The Watchtower: Lions vs. Packers

>> 12.10.2010


The Packers are sitting at 8-4, one game behind the Bears in the race to the top of the NFC North.  The Lions are sitting at 2-10, three games ahead of the Vikings in the race to the bottom of the NFC North.  By the Simple Ranking System, both teams are much, much better than their record implies: the Packers’s value is 10.0; #2 in the NFL.  Meanwhile, the Lions are valued at 0.0, and ranked 16th.  Statistically speaking, the Lions are the median team: right smack dab in the middle of the NFL, in terms of relative strength.  But is that enough to compete with the mighty Pack, even before a sold-out Ford Field?

Mike McCarthy vs. Gunther Cunningham

NOS 14 21.2 6.43 4.46 TEN 29th 27.2 8.05 4.62 12 -43% 8.04 25% 1.53 -66%
NOS 14 21.8 6.62 3.96 KCC 16th 20.3 6.58 4.10 27 24% 9.59 45% 5.83 47%
GBP 3rd 28.8 7.56 4.30 DET 32nd 30.9 5.42 4.42 26 -10% 9.68 28% 3.57 -17%
GBP 3rd 28.8 7.56 4.30 DET 32nd 30.9 5.42 4.42 34 18% 8.92 18% 2.96 -31%
GBP 7th 25.2 7.68 3.99 DET 25th 25.5 7.18 4.58 21 -17% 10.65 39% 4.28 7%
GBP 7th 25.2 7.68 3.99 DET 25th 25.5 7.18 4.58            

In the last Watchtowering of the Packers, I discussed the very strong statistical trend we’ve seen when Mike McCarthy faces Gunther Cunningham:

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.

In the last two meetings, however, the Packers’ offense has underperformed even this.  In both cases, the Packers scored the amount of points I projected—but with the help of a defensive touchdown, meaning the offense was a full TD below what expectations project.  Last time, I projected the Packers to do the following:

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.

The Pack did bomb it down the field, picking up 10.65 YpA—but with only 17 attempts, and two of those picked off, that only amounted to 181 yards.  The Lions did cede the run to the Pack in the process: 4.28 YpC.  The Lions sacked the Packers twice (on only 19 dropbacks), though, and recovered two fumbles in addition to those two INTs.  The disruption in scoring is obvious: the Packers are the 7th-best scoring offense in football this year, averaging 25.2 PpG, and the Lions—the 25th-ranked defense—held them to just 21 offensive points.  Keep in mind, the Lions have been allowing 25.5 points per game on the average; to hold the 7th-best offense to less than what you’ve been allowing on average all year is an impressive feat.

So.  The Lions are allowing 25.5 points per game, the Packers are scoring 25.2 points per game.  The Lions have since put their #1 DE, Kyle Vanden Bosch, and #2 corner, Alphonso Smith, on Injured Reserve.  However, the Packers have since lost #1 RB Ryan Grant, and #1 TE Jermichael Finley to injuries, as well.  The last game was at Lambeau, but this game will be a a Packer-fan-filled Ford Field.  As I said last week, rarely do two meetings between two teams in the same season end up with the same result, but all the factors seem to cancel each other out.

It seems unlikely that the Lions’ defense does that well against an offense that good twice in a row, though, so I’m going to project the Packers to slightly underperform scoring expectations: gaining 23-26 points.  I expect the Lions to be more successful defending the pass with zone coverage, allowing 8.0-8.5 YpA, at the expense of fewer interceptions.  The Lions will likely cede the run to the Packers again, allowing 4.25-4.5 YpC.  I have high confidence in this projection.

Mitigating/Aggravating Factors:

Again, with such a consistent trend, and a prior game this season, everything above is a mitigating or aggravating factor—we’re just looking to see what will modify what happened before.  As I said, in Week 4, the Lions managed to hold the Packers’ offense to as few points as can be expected, given how effective they were on a per-play basis.  If the same offense shows up this week, I don’t see the Lions being so fortunate.  On the other hand . . .

This week, ESPN NFC North blogger Kevin Seifert pointed out that Greg Jennings has put the team on his back, much like the (uproariously NSFW-audio-laden) Madden clip we all know and love:


Look for the Lions to drop eight men into coverage on a regular basis, essentially the same game plan we saw against the Patriots on Thanksgiving.  The idea is to get enough rush from the front four to slow down the Pack’s offense just long enough for the Lions’ offense to outscore them.  Greg Jennings will be the key to this game for the Packers’ offense.  If the Lions can stop him with double- and triple-teams, I don’t think Donald Driver and Donald Lee will be enough to score more than the 23-26 I project, if enough to score that much at all.

