The Watchtower: Lions vs. Vikings

>> 1.01.2011


okay seriously this guy gets me every time

Well, this is it: the final Watchtower of 2010.  If the Lions win this game, they’ll have emphatically announced their ascension from the basement of the NFL, by ascending out of the basement of their division.  If they can turn away the Vikings at the gate, the Lions will finish third—as in, not last—in the NFC North.

The players don’t particularly care—at least according to Ndamukong Suh, who per ESPN NFC North blogger Kevin Seifert said:

"I don't think it means that much.  The only thing that would really mean something is obviously winning the division and being able to move on to the playoffs. Winning and being third in the division, it seems you're the second loser in the whole thing. That's the way I pretty much see it right now."

I’m glad Suh has that attitude—but for me, this game means everything.  The Lions have been so terribly, horribly, God-awful bad for so long.  In the past decade, there have been only two seasons where the Lions won six or more games: in 2007, when they won seven, and in 2004, when they won six.  These two seasons—these two not-quite-as-losing seasons—were the only times in the past ten years the Lions haven’t been amidst the bitter dregs at the bottom of the NFL cup.  During those seasons, we looked forward to games.  During those seasons, we thought the Lions had a chance to win going into every single contest. During those seasons, we thought the Lions were coming into their own, were finally emerging from the muck and the mire.

With a win on Sunday, this season will stand alongside those two.  The Lions have won at home, and won on the road.  They’ve beaten winning teams; beaten likely playoff teams, even.  They’ve won in the face of adversity, they’ve come from behind—and they’ve played with a lead and held onto it.  With a win on Sunday, they’ll have won two games in division, four games in a row, finished above the Vikings in the standings, and—as Neil from Armchair Linebacker wrote in an absolutely glorious post, finally buried Brett Favre, once and for all.

So, will the Lions win on Sunday?  We go to the data.

Darrell Bevell vs. Gunther Cunningham

Chilly Gun Ornk PgG YpA YpC Drnk PpG DYpA DYpC PTS YpA INT YpC Fum Sack
PHI TEN 4th 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 18th 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
MIN DET 28th 17.9 6.26 4.48 19th 23.7 6.92 4.59 24 5.91 2 6.1 1-1 2-16
MIN DET 28th 17.9 6.26 4.48 19th 23.7 6.92 4.59            

To begin with, this isn’t really Darrell Bevell’s data; it’s Brad Childress’s.  Bevell has been Childress’ top lieutenant for four seasons, and before then spent five years under Mike Sherman in Green Bay.  Bevell is a dyed-in-the-wool Walsh offense guy, and it’s that exact pedigree—and experience with Brett Favre in Green Bay—that made Minnesota such an attractive destination prior to Favre.  There have been no real schematic changes to Minnesota’s offense since Childress left, so I’ll continue to use Minnesota’s data.

Last season, the Lions held the Vikings to 27 offensive points in both games—below their scoring average of 29.4 ppg.  Now, the Vikings were the second-best scoring offense in the NFL last year, and the Lions were the worst scoring defense in the NFL.  That points to a powerful systemic advantage for Gunther’s D, to say the least.  It also jibes with a result from 2002, when Schwartz and Cunningham put together a gameplan that allowed their 11th-ranked Titans D to hold the 4th-ranked Eagles just below their season average.  The other meeting between Childress and Gunther didn’t go very well at all—but if the advantage only works when Schwartz and Cunningham are working together, well, that’s just fine for our purposes.

I took that advantage into account in 2010’s first Vikings Watchtower, lo these many weeks back:

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.

The Vikings, of course, scored 24 points, which didn’t sound like a horrible miss when I reviewed the Watchtower a couple of days later:

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 . . .

. . . 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.

Indeed-and now, at the end of the season, we know the 28th-ranked Vikings offense is mustering just 18 points a game on the average, and the slightly-below-average Lions defense should have allowed about that much.  24 points minus special teams gift-wrapped touchdown does equal 17 . . . but the Lions are supposed to have a systemic advantage, so what gives?  Well, Adrian Peterson gives.  Peterson ripped off an 80-yard TD run, part of a 23-carry, 160-yard day.  This was enough to push the Vikings past where I projected, even with a two-interception day from Favre.

