of talent and execution, and a mild systemic advantage, the Lions should roughly meet their season averages, scoring 20-24 points.

Of course, the Lions scored only ten points, so it looks like this is a huge failure.  But Shaun Hill threw two end-zone interceptions from within the Vikings' ten-yard-line; if you simply switch those to touchdowns, that's 24 points on the nose.  Then again, Shaun Hill turning it over against a strong Vikings D is something to be expected.  It's probably why my offensive "Mitigating/Augmenting Factors" section was wholly mitigating, and ended like this:

The Vikings have held the vaunted Saints offense to just 14 points, and the much-less-vaunted-but-nothing-to-sneeze-at Dolphins offense to only 7. Even with a systemic advantage tilting the field towards the Lions, this is an extremely stout defense. It makes me very, very nervous.

On the defensive side of the ball, it was the same story: little data to establish "expectations" with, but a strong historical trend.  Unfortunately, the Stefan Logan fumble that handed the Vikings the ball within striking distance skewed these results.  While turnovers are a part of offense/defense interaction, this analysis doesn't factor in special teams at all--and in this case, the Vikings got a free drive AND incredible field position out of a very rare special teams mistake.  In light of that, a projection of 17-20 points is not far off the mark.

You can see how that data led me down a primrose path, especially as regards the offense.  I maintain that if Best (a major factor in the Lions' scoring "norms" for 2010) had not gotten hurt during the game, or if that was Matthew Stafford leading those fourth-quarter drives instead of Shaun Hill, I wouldn't look like quite the fool I do.

And yet, the egg is on my face.  Anyone have any bacon?

Technorati Tags: nfl,detroit lions,matthew stafford,shaun hill,jahvid best,minnesota vikings,brett favre,adrian peterson


Jim Schwartz, Mark Dantonio, and Playcalling

>> 9.28.2010

Scott Linehan and Jim Schwartz have taken a beating from Lions fans over the past few days.  Schwartz’s decision-making has been “gutless,”  and “too conservative.”  Scott Linehan’s playcalling has been even worse: “ultraconservative.” Therefore it only follows that Scott Linehan “is the Anti-Christ,” right?

As @pdavidy8 put it on Twitter last night:

It reminds me of a paraphrased Gandhi quote: "Your Lions I love, its your Lions fans that I can't stand."

Playcalling is one of those things that fans and coaches spend their mutual lives arguing about, it’s always been so, and always will be.  I first heard this maxim from George Perles—and he wasn’t the first coach to say this, nor will he be the last—but coaching decisions are judged like this: if it works, it’s smart.  If it doesn’t, it’s stupid.

Example A: Bill Belichick, a visionary genius coach whose thorough understanding of the rules and willingness to make decisions that not only run counter to hackneyed old football traditions, but in fact would never even occur to lesser coaches gave Belichick the inspiration to win an unwinnable game with a magnificent play call.

Example B:  Bill Belichick, a blithering idiot whose total lack of common sense prompted him to make the second-stupidest decision in the history of Boston sports, which despite probably actually working except for a bad spot by the refs was nevertheless solely responsible for nullifying the fifty-some minutes of football that preceded it, turned glorious victory into cripping defeat with a horrible play call.

The truth is that there is no “right call” or “wrong call” in any given situation, but instead a vast range of probabilities.  Check out a bit of the incredible work done by MGoBlog’s The Mathlete.  The Mathlete has done several studies on fourth-down decision-making (albeit based on NCAA drive results and not NFL), and come up with some data that strongly challenges traditional thinking on when to punt, when to go for it, and when to kick a field goal.  Go check it out, and then come back.

Lesson One: when you have a good offense, the special teams should stay on the sideline far more often than common wisdom holds.  This is likely because when common wisdom came around, there was no such thing as a three-wide-receiver set; offenses gain more yards in bigger chunks more frequently than Fielding Yost and Biggie Munn ever dreamed possible.  When fans talk about “playing the percentages,” they likely have no idea what “the percentages” actually are—and likely, neither do many of the coaches.

In fact, Schwartz is a Belichick disciple, and has often been lauded for his intense commitment to understanding the game on every level, of learning what the latest research has to say about what the chances of success in any given situation are.  If any NFL head coach has a firm grasp of what all the odds and probabilities are from anywhere on the field, it’s likely the man I’ve been calling The Grandmaster.