Scott Linehan vs. Dom Capers

Lin Ornk PgG YpA YpC Dom Drnk PpG DYpA DYpC PTS PTSΔ YpA YpAΔ YpC YpCΔ
MIN 6th 25.3 7.16 4.71 HOU 21st 19.3 6.89 3.92 34 34% 7.92 11% 4.69 0%
STL 30th 14.5 5.67 3.95 MIA 21st 21.6 6.61 2.35 12 -17% 4.26 -25% 4.30 9%
DET 24th 18.1 5.60 3.91 GBP 12th 20.3 6.17 4.46 0 -100% 4.20 -25% 4.33 11%
DET 27th 16.4 7.80 4.42 GBP 7th 18.6 5.96 3.59 12 -27% 4.95 -37% 3.17 -28%
DET 13th 23.2 5.92 3.72 GBP 1st 15.7 6.02 4.49 26 12% 6.13 4% 5.86 58%
DET 13th 23.2 5.92 3.72 GBP 1st 15.7 6.02 4.49            

Last year, I thought I’d identified a systemic advantage for Scott Linehan against Dom Capers (and most 3-4 defenses), where the running game was disproportionately effective, and scoring was therefore disproportionately higher.  Then, Daunte Culpepper went out and Daunte Culpeppered the Lions to a big stinky shutout in their first matchup against the Pack, seemingly blowing my theory out of the water.   However, this season has shown that my initial conclusion has legs.

This year, the Packers have the #1 scoring defense in the NFL.  Yes, that’s right, let me say that again: this year, the Packers have the #1 scoring defense in the NFL.  You wouldn’t know it from how little attention this fact has received, but it’s true.  Nevertheless, Shaun Hill led the Lions to a 26-point day against these Packers on the road, and his 40-yard scramble led the Lions’ rushing attack to an impressive 5.86 YpC.

In the comments on the last Watchtower, commenter Matt pointed out that a lot of the Packers’ rushing yards allowed to that point were gained by Michael Vick—and sure enough, the Packers allowed the Lions some significant scramble yardage, as well.  I replied in the Watchtower Review:

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.

Well, I can’t find an quick answer for how many yards the Packers have been surrendering to rushing quarterbacks, or if that total’s unusually high.  However, the Packers are allowing 4.49 YpC on the ground, 7th-worst in the NFL—so clearly, my notion that the Packers are generally struggling against the run was true.  Further, the Lions will be starting Drew Stanton, whose running ability is well-known, and whom the Lions have never hesitated to call designed running plays for.  I expect to see at least one rushing touchdown, or 20-plus-yard scramble, from Drew Stanton on Sunday.

Typically, the Lions are outgained by their opponents, but keep games close with red-zone defense, sacks, and turnovers.  However,  against the Packers, the Lions actually far outgained the Pack, outrushing them 123 to 91, and outpassing them 331 to 181.  It was only a slew of costly penalties that kept the Lions from scoring thirty or more the last time around.  I don’t expect the Lions to put up 454 yards against the Packers this time around, but I do project them to be more productive with their yards: scoring 17-23 points, gaining 4.50-5.00 YpC, and throwing for 5.75-6.00 YpA.

Mitigating/Augmenting Factors:

First, this presumes that Drew Stanton plays like he did last week: an efficient, effective, conservative backup quarterback.  If Stanton has a regression to his “2009 49ers game” form, this will be an ugly blowout.  However, there’s an X factor here named Jahvid Best. We saw a return to form last week, and if he still has that burst, that bounce, he could do an awful lot of damage against a Green Bay defense that’s lost three of its top five linebackers for the year.  Finally, in the first matchup, Brandon Pettigrew made a lot more headlines for the two or three crucial passes he dropped, than the eight he caught for 91 yards.  Likely being matched up against A.J. Hawk, as 49ers TE Vernon Davis was last week (4 catches, 126 yards, 1 TD) could result in a field day for Jumbotron.