I'm not willing to completely discount the idea of a systemic advantage; the Lions were playing on the road, after all.  However, I’m going to temper my expectations.  Given a mild systemic advantage for Gunther Cunningham against Minnesota’s conservative flavor of the Bill Walsh offense, I project the Vikings to meet their season average, scoring 17-20 points, passing for 5.5-6.0 YpA, and rushing for 4.5-4.75 YpC.  I have medium confidence in this projection.

Mitigating/Aggravating Factors:

Brad Childress has been fired, and Leslie Frazier, a candidate for the Lions coaching job, has taken over the head coaching gig.  Brett Favre is out, and Joe “He Worked Out At Wide Receiver At The Combine” Webb will start.  The Lions defense is playing much, much better over the past few weeks than it did during the first few weeks—and are starting an almost entirely different defensive secondary.  Basically, this is all completely up for grabs.  But I’ll stand pat with the data anyway; it has a funny way of being right.

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
DET MIN 14th 22.8 5.99 3.99 16th 21.9 6.36 3.92 10 5.51 2 3.32 1-1 1-15
DET MIN 14th 22.8 5.99 3.99 16th 21.9 6.36 3.92            

Here’s what I projected for the Lions’ offense the first time around:

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.

. . . and yeah.  Ten points not so much.  However, as I said in the review:

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.

For the only time this season, the Lions will face a divisional opponent at home, while starting the same quarterback they started against them earlier in the season.  However, Shaun Hill’s settled into the groove and cut way down on turnovers, having started the season with 7 INTs to 5 TDs in the first four weeks of the season, but 10 TDs to 4 INTs thereafter.  With the Lions’ 14th-ranked offense averaging 22.8 points a game, and the Vikings’ median defense allowing 21.9 points a game, the Lions should hit this one right on the nose.

I'd thought I'd identified a mild systemic advantage for Linehan offenses, and I suppose if Hill had thrown red zone TDs instead of red zone INTs in Week 3, I'd have been correct.  However he didn’t, so I wasn’t.  For the purposes of this week, I’ll take the advantages off the table.

The Lions’ offense should meet their season averages against the Vikings’ median-ranked defense, scoring 21-23 points, passing for 6.0-6.5 YpA, and rushing for 3.75-4.00 YpC.  I have medium confidence in this projection.

Mitigating/Aggravating Factors:

As on the defensive side, there are quite a few of these.  It’ll be played in front of a sold-out (and likely raucous) Ford Field crowd, instead of at the Metrodome.  Shaun Hill could play as he was in midseason, or he could play as he did against the Vikings the first time.  Jahvid Best could put up his best game of the season—or not.  Still, as with the offense, I’ll stick with the data.


I'll be honest: my gut is calling this one a Lions romp, something like 35-10.  However, the data’s telling me to be far more cautious, so I will be—to a point.  According to my projections, the most likely outcome of the game is a 23-17 Lions victory.  And, if I’m right, the worst decade in Lions history—arguably, in NFL history—will truly be a thing of the past.


Do You Feel A Draft? Winter’s Coming.

>> 12.30.2010

With the Lions in the midst of a three-game winning streak, and looking to make it four before a likely-to-be-sold-out home crowd, it’s easy to forget that this is it.  Sunday is the end of the regular season, and of course the Lions won’t be playing in the postseason.  This Sunday is the last Lions football we’ll have for months . . . maybe many months.

It has in fact been months since I wrote my epic post about the NFL, the NFLPA, and their CBA.  In the intervening time, there’s been very little (read: no) public progress.  At the time, I was frustrated at both sides’ focus on posturing, saber-rattling, and attempting to get fans “on their side”—a waste of time, since fans won’t ever be on either side.  Unfortunately, while the rhetoric got spicier, the negotiating seemed to go stale.  Fed up, I challenged George Atallah, NFLPA Assistant Executive Director of External Affairs, to explain why the players and league appeared to be at a standstill.  His reply, via the @NFLLockout Twitter feed:

A smart business person in my previous job told me the first rule of negotiations is that 2 sides want a deal.

The implication here is clear: the NFL isn’t budging, despite the NFLPA’s willingness to negotiate.  Indeed, the tenor of the NFLPA’s public statements and releases has changed over the last few weeks.  First, Atallah wrote an open letter to sports editors, explaining the division of NFL revenue in plain language and hard facts.  Then, during a media conference call, NFLPA executive committee members Brian Dawkins and Mike Vrabel explained that progress has been both promising and frustrