Of all the crucial, critical, star-crossed, must-win matchups the Lions have faced so far this season, none is more important than this one. Why? Even the most pessimistic projections of the Lions win totals include this game as one of them. The Rams are the only team most onlookers felt the Lions were clearly better than heading into this season, and the matchup was commonly thought of as an island of winnability amidst division-road-game-infested waters.
Unfortunately, the Lions' ship has run aground on every reef along the way; they’ve finally beached themselves on this island’s shore, only to find restless natives that are riding a two-game winning streak and boast the NFL’s 4th-best scoring defense. Suddenly, this pencilled-in win looks like a tooth-and-nail battle—and if they can’t come up with a W before this not-yet-sold-out home crowd, it’s going to be a long, ugly, blacked-out season at Ford Field.
Scott Linehan vs. Steve Spagnuolo
Spagnuolo, for those who’ve been reading this blog since back when only seven or eight people were reading this blog, was my initial choice for Lions’ HC; I actually tagged him “Candidate 1A” after breaking down his resume.
I broke down data of matchups between Linehan and Spags’ mentor, the late Jim Johnson, and one between Linehan and Spagnuolo himself. Here’s how I put it then:
Based on the sole data point between Linehan and Spagnuolo, I'd be tempted to conclude that there’s a massive systemic advantage for Linehan, given that the woeful Rams essentially performed to their season averages against one of the best defenses in the league. However, giving some consideration to the strong Linehan/Johnson data, the correct conclusion is that given lesser or equal talent, there is a mild systemic advantage for a balanced Scott Linehan offense when facing an aggressive Steve Spagnuolo 4-3, especially when boasting an effective inside running game.
Given how poor the Rams’ defense had been up to that point (they would finish as the second-worst in football), and how kinda not that terrible the Lions’ offense had been (they would finish 27th), I felt comfortable projecting the following:
Given a definite execution advantage and a mild systemic advantage, the Lions should strongly outperform expectations--and their season averages. I would expect 24-27 points, 6.5 to 6.75 YpA, and 4.0 to 4.25 YpC. I have medium confidence in this projection.
Well, that medium confidence was wholly unfounded. The Lions mustered only 8 offensive points, 5.09 YpA, and 3.85 YpC. They did not outperform their season averages; in fact they profoundly underperformed them. This result completely confounds my prediction and rational expectations. Matthew Stafford started and played that game; it wasn’t a matter of Culpepper smothering the offense. So, what was it? I reviewed my Three Cups Deep post from after the ‘09 Rams game:
In the theatre of the mind, the DVD one feels has been popped in is the 2002 Lions. There’s rookie Joey Harrington trying to keep his head above water, throwing to a cobbled-together crew of stone-handed also-rans: Bill Schroeder, Az-Zahir Hakim, Scotty Anderson. There’s RB James Stewart, a decent NFL starting back, whose inside running style is being stymied by an offensive line unable to open inside holes. That line, of course, features Jeff Backus, Dominic Raiola, a young mammoth RT with tons of upside but questionable athleticism and instincts (Stockar McDougle), and a rotating cast of has-beens and never-wases at guard (Tony Semple, Ray Brown, Eric Beverly) . . .
The resemblance is uncanny. However, there are a few critical differences between the ‘02 Lions and the ‘09 Lions. Joey Harrington, then, was clearly “swimming”; in NFL-speak, that’s thinking instead of acting or reacting. You could watch his wheels turning, watch him trying to take it all in, watch him trying desperately to slow it all down. In 2009, Matthew Stafford looks more like he wishes he could slow it down for his teammates. He looks like he’s trying to will his team to victory—or like he’s trying to win despite them. It’s telling that on the Lions’ sole offensive score, Stafford called his own number.
Oh. Right. No Megatron.
It’s difficult to quantify exactly how much impact Calvin Johnson has on the Lions’ offense, but here’s a dramatic example. Kevin Smith led the Lions in receptions that day, with 4. Bryant Johnson’s two receptions tied him with Brandon Pettigrew, Aaron Brown, and Casey FitzSimmons for the second-most balls caught. The only other Lions to catch passes that day were Maurice Morris and Will Heller, meaning that Bryant Johnson’s 2 catches were the only catches any Lions wide receiver made that day.
Let’s say for the sake of projections, though, that that game invalidated my conclusion that Scott Linehan offenses have a systemic advantage over Steve Spagnuolo defenses (even though I’m not sure it did). The Lions are the best offense the Rams have faced so far this year, averaging 20.5 points per game—and the Rams, at least by the numbers, are the second-best scoring defense the Lions have faced this year (Minnesota is #1 overall). By the averages, then, the Lions should score 13-17 points.