The Lions gave the Packers their best shot in Week 4, and lost the game mostly by shooting themselves in the foot.  Between a truly massive amount of penalties (13 for 102 yards), and the now-obligatory Charles Woodson pick-six, the Lions let the Packers off the hook.  As I said above, it’s hard to believe that the Lions could play that well against a team as talented as Green Bay twice in once season—and yet, it’s there.  It’s there for them, again.  They lost by two on the road before, they can win this one at home.  They can . . . but they won’t.  Here’s what I said at the end of the last Watchtower:

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.

CTRL-C, CTRL-V, folks.  This will be an extremely painful 17-24 defeat.


Kyle Vanden Bosch: Music With What We Have Left

>> 12.08.2010

Kyle Vanden Bosch drives Eli Manning into the ground as the Detroit Lions very nearly, but not quite, defeat the New York Giants.

I named this post after a beautiful--but apocryphal--story about violin virtuoso Itzhak Perlman finishing a concert after breaking a string.  Perlman, so the story goes, snapped a string very early in the performance—and forged ahead, using alternate fingerings, different voicings, even detuning strings (!) on the fly to complete the piece without missing a beat.  Perlman, who was stricken with polio as a youth and so walks with crutches, then quieted the enthralled audience and (allegedly) said, “You know, sometimes it’s the artist’s task to find out how much music you can still make with with what you have left.”

Again, as I said, it didn’t actually happen, as far as anyone can tell—the story appeared in the Houston Chronicle six years after the concert supposedly took place, doesn’t jibe with Perlman’s known performance schedule from the time, and nobody who saw him perform around then reported anything like the above . . . but it is a good story.

Today, Kyle Vanden Bosch was placed on the Reserve-Injured list, ending his first season as a Detroit Lion.  A captain, and the unquestioned heart and soul of the defense, KVB finished with 33 tackles, 11 assists, 4 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, and a pass defensed.  This included a monster 10-tackle tour de force in the season opener; one of the greatest individual performances by a Lion in recent memory.  We’re told not to worry, the bulging disk will be easily corrected, and KVB will return to play “at a high level.”  I’d be inclined to question The Grandmaster on this one, except he was right about how much KVB had left in the tank to begin with . . .

So what’s left?  A freshly-broken-out Cliff Avril, Turk McBride, Lawrence Jackson, and (the Great) Willie Young.  If Avril can keep up his dominant play, this group won’t be too shabby—especially if the tackles continue to play as they have.  However, that’s a pretty big “if;” KVB’s leadership inarguably inspired Avril and the rest of the line to play as they have—will they keep it up in his absence?  In a way, KVB’s absence will allow us to judge his off-field impact on the team, just as much as his presence allowed us to judge his impact between the lines.

Moreover, it’ll be a stern test of just how far the defense has come under Schwartz and Cunningham: can they keep this group motivated and productive without the man they desperately courted in the offseason?  Knowing KVB would be the catalyst for great improvement on the defensive line, will the reaction keep going now that the catalyst is spent?  Can Guntherball keep playing the offense like a fiddle, calling just the right blitz at just the right time, now that a string has snapped?  We’ll get to see just how much music he can still make with what he has left.


Watchtower Review: Lions vs. Bears

>> 12.06.2010

Okay, last thing first:

The one thing I’ve learned over the past two years of doing this preview, is that when the same teams play twice in a season, the results are rarely the same. But the data points to a repeat—and the injury problems for the Lions should be offset by the difference between a season-opening road game, and a midseason sellout. This is a statement game in many respects, and turnovers will likely make the difference. Last time, there were five fumbles (three lost), two picks, and 6 sacks for –42 yards. I see a similarly messy game this time around; how those turnovers and sacks are distributed will be the difference in the outcome. I am tempted to call this a draw, but at this point in the season, I’ll go out on a limb one more time—despite having a limb hacked out from underneath me three times already this season. I hesitantly project a 21-20 Lions victory, if for no other reason than the Lions need it much more than the Bears want it.

Right.  At this point, I’m not even going to slap myself on the wrist—the numbers said this game was a push, and that’s pretty much what played out.  The one thing I was most confident, about though, was wrong: the Lions played a nearly clean game and lost.  Stanton was sacked only twice, for a loss of 20 yards.  He threw no interceptions, and the Lions lost no fumbles.  Meanwhile, the Lions sacked the Bears 4 times for a loss of 37 yards, and one of those was a sack-fumble inside the Bears' 10 that the Lions recovered.  Clearly, the distribution of sacks and turnovers wasn't the difference in the game, as I said it would be.

