The Watchtower: Lions vs. Rams

>> 10.07.2010


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

Lin Spags Ornk PgG YpA YpC Drnk PpG DYpA DYpC PTS YpA INT YpC FumL 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 4.33 3-1 3-28
STL NYG 30th 14.5 5.67 3.95 5th 18.4 6.24 3.97 13 5.53 1 4.25 0-0 6-44
DET STL 27th 16.4 7.80 4.42 31st 27.2 7.67 4.40 8 5.09 1 3.85 0-0 2-6
DET STL 13th 20.5 5.78 3.69 4th 13.0 6.28 4.56            

In last season’s Watchtowering of the Rams, I reminded folks that I was a fan of Head Coach 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.

Augmenting/Mitgating Influences:

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

Shurm Gun Ornk PgG YpA YpC Drnk PpG DYpA DYpC PTS YpA INT YpC FumL 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 37 7.69 1 1.65 3-1 1-1
STL DET 32nd 10.9 4.95 4.34 32nd 30.9 5.42 4.42 17 5.9 1 5.77 0-0 0-0
STL DET 16th 19.2 5.49 3.46 25th 26.5 8.03 4.85            

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.

Mitigating/Augmenting Influences:

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.


Tinderbox: Impending Doom


I’m currently working on the Watchtower for the Rams game, and I can’t get away from a sense of impending doom.  No, the numbers don’t look that bad—in fact, I have no logical reason for this whatsoever.  It’s just . . . well, this one was supposed to be the patsy, the gimme, the sure thing.  And, well, I don’t know if you folks remember, but the Rams were supposed to be the patsy last season too, and, well . . .

Impending doom.

Okay!  Enough of that; let’s keep this fire going.

Remember that time Alphonso Smith was a guy the Lions might have taken with the second pick in second round of last season's draft, but instead they took Louis Delmas so Denver traded their first-round pick this year to take Alphonso Smith instead, and then the Broncos decided they didn’t like him or something and traded us Alphonso Smith for Dan Gronkowski?  Well, Shawn Windsor of the Freep writes that Smith is pushing for a starting spot now, much as if the Lions had taken him in the second round to begin with.

If Smith and Houston continue to play well, it will be a huge boon to the defense—and we may have two starters at cornerback that start next year, as well.  If my research is correct, that’s the first time that’s happened since the Bryant Westbrook/Terry Fair combination, more than a decade ago.

Tom Kowalski writes that Sam Bradford is, if not actually scared, well aware of the heat the Lions’ pass rush can generate:

"To be honest, I think that it's one of the better defenses that we've seen,'' Bradford said. "They're very good up front. I think they cause a lot of problems with what they do up front, with some of the pressures that they bring."

People: the Lions are tied for fifth in the NFL in sacks, with thirteen.  That is HALF of their 2009 total!  They’re fourth in sacks-per-dropback, with ten.  Of course, they’re still 30th in opponent yards-per-attempt, and 28th in opponent passer rating—this is still not a good pass defense.  But pass rush?  Yes, and the Lions will be facing their best-yet combination of sackable quarterback, and porous offensive line.  That, at least, is something to get excited about.



Watchtower Review: Lions at Packers

>> 10.06.2010

I do not feel like doing this.

In the Watchtower for the Packers game, I said this about the Packers’ offense:

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.

It looks as though the Packers overshot this window--but Charles Woodson’s pick-six accounted for seven of the Packers’ 28 points.  With only 21 points scored, the defense did even better than expected.  My running projection wasn’t too far off either; the Packers netted 4.38 yards per carry.  The Packers’ passing YpA (which is a devil to predict) was 10.65; that’s much more than I expected.  Finally, my projection called for four-to-six sacks, but the Lions managed only two.

How did the Packers run and pass better than they usually do, get help from the Lions with massive penalties, only get sacked twice, and still underperform scoring expectations?  For starters, turnovers—even though the Lions turned it over three times, the Packers turned it over four times, killing drives.  Second, the way the Lions repeatedly handed the Packers the ball, and yards via penalties, reduced the number of snaps the offense had to take. 

The Lions only sacked the Packers twice, yes—but Rodgers only dropped back to pass nineteen times.  In the first three games, Rodgers had been sacked a total of three times—on 108 dropbacks.  With the Lions’ sack rate on Sunday, once per 9.5 dropbacks, if Rodgers had been forced to throw as many times as he usually has this season (36), the Lions would have garnered 3.79 sacks.  Of course, if we’re playing that game, the Packers’ 32.21 attempts, at 10.65 YpA, would have netted them 343.04 passing yards . . . so let’s not look a gift horse in the mouth.  The Lions got two sacks on 19 dropbacks, and that's good.