Lesson Two: Coaches call plays by feel.  Their level of confidence in their own team, their idea of what “the percentages” are, the vibe coming off of their players, the preparation they did all week, any advantage they think they’ve got or weaknesses they think they’ve identified, that all swirls around in their heads, swirls around the black hole in the center of their psyche: the fear of failure.

When a person, such as you or I, pop Madden NFL in our chosen gaming console, and we face a four and three, we think only one thing: “I can get three yards.”  We have infinite faith in our ability to get three yards—and why wouldn’t we?  We know we’re going to beat the computer like a drum, either way.  We also know that if we lose, it doesn’t matter.

With head coaches, though, there’s something at stake: their job.  Their livelihood.  Their house.  Their wife.  Their children.  The livelihood, houses, wives, and children of both their coordinators.  The livelihood, houses, wives, and children of all their position coaches, and all their assistants, and . . . all of those people’s lives are riding on every single decision a head coach makes.

Why was that “the call of the year”?  Why did Joe Paterno, Jim Tressel, and Urban Meyer fall all over themselves praising the “magical,” “gutsy” call that made them “nervous?”  Because Dantonio’s season was at stake.  Because Dantonio was facing down the man who finished second to him in the MSU coaching search—who then took over his old Cincinnati program and elevated it to dizzying heights.  Because every instinct a coach has developed from decades of being around football says “kick the field goal and hope you live to fight another round” . . . but Mark Dantonio was more confident in his team executing this play to seal a victory, than in his kicker trying a long field goal that would merely keep them alive.  They’d practiced the play many times, even used it in last season’s bowl game.  Dantonio had faith in his teams’s ability to execute—and the balls to make the best decision, even if it wasn’t the “correct” one.  He’ll be celebrated for it, and rightly so.

But what if it didn’t work?

Le'Veon Bell was the intended target on that play; he was blocked out.  Aaron Bates found Charlie Gantt anyway . . . but what if he hadn’t?  What if he threw it out of bounds, or to the wrong shoulder, or Gantt dropped it, or a defender made a play?  The Spartans would have lost on the spot, and the home crowd would have left the stadium with a nasty feeling in the pit of their stomach—and a bone to pick with Coach D.  We’d have spent the following week chiding Dantonio for his reckless stupidity instead of lauding him for his elephantine cojones.

So what of Schwartz?  In the heat of battle, with the game clock ticking down, a veteran kicker beating himself up about his prior miss, a quarterback with a questionable deep ball, and an offense he suspects might not get many scoring drives, and a sideline full of his friends and colleagues trying to provide food for their families?  It’s no wonder he didn’t have a Dantonio-esque level of confidence in his teams’ ability to execute without making a mistake.

Especially when everyone ripped him up and down just a few days before for going for it on fourth down instead of kicking a field goal.

This is the issue: last week, the Lions needed a field goal to win, so Schwartz was “overthinking” himself and “too aggressive” when he passed up the guaranteed three for the chance to keep the ball and maybe get seven.  This week, the Lions needed touchdowns to win, so obviously settling for a sure three was “gutless” and “conservative” and “wussy” and whatever else you want to call it. 

When it’s time to make a call, as it is hundreds of times during a game, while the clock is ticking and the crowd is screaming and the coordinator’s in your ear and the players are all around you and you cast an eye up to the owner’s box, there might be a hundred different opinions on what the “right” decision is.  Whether you’re going by the book, going by the Football Outsiders Almanac, or going by the opinion of the drunk guy in section 347, everyone has a different idea of what to do.  No coach is ever going to make the right decision every time.  But sometimes, even if you can figure out what the “right” decision is, and you have the stones to make it, it turns out wrong—because we’re dealing with probabilities and human beings, not mathematical equations in a video game.

If you want to look at the reasons why the Lions lost on Sunday, let’s start with Stefan Logan’s fumble.  Let’s point to C.C. Brown’s blown coverages.  How about penalty flags nullifying a sack, an interception, and a crucial third-down run?  How about, after all that, the Lions still had two drives in the last five minutes that should have scored the two touchdowns the Lions needed to tie the game—and twice, Shaun Hill threw interceptions instead of touchdowns?

Indeed, that’s the grand irony here: Jim Schwartz elected to kick a field goal at the end of the first half because he was afraid Shaun Hill might throw a pick in the end zone, and the opportunity to score points would be lost—and at the end of the second half, that happened not once, but twice.  Jim Schwartz’s lack of faith in his team, in that instant, with those injuries, against that opponent, in that stadium, might be disappointing . . . but it was undoubtedly well-founded.