Here’s where I tip my cap to Mike Martz.  The offensive gameplan we saw in Week 1 was Mike Martz football: four wide, spread it out, throw throw throw, lots of yards, lots of picks, a tailback doing more damage through the air than on the ground.  Here’s what I projected based on the numbers the Bears have put up all year:

It looks as though the only statistical trend for these two coaches, when facing off against one another, is that both units will play to their means: the 20.2-ppg Bears scored 19 against the 22.4-ppg Lions. Note, however, that that included about thirty minutes of shutout play in between Matt Forte receiving touchdowns. Given the data at hand, I’m inclined to project a repeat performance: 17-21 points, 7.50-8.00 YpA, and 4.0-4.25 YpC. I have medium confidence in this projection.

Here's what actually happened: the Bears scored 24 points, completed 21 of 26 for 9.00 YpA, and carried 28 times for 4.07 YpC.  That's not Martz football, that's Bears football.  The game plan went like this: run, screen, draw, slant, run, run, draw, screen, slant, run, draw, screen, slant, run, run.  They partially neutralized the Lions’ blitzing, and put Cutler in great situations that minimized his opportunity to make mistakes. 

Chester Taylor, a misfit toy who’s been paid a lot of money to not really do anything this season, had his coming-out party: 9 carries for 33 yards and a score, plus five catches for 31 yards.  Forte, though not as devastating with the long receptions this time, was equally effective: 13 carries for 64 yards and a score, plus two catches for 36 yards.  The Bears ruthlessly attacked the Lions’ outside linebackers, who were rendered helpless by Earl Bennett’s speed up the seam, and overmatched on screen by the Bears’ tight ends.  Again, Mike Martz has found out how to make the Bears’ talent go, and had a perfect gameplan to attack the Lions’ defense.

This isn’t to say that Gunther didn’t do his job, too.  Despite the steady diet of screens and draws, the Lions’ pass rush got to Cutler over and over again; both with well-timed blitzes and great front-four performances.  The Bears’ gameplan was to minimize Cutler’s exposure and they still brought him down four times; that is impressive indeed.  What we’re left with is what we knew all along: the Lions’ back seven cannot cover anybody

Everyone wants to know why the Lions can’t close out games; look at the opponent’s quarterbacks completing pass after pass after pass in the fourth quarter and you’ll see why. Eventually, the front four can no longer hold back the flood; the dam bursts.  This is purely due to lack of talent, and cannot be fixed until the offseason.

Offensively, here’s what I projected:

Given a mild yard-producing advantage for Scott Linehan balanced offenses against Lovie Smith aggressive Tampa 2 defenses, I project the Lions to roughly meet expectations: 17-21 points, 5.50-6.0 YpA, and 3.50-3.75 YpC. I have medium-to-high confidence in this projection.

What the Lions did was move the ball better than they have all year.

They rushed for 4.96 yards per carry.  They completed 16 of 24 passes, for 7.42 yards per attempt.  On a per-play basis, this was the most balanced, most efficient offensive game the Lions played all year—and they failed to commit a single turnover.  Let me tip my hat to Scott Linehan as well; he did a similarly masterful job in tailoring his offense to his quarterback’s strengths.  Unfortunately, it only resulted in 20 points.  Both teams were taking long, slow, controlled trips across the field—the Lions’ opening drive burned four minutes off the clock and only went 26 yards—so the Lions’ offense only had nine possessions.  Part of it is simply missed opportunities; when you get a sack-fumble inside your opponents’ ten-yard-line, you have to score.

What’s funny is, every seasoned Lions observer threw up their hands when the Lions had to settle for a field goal there.  The Lions’ radio play-by-play man, Dan Miller, fought to keep the frustration out of his voice as he talked about the importance of getting a touchdown in that situation.  Sure enough, it was the difference in the game.  This is why I don’t put a lot of stock in the “learning how to win” thing.  The Lions don’t need to go to “put the boot on the throat” school, it’s the sum total of made mistakes and unmade plays throughout the game putting them on the wrong side of the ledger at the end.