Ultimately, the Lions depressed the Packers' scoring with a couple of sacks (one killing a crucial late-third-quarter drive), four turnovers, and good old-fashioned ball control. The Packers only had time to run 38 offensive plays . . . you just can’t generate a lot of points with so few bites at the apple.

Now, let me take a moment to address longtime commenter Matt, who routinely drops knowledge in the comments (more than I can adequately respond to!).  Here’re some excerpts of Matt’s challenge to my Watchtower conclusions:

There's a problem with your analysis. You say the Packers are getting gashed by the run, but if you check the box scores, it's not really true.

. . . By these numbers, the Packers have given up 333 yards on 67 carries (4.97 ypc), but 152 of those yards and 17 of those carries came from QBs (two-thirds of THAT being Vick). That leaves the running backs gaining only 3.6 yards per carry. Even though they haven't faced any of the elite RBs yet, the Packers aren't as bad against the run as some numbers suggest. They just let the QB slip out every now and then and once that QB was Vick.

This is a great point; I was remiss not to break it down further.  The Packers aren’t any softer than usual against tailbacks this season; Jahvid Best   These things have a way of working themselves out, though . . .

With all this in mind, I don't think Sunday looks very bright for Jahvid Best, regardless of how the toe feels. That being said, if he plays around 80-90%, there's a good chance he scores whatever touchdowns the Lions manage. I also don't think the Lions are getting 9 yards a carry out of Shaun Hill.

Thanks to that wild 40-yard scamper, they actually got 13.25!  Of course, I would never have predicted it, and it shows that 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.

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.

The rushing, as we discussed, was thrown off by Shaun Hill's scramble. The Lions' team per-carry average was a stout 5.86!  Jahvid Best and Kevin Smith combined for 15 carries and 62 yards, or 4.13 YpC.  That’s a half-yard better than the tailback-rushing-allowed figure Matt so helpfully calculated, and over a full yard better than the Lions’ season averages so far.  Clearly, the advantage Linehan has over Capers in the running game came into play.

As far as the passing goes, at first blush the Lions were much better than expected—but the Lions only averaged 6.13 YpA.  It wasn’t so much that the Lions were much more effective through the air than usual, it was when they were effective, completing 62.9% of their passes and converting 10/17 third downs, the Lions possessed the ball, moved the chains, and got many more bites at the apple.  Also, just as their defensive penalties were making the field shorter for the Green Bay offense, the Lions’ offensive penalties were making the field longer for themselves.  They padded out that 331 yard passing-yard total by getting back a lot of they yards they gave tot he Packers—they key point here, though, is that they did get those yards back.

Clearly, the Lions outperformed my projections for points, strengthening the trend of Linehan offenses outperforming Capers/LeBeau 3-4 defenses.  What’s maddening, though, is that they left so much on the table: four second-half scoring drives ended in field goals instead of touchdowns, most notably this sequence right here:

1-6-GB 6 (12:12)

    14-Sh.Hill pass incomplete short right to 81-C.Johnson.

2-6-GB 6 (12:06)

    (Shotgun) 14-Sh.Hill pass incomplete short left to 80-B.Johnson (38-T.Williams).

3-6-GB 6 (12:00)

    (Shotgun) 14-Sh.Hill pass incomplete short left to 85-T.Scheffler.

4-6-GB 6 (11:54)

    4-J.Hanson 24 yard field goal is GOOD, Center-48-D.Muhlbach, Holder-2-N.Harris.

When you have 1st and goal from your opponent's 6-yard-line, and your last three drives all ended in field goals . . . you have to score a touchdown there.  You just have to.  If the Lions can’t figure out their red-zone strategy. . . or, more accurately, if Shaun Hill can’t figure out how to execute the Lions’ red-zone strategy, the Lions will continue to be unable to close games until Matthew Stafford comes back.


A Beautiful Day for Football: A New Michigan State Football Blog

>> 10.05.2010

As we approach the annual Michigan – Michigan State game—with the most at stake since my freshman year at State—I’m finding my thoughts circling back towards MSU football, and words tickling at the tips of my fingers.  I have no place to put them, though, and every pro-MSU or anti-U-M statement (here or on Twitter) brings all the Wolverine fans to the yard.  Since many Lions fans root either blue or green, I’ve created a new home for all my MSU writing, to keep it separate.