Technorati Tags: nfl,detroit lions,jim schwartz,mark dantonio,michigan state


Three Cups Deep: Lions at Vikings

>> 9.27.2010


Nasty, dirty, violent, sloppy, ugly, whatever.  Yesterday’s game was one of the most brutal football games—in every sense of the word—in my memory.  Brutal, as in physically violent and punishing.  Brutal, as in unfeelingly cold and vicious.  Brutal, as in “unpleasantly accurate and incisive” (H/T: Mirriam-Webster).

We knew that going on the road, into the Metrodome, and beating a Brett-Favre-led Vikings squad would require the snapping of several historically-long streaks, and require the kind of sixty-minute performance the Lions have been unable to put together for years.  We knew that the Lions would be without Matthew Stafford, without Nate Burleson, without Zack Follett, without Zack Follett’s backup, Landon Johnson, and only barely with a whole host of guys just barely coming back from injury (Peterman, Avril, Levy, Delmas, etc.).

We didn’t even know Jahvid Best would go out indefinitely with a toe thingy of some sort.  We didn’t know Stefan Logan would squander the chance to answer a Vikings three-and-out with points, by handing them the ball within striking distance.  We didn’t know that the Lions would have sacks and interceptions called back by penalties, that Jason Hanson would stand on the right hash and push a 44-yard field goal wide left, or that the Lions and Vikings would combine for an appalling 20 penalties for 187 yards.

And yet, here were the Lions, with almost three minutes to go in the game, first-and-goal from the Vikings’ four.  Down by two scores, but surely just seconds away from one, Shaun Hill threw a brutal interception.  Instead of narrowing the lead to seven, the Lions widened the chasm between then and the Vikings.  After the defense dutifully forced a three-and-out, the Lions again marched right back down to the Vikings’ ten—and again, Shaun Hill threw a brutal interception.

So, here we are.  Again—despite all of the factors, physical and karmic, working against the Lions—they absolutely had a chance to win this game.  And again, despite all of the factors, physical and logical, working for the Lions, they lost.  So, the Lions are technically 0-3, next going on the road to Lambeau where they haven’t won since the FIRST President Bush started the FIRST Gulf War, and are looking hard at 0-4.  Judging by the Internet, and call-in radio, lots of fans are abandoning hope.

Why?  The Lions are exactly what we thought they were.  I, and many others, said many times that the Lions could win six or seven games this season, but would be lucky if more than one came before the bye—and that was with Stafford, Burleson, Best, Levy, Avril, Delmas, and all the rest.  We cannot be losing hope that the Lions are on track.  Vikings bloggers, and the Vikings themselves, have been vocal in pronouncing that these are not the “old Lions”.

The hope that we’ve lost is for the magical season.  The dream season.  The totally-unexpected, everything-came-together, lightning-in-a-bottle 9-7 season that announces, with authority, that the New Lions are here and never going away.  THAT is what we have lost; let's take this day to mourn it.

. . . tomorrow, there’s wood to chop.

Technorati Tags: nfl,detroit lions,minnesota vikings,shaun hill,adrian peterson,brett favre,jahvid best


The Watchtower: Lions at Vikings

>> 9.26.2010



Last week’s game against the Eagles had a hint of desperation: both teams were coming off the heels of a painful loss, and both teams lost their starting quarterbacks in the process.  But if that game had a hint of desperation about it, this game is absolutely dripping with desperation.  The Lions are 0-2, and fans would give almost anything to get on the board and know 0-16 won’t happen again.  The Vikings dragged Brett Favre back from Mississippi, kicking and screaming, to win a Super Bowl—and yet, they also find themselves at 0-2. 