However, as I've been saying, this early in the year means averages aren’t exactly gospel. The Rams have faced the Cardinals, Raiders, Redskins, and Seahawks, and allowed 17, 16, 16, and 3 points in those games. I’m inclined to believe that allowing about 16 points to a mediocre offense is where the Rams’ defense “really” is, and the Lions have a slightly-better-than-mediocre offense. They also have Calvin.
Still, the numbers are the numbers for a reason, and when I follow them they usually treat me right. Given theoretically-lesser-but-probably-really-equal talent, and a nonexistent-but-probably-really-existent systemic advantage, especially vis-a-vis the run game, I project the Lions will score 15-to-20 points, pass for 6.25-to-6.50 YpA, and rush for 4.5-to-4.75 YpC. I have low-to-medium confidence in this projection.
Pretty much as I laid out above: except for last week, the Rams are consistently allowing 16 or 17 points to mediocre offenses. Oakland is ranked 17th w/19.0 ppg, Washington's 19th with 18.2 ppg, Seattle's 18th with 18.8, and Arizona’s 29th with 14.5 ppg. The Lions are a cut above these teams—and if Jahvid Best is ready to go, he could have a monster day. If the Lions can spring him for a long run or two, the Lions could really turn this one into a shootout—or a blowout.
I don’t see any downside here. The Lions’ offense is much, much better in both dimensions than they were last year, they’re at home, and they’ve got everyone back except for Stafford. I “really” think the Lions will score 27-30 points, but the methodology just doesn’t lead to that conclusion.
Gunther Cunningham vs. Pat Shurmur
Last year was Pat Shurmur’s first as an offensive coordinator—but since he’d learned exclusively at the knee of Andy Reid, I went ahead and analyzed Gunther’s track record against Reid. The data was kind of all over the place, except for one extremely strong trend:
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.
. . . unless, of course, Steven Jackson happens.
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.
We immediately run into a problem: the Rams scored 17 points in the game, but seven of those points came on a fake field goal. I’ve said before that I only count the points scored in offense-defense interaction; I’m trying to isolate the effect of an offensive system facing a defensive system. But, unlike an interception taken back to the house, I can’t just wipe the seven points off the board here; the Lions’ defense let the Rams get within field goal range—and likely would have surrendered three points if the Rams hadn’t faked it. So, for the sake of judging my projection, I’ll rewrite history and say they attempted and made a field goal; that makes 13 points, right in line with my projections.
So. The Rams’ offense should meet talent/execution expectations against the Lions; but what are they? The Rams’ offensive output this season, is double what it was at this time last year; at 19.2 ppg they are the median offense in the NFL. Facing the Lions’ 26th-ranked defense, they should be in for an above-their-averages day. Meanwhile, the Lions’ defense should allow just about exactly their averages. Given no real systemic advantage or disadvantage, I project the Rams’ offense to meet expectations against the Lions’ defense: 23-26 points, 6.5-7.5 YpA, and 4.00-4.25 YpC. I have low-to-medium confidence in this projection.
Any time you have a rookie quarterback starting, it’s a big bag of question marks. As Chris McCosky pointed out in the News, Steven Jackson was the difference in the game last year. He’s coming off a warriorlike performance against the Seahawks, playing through a fresh groin injury—still, his 22 badass carries were only good for 3.18 yards per (70 total). If he’s no more effective this week, the Lions’ defense will be able to tee off on the quarterback.
Speaking of teeing off on the rookie, the Lions’ defensive linemen have to be drooling. With second-year tackle Jason Smith on the left, and rookie Roger Saffold on the right, and the Lions boasting the fourth-best sack rate (per dropback) in the NFL, well . . . you connect the dots. With the exception of DeAndre Levy, the whole defense will be out there—and Alphonso Smith may be getting his first start of the season, helping bolster the secondary. If Steven Jackson isn’t Steven Jackson, the Lions could put the clamps on the St. Louis offense—quickly.
The numbers tell me that the most likely outcome will be a 20-24 loss. However, I just can’t believe it. All of the factors besides the raw data point towards the Lions both scoring more, and allowing fewer, points against the Rams. My instincts tell me that the team that fell two points shy of beating the Packers in Lambeau has the edge over the Rams at home—and Vegas agrees with me; the Lions are three point favorites. Either way, it will be a closer game than we thought it’d be going into the season—but I’m going to depart from the numbers. I’m predicting a 27-17 win for the Lions.