This team's talent and execution is right there.  I fully believe the Lions have made the jump into the Great Middle of the NFL; they can play and compete with anyone.  However, their youth, inexperience, and lack of depth push them to the edge of their margin for error.  If anything—anything—fluky goes wrong, they simply can’t make up for it.  This is why the keep coming close, but can’t hang on.  This is why they keep being right there, except for . . .  This is why they’re 2-10, and not 6-6.  


Three Cups Deep: Lions vs. Bears

A couple of years ago, I had what might be called a quarterlife crisis.  I’d just bought a minivan—relegating my newish five-door Pontiac Vibe to pointlessly capacious commuter duty.  In a move designed to both lower my car payment and raise my self-esteem, I decided to trade it in for an older two-seat convertible.  After months of looking for just the right car, negotiating with the dealer, dealing with the bank, navigating my way through the credit crunch, and getting the stamp of approval from Mrs. Inwinter, I finally got everything arranged.  All the pieces were in place, all the numbers were crunched—and though the deal went right down to the absolute bottom dollar, I knew I had finally gotten what I wanted.

I called the dealer to arrange pickup.  When I asked what I needed to bring with me, he said “Your proof of insurance, title, and payoff statement.”  With fresh memories of the test drive whizzing through my head, I asked my bank to fax over a copy of the payoff statement.  They did so.  It was a thousand dollars higher than I thought it’d be.

To this day I don’t know how I screwed this up, but I thought I’d owed exactly one thousand dollars less than I really did.  There was nothing to be done; I’d already spent a week going back and forth to make it happen.  I’d negotiated so hard that at one point, I was in a room with the salesman, the sales manager, the service manager, and the general manager, bending them all to my will.  To suddenly be a thousand dollars apart meant it was over.

I halfheartedly kept searching for another car, another deal, but it wasn’t meant to be.  I was, I thought, thirty minutes away from swapping keys and driving a real, live sports car home . . . instead, I was back in the wagon.  I was crushed, and for a long time felt fated—doomed, even—to drive this car into the ground.  Sadly, I consigned myself to waiting for my midlife crisis.

In the meantime, though, it’s become easy to remember why I bought this Vibe to begin with: it’s big inside without being big outside, it gets great mileage, and—with a stick—is surprisingly fun to drive, even with five doors and a sewing machine engine.  It’s far from what I wanted, and even farther from what I imagine I’ll be in the market for come Model Year 2031.  But even though it doesn’t put the “permagrin” on my face, I’ve spent a few years wringing enjoyment from this ride; I know how to be happy with it.  I know exactly how hard I can push it around every corner on my commute.  I know that with a well-timed downshift, I can coax just enough “zing” from it to gleefully thumb my nose at an oblivious cell-phone-jabbering Saturn Vue owner as I pass them with authority.

In some ways, it’s pathetic; I’m psyching myself into getting my he-man car-guy rocks off within the context of posted speed limits.  But in other ways, it’s simply acknowledging reality: I’m a happily committed family man, working hard to give my kids every opportunity that I can.  I’m not going to eat my cake unless my family can have it, too—and that day just isn’t here yet.  So, I’m making do with what I’ve got—and frankly, I’m more blessed than many around these parts these days.

Being happy while following this Lions team is much the same.  It isn’t what I want—and God knows That Glorious Day has seemed right around the corner so many times.  But . . . this is what I’ve got.  I’m a Lions fan.  If I tried to drape myself in the colors of a winner, it would be a hollow lie.  Until the day comes when the Lions win games consistently, I’m going to revel in the glory of Calvin Johnson stiff-arming half the Bears’ defense en route to the end zone.  I’m going to go crazy about Cliff Avril picking up the slack for an injured KVB with a three-sack masterpiece of a breakdout performance.  And, yes, I’m going to queue up YouTube and watch Drew Stanton run for paydirt and do something vaguely resembling “the Dougie.”

I’m not going to let this team’s limitations, inexperience, and bad luck ruin my Sundays; I’m just going to watch and cheer and hope, and cherish the good stuff that happens while the snows roll in.  It’s going to be a long, long winter when this season’s said and done . . . maybe the longest winter yet.  With an NFL lockout looming on the horizon, it’s possible that there might not even be Lions football in 2011.  So, please, don’t tune out.  Don’t unplug.  Don’t let Packers fans take over our stadium next week.  Don’t miss out on the really cool moments this team is generating, even without some of their best players.    Make do with what you’ve got, and be thankful you’ve got something to make do with at all.


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