Brad Childress vs. Gunther Cunningham

Chilly Gun Ornk PgG YpA YpC Drnk PpG DYpA DYpC PTS YpA INT YpC Fum Sack
PHI TEN 4 25.9 6.18 4.54 11th 20.2 6.30 3.83 24 5.89 2 3.66 1-1 6-31
PHI KCC 18 19.4 5.93 3.92 16th 20.3 6.58 4.10 37 7.69 1 5.33 3-1 1-1
MIN DET 2nd 29.4 7.18 4.15 32nd 30.9 7.78 4.42 27 6.04 0 4.5 2-1 2-1
MIN DET 2nd 29.4 7.18 4.15 32nd 30.9 7.78 4.42 27 11.10 0 4.90 2-2 1-4

All the in-division foes grant me the luxury of two meetings a year.  The 2009 Vikings were especially Watchtowerable opponents; serving as a perfect case study for why I do this.  In the first Vikings Watchtower analysis, I concluded:

We see the same pattern in all three games; therefore I feel safe concluding the following: given equal or lesser talent and execution, Gunther Cunningham’s hyperaggressive 4-3 disproportionately disrupts Brad Childress’s conservative Walsh-style offense, especially in the running game. However, a very effective deep passing game can stretch the defense, reduce QB pressure, and produce points.

In the second Vikings Watchtower, I fairly well crowed about the how the offensive output of the Vikings was indeed much lower than expected, and boldly predicted the pattern would repeat itself in the second game as well:

Rather than attempt to decide which dimension of the Vikings' offense holds the iocaine, let's go right back to the data. Despite the second-best offense in the NFL meeting the second-worst defense, that offense underperformed its season averages. I originally concluded that the Gunther Cunningham 4-3 disproportionately disrupts Childress’ conservative flavor, and that conclusion was indisputably correct.

Now, I didn’t make an actual prediction for the game beyond “a medium-to-low scoring slugfest”; I was just starting this feature, and hadn’t refined it to the level I have now. Therefore, I’ll simply refine my original prediction: Given a huge talent and execution advantage, but a definite systemic disadvantage, I expect the Vikings will meet or slightly underperform their season averages: scoring 27-30 points, passing for 6.75-7.0 yards per attempt, and rushing for 3.75-4.0 yards per carry. I have very high confidence in this prediction.

I stuck my neck pretty far out there with that “very high confidence” bit, especially as it’s quite rare for two teams to play each other twice in one season and have duplicate results.  Nevertheless, that’s exactly what happened; the Vikings were again held to 27 points.  Twice the second-ranked, scoring-29.4-points-per-game Vikings offense faced the dead-last-ranked, allowing-30.9-points-per-game defense, and twice they scored only 27 points.  Clearly, whether it’s through scheme or playcalling, the Lions’ defense “has the Vikings’ number.”

Astoundingly, the Vikings have the second-lowest-scoring offense in the NFL, averaging just 9.5 points through the first two games.  Granted, those two defenses are the Saints and the Dolphins, currently 10th and 1st in the NFL in scoring defense, but still—the Vikings aren’t playing like they did in 2009.  With a mere 6.3 YpA, the passing offense that was so successful last season looks completely pedestrian in 2010.

I’m not certain I buy it.  It’s true that Favre is missing his favorite target from last season, Sydney Rice—and it’s true that Favre’s offensive line is in the process of crossing the line between “experienced” to “old”.  Still, I don’t think the Silver Fox is completely out of magic.  An awakening is due, and a home game against the Lions seems like the perfect wake-up call.

Still, Rice isn’t coming back this week, and new WR addition Hank Baskett is unlikely to make an impact in his first game in purple.  If we blame the Vikings’ precipitous drop in effectiveness on Rice, and a rusty Ironman, the Lions should still be facing these Vikings as they are.  The Vikes are averaging ten points a game, having faced two top ten defenses.  We can posit that against the Lions’ twenty-seventh ranked scoring defense (27.0 ppg), they should score something more like 20-23 points.

Given a slight advantage in execution, and a proven systemic advantage, I expect the Vikings to perform slightly below expectations.  With little data about the Vikings’ 2010 offensive norms, I project them to score 17-20 points.  I project them to throw for 6.5-7.0 YpA, and rush for 4.5-4.75 YpA.  I have medium confidence in this projection.

Mitigating/Augmenting Influences

Well, Brett Favre is Brett Favre, and when Brett Favre Brett Favres ya, you just never know what’s coming and then BOOM!  The Lions, as a franchise, have never beaten Brett Favre on his own turf, and there’s a reason for that: Favre is the greatest quarterback of all time, and the Lions have been perennially terrible on the road, and against the pass.  They may be better at both this season, but enough to finally take down #4?  That’s still a big ask, as humbled as the great one may currently be.

