The Lions’ Thanksgiving day game is the definition of routine: a tradition since 1934, it happens every single year, like clockwork. However, it royally messes with the weekly NFL routine; I woke up on Monday and started panicking about the Watchtower. Further, it’s yet another Very Special Watchtower: the one where the team has no offensive or defensive coordinator.
That's right, it's right there on the Patriots' coaches page: Bill Belichick is the head coach, runs the offense and the defense, and has a cadre of trusted position-coach assistants. That’s it. Examining his track record on both sides of the ball, without crediting him too much or too little, is going to be insanely tricky. So, let’s get right to it.
Bill Belichick vs. Gunther Cunningham
As you all most certainly are aware, Belichick started out in New England with a noteworthy offensive coordinator: Charlie Weis, currently the OC in KC. However, Belichick has a long track record of understanding offense, and calling his team’s offensive plays. I don’t want to lend too much weight to the first four rows (the Weis) years—but it’s clear that Belichick has had his fingers in the offense the entire time, and further it’s clear that Weis did not take the Patriots’ offensive mojo with him to Notre Dame.
In 2002, New England’s offense and Tennesee’s defense were both pretty good (10th & 11th, respectively), yet the Titans held the Pats to just 7 points, 70.6% below their average. in 2004, the Pats’ offense was a juggernaut—4th in the NFL—and the Chiefs’ defense was wretched. Yet, the Patriots’ offensive output precisely matched their season average scored—and the Chiefs’ season average allowed: 27 points. Sounding great so far . . .
. . . but in 2000, the Patriots offense was well below average (25th, 17.2 ppg), and put up thirty points on the 19th-ranked Chiefs. In 2003, the Pats and Chiefs were again quite evenly matched in terms of execution (12th and 13th), but the Pats went nuts, scoring 42% above their season average. So what can we conclude? Nothing. This might be the most schizophrenic data I’ve ever seen.
The only non-Weis data point we have came in 2005, when Belichick’s 6th-ranked Patriots (and their 25.2 PpG average) faced off against Gunther’s 16th-ranked Chiefs, averaging 20.3 points allowed. Impressively, the Chiefs bottled up the Pats, holding them to just 16 offensive points—a delta of 36%!
Looking at the table above, the only commonality I see between the two best results for the Cunningham defense is how the pass was limited. In both 2002 and 2005, the Pats were held to well below their season averages in per-play effectiveness through the air—and consequently their scoring output was WELL below normal. So, if the Lions can manage to hold the Patriots to 85% or less of their 2010 YpA . . .
. . . unfortunately, the Patriots have the #1 offense in the NFL. They’re scoring 28.9 points per game, and have been surprisingly balanced while doing so. Averaging 6.85 YpA, and 4.09 YpC, they’ll present an extremely tough out for the Lions defense. That defense, by the way, is ranked 23rd, allowing 22.4 points per game. As a point of reference, the Lions were dead last in 2009, 2008, and 2007—and 30th in 2006. The last time the Lions defense was this good was in 2005, when they were ranked 21st and allowed 21.6 ppg.
Still, I don't see an out-of-nowhere performance that holds the Pats to 13 points happening, here. Bill Belichick respects Schwartz, a former assistant, too much to show up for this game unprepared—and when was the last time BB let that happen anyway? With no systemic advantage or disadvantage, save a possible what-if-they-don’t-pass-for-beans-corollary that I don’t see coming to fruition, I project the Patriots to meet expectations against the Lions, scoring 30-35 points, netting 7.0-7.50YpA, and garnering 4.25-4.50 YpC. I have medium confidence in this projection.
Well, the sold-out crowd should help the Lions, if it’s not over in the fourth quarter. Belichick knows Schwartz well, but Schwartz also knows Belichick well. My guess is we’ll see some creative wrinkles from Gun, and likely some go-for-broke blitzes as well. However, I don’t see that adding up to a mysteriously stout passing defense shutting down Tom Brady. I’m pretty sure the 30-35 projection will be accurate.