Please, check out my new Michigan State Football blog: “A Beautiful Day For Football”.  Jim, a regular reader and commenter here, will be collaborating with me on the project.  All the relevant details are in the first post (SPOILER ALERT: I will not be slowing down on TLiW at all).  I’ll be keeping people appraised of new posts on my Twitter account, @lionsinwinter—and if' it’s something really cool, I may specifically link it from here.  Otherwise, I’ll be keeping the college stuff mostly over there.  If you’ve got any feedback, postive, negative, or noncommittal—please leave a comment over there.


Three Cups Deep: Lions at Packers

>> 10.04.2010

From the Watchtower:

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.


Shaun Hill played what just might be the game of his life: he completed 34 of 54 passes, for 331 yards and two scores.  He added in four carries for 53 yards, which includes a crazy 40-yard break for daylight that I thought he might take to the house.  He spread it around, too: five Lions had 4 or more receptions.  Despite red-zone mistakes that turned some should-be-touchdowns into field goals (I threw that in for @AKDW90), Hill played balls-to-the-wall yesterday; he played as well as you can possibly expect a backup to play.  He made some mistakes, but he made enough plays to win.

The defense shut the Packers out of the last 41:39 of the game.  Let me say that again: the Lions defense kept the Packers’ offense from scoring for the last forty-one minutes of the game.  The Packers possessed the ball for only 22:23 to the Lions’ 37:37.  The Lions gained 431 net yards of offense, compared to the Packers’ 261.  The Lions converted on 10/17 third downs, compared to only 3/7 for the Packers.  By my count,the Lions had four scoring drives of nine plays or more.  Who is this dominating, ball-controlling football team, and what have they done with the Lions?

Oh, they're over here . . . next to the two interceptions, the lost fumble, and the thirteen penalties for one hundred and two yards.

As DrewsLions over at Pride of Detroit wrote this morning, “Foot, Meet Bullet.”  Watching the Lions flatly outplay the Packers in both phases of the game, shoot themselves in the foot, limp back into the game, and then shoot themselves in the other foot was a special kind of agony.  It was a new, yet familiar taste—as @alpuzz put it:

I think as Lions fans, we've experienced as many flavors of disappointment as the Lions have found ways to lose.

Yes, that’s it exactly; the Lions are the Baskin-Robbins of failure.  Just when you think you’ve sampled all 31 flavors of disappointment, you get a double scoop of the Flavor of the Month: Cheesehead Curse Failed Comeback Swirl.

Man, I know I said last night on the Fireside Chat that I was taking this one especially hard, but that might be the most depressing thing I’ve written since this blog’s first post:

The roar, my friends, was RESTORED--and the Lions were a team to be feared!

That was--oh, my God--seventeen years ago. Being a Lions fan has been an excruciating, tortured, squealing-brakes slide towards this freezing black nadir ever since.

Maybe I need a fourth cup of coffee, today.


Fireside Chat Week 4: Lions at Packers

>> 10.03.2010

Looking for my quick-take reaction to today's heart-rending loss?  Here’s last night’s Fireside Chat, for your listening pleasure:

If you’re not already subscribed (for free!) via iTunes or RSS, check out the Podcast page for all the many ways you can catch every episode.


Gameday Post: Lions at Packers

Yesterday, I was asked an unanswerable question by Pride of Detroit contributor “simscity”, who does a great "On Paper" analysis feature there ( he Tweets as @lionssuhperfan). "if you had to choose one team to get the W this weekend," he asked me, "Lions or Spartans?"

Oh dear.

There's so much riding on today's game for the Lions: getting off this season's schneid, breaking yet another interminable road losing streak, making sure Jim Schwartz doesn't have the worst first two seasons of any coach in Lions history, and--of course--leaving Lambeau victorious for the first time since my eleventh birthday.

Then again, the Spartans might be on the verge of a truly special season. A victory over Wisconsin would mean that only Michigan stood between the Spartans and a chance for rose-trimmed glory--for the first time since my ninth birthday. A win over Wisconsin, with Coach Dantonio looking on from a hospital bed, would be huge step forward for the program--and another chapter in what's shaping up to be a truly epic season for Michigan State.

Now that it's happened . . . can I eat my cheese, and have it, too?


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