Scott Linehan vs. Leslie Frazier

Lin Fraz Ornk PgG YpA YpC Drnk PpG DYpA DYpC PTS YpA INT YpC Fum Sack
MIN TBB 8th 24.4 6.60 5.3 1st 12.2 4.88 3.79 24 7.78 2 7.52 3-11 2-1
MIN IND 6th 25.3 7.16 4.71 19th 21.9 7.15 4.43 28 8.89 0 5.75 2-1 2-15
MIA TBB 16th 19.9 5.94 3.69 8th 17.1 6.15 3.46 13 6.21 0 3.56 3-2 4-24
DET MIN 27th 16.4 5.27 3.92 10th 19.5 6.89 4.14 13 5.07 2 3.79 2-1 2-16
DET MIN 27th 16.4 5.27 3.92 10th 19.5 6.89 4.14 10 4.39 0 4.23 2-1 3-20

In the first Vikings Watchtower, I concluded:

given greater or equal talent, Scott Linehan’s balanced offense significantly outperforms its averages when facing a Dungy-style Tampa 2, especially against the run. Given lesser talent, Linehan’s offense meets or mildly outperforms expectations against a T2. However, a disproportionate amount of sacks and turnovers seem to be created by a Tampa 2 when facing a Linehan offense.

Though I wasn't projecting specific point totals at that point in my Watchtowering, I felt as though the 13-point, 2-sack, 2-INT performance by the Lions' offense bore out my conclusion.  From the second Watchtower:

I originally concluded that given lesser talent, Scott Linehan’s balanced offense meets or slightly exceeds expectations against a Dungy-style defense, even while allowing more sacks and/or turnovers. This conclusion was confirmed by the results of Week 2.

Again, I’ll refine my original prediction: with lesser talent, and therefore a small-to-zero systemic advantage, the Lions will slightly underperform, or approach, their season averages: 14-17 points scored, 5.0-5.25 YpA, and 3.75-4.0 YpC. I have very high confidence in this prediction.

The Lions actually fell slightly short of this projection, mustering only ten points.  Stafford didn’t throw an interception—but this was accomplished by almost never taking a risk.  The miniscule 4.39 YpA (51 attempts for only 224 yards!) shows the extensive degree to which the Lions were ankle-biting.  If they have any hope of beating Brett Favre and the Vikings this time around, they will not be able to do it by throwing it no farther than they could run it.

So far this year, the Lions are scoring at a well-above-average clip, 23.0 PpG.  This is good for 10th-best in the NFL (though, of course, with only two games played, it’s hard to assign that fact much weight).  The Vikings’ offense has slipped, but the defense is as stout as ever—through two games, they’ve allowed only 21 offensive points to the Saints and Dolphins combined.  It’s worth noting that this same Saints offense averaged 31.9 points last season!

It’s safe to assume the Vikings’ defense will remain a top ten unit.  Given their performances with Shaun Hill in, it’s tempting to say that the Lions’ offense will remain a top ten unit as well.  Given the propensity for the Lions to outperform averages, especially on the ground, against Minnesota, I think we need to look at their current scoring average, 23.0 points, and make it the target.  Given an equal (or slightly lesser) level of talent and execution, and a mild systemic advantage, the Lions should roughly meet their season averages, scoring 20-24 points.  They should pass for 6.0-6.5 YpA, and rush for 3.5-3.75 YpC.  I have medium confidence in this projection.

Mitigating/Augmenting Influences

There are a slew of these.  The Vikings’ defensive averages, as well as the Lions’ offensive averages, are far from solid—they’re both based on just two games.  The Lions have played against two (presumably) stout defenses in the Bears and Eagles; yet their average is certainly inflated by the two TDs scored against the Eagles’ prevent defense.  Then again, they had a TD on the Bears erroneously taken off the board, so that may be a wash.

Meanwhile, the Vikings have held the vaunted Saints offense to just 14 points, and the much-less-vaunted-but-nothing-to-sneeze-at Dolphins offense to only 7.  Even with a systemic advantage tilting the field towards the Lions, this is an extremely stout defense.  It makes me very, very nervous.


All the stars are aligning for the Lions: the Vikings offense is in disarray, the numbers seem to point their way, and they've played well enough to win (without winning) for two games.  It seems like the dam has to burst, like the time has finally come.  Paula Pasche of the Oakland Press has already gone out on a limb and predicted victory; the numbers compel me to do the same.  The Brett Favre loss streak, the road loss streak, the axemen ready to chop that limb to the ground?  Well, I’ll just have to brave them with her.  The most likely outcome of the game is a close Lions win, with above-average rushing performances from both sides, and a 21-17 final score.

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