Scott Linehan vs. Bill Belichick
Ah, here we go: a good old-fashion OC vs. DC comparison, even if the DC in question wasn’t the DC for the first matchup. In fact, in the interests of time, let’s skip the fourth matchup too: it came with the Rams, after Linehan was fired, and that data has been notoriously unreliable as I’ve worked through these Watchtowers.
Fortunately, that leaves us with the best data possible: two points in the same season with the same teams. Better yet, in the year that it occurred—2005—these two units were remarkably similar to this 2010 matchup. The Dolphins were ranked 16th on offense, averaging 5.94 YpA and 3.69 YpC. The Lions are ranked 15th on offense, averaging 5.84 YpA and 3.45 YpC (these numbers were spooky-close before the Cowboys game dragged them down: 5.95 and 3.63!). In ‘05, the Pats were ranked 17th on defense, allowing 21.1 PpG, 7.30 YpA, and 3.44 YpC. This season, the Pats are much more balanced in run/pass effectiveness (6.85/4.24), but notably worse in scoring prevention: ranked 23rd, they’re allowing 24.2 points per game.
So, given this perfect little test kitchen for what happens when a Scott Linehan offense meets a Bill Belichick 3-4 hybrid defense . . . what happened? In the first contest, the Fins managed only 16 points, 19.6% below their season averages. Oddly, they passed for well above their season average: 7.66 YpA, 29.0% above their norm. However, they ran for only 3.08 YpC, down 16.5% (and terrible in an absolute sense). In the second contest, the Fins scored 26, 30.7 above their average. They passed for 6.83 YpA, splitting the difference between their norms and the first game—but ran for 3.70 YpC, exactly meeting their season average. In fact, the only difference I can find is weather:
Stadium: Dolphin Stadium, Start Time: 1:00, Surface: grass, Weather: 77 degrees, relative humidity 63%, wind 15 mph [Dolphins scored 16 points]
Stadium: Gillette Stadium, Start Time: 1:00, Surface: grass, Weather: 28 degrees, relative humidity 83%, wind 11 mph, wind chill 18 [Dolphins scored 26 points]
That's right, the Dolphins did much better on the road, in nasty weather . . . of course, this game will be at home, in a dome.
The bottom line here is that I’m finding wildly variant results. With no systemic advantage, or disadvantage, I expect Scott Linehan’s balanced offense to meet expectations against Bill Belichick’s 3-4 hybrid defense: 23-27 points, 5.5-6.5 YpA, and 3.5-3.75 YpA. I have medium confidence in this projection.
We saw a big jump from Shaun Hill in his third game as a Lions starter, nearly outdueling Aaron Rodgers at Lambeau. He was clearly much better against the Cowboys than Bills—and if he takes another step forward towards the form he showed in Green Bay, and against the Rams, the Lions could definitely keep pace in a shootout. However, the Lions just can’t run the ball right now, and I have to think the 8-2 Pats are ready to pin their ears back and win a turkey leg, or that iron, or that horrible robot turkey, or whatever it is they give out these days.
One little thing to keep an eye on: trickeration. Schwartz knows Belichick, and Belichick knows Schwartz. This game is the Lions’ signature game, and last season they started Matthew Stafford, the franchise quarterback, despite a separated shoulder and no practice. Hmm. I’m not suggesting that Stafford starts this game, necessarily, but that we see The Grandmaster dig into that “HB Option Pass” section of the playbook—perhaps even the offensive package for Ndamukong Suh? A side projection: we will see at least one offensive play or package from the Lions that we haven’t ever seen before. Keep that in your back pocket.
I’ve been burned three weeks in a row—three straight times I’ve projected Lions victory and had my heart ripped out (along with all of you). This time, the data leads me down no primrose path: the most likely result of this game is a 32-24 Lions loss. I hope it’s close in the fourth quarter, I hope there are some signature moments, and I hope the nation comes away feeling like the Lions are interesting again. I also hope the Lions win, but I have no objective reason to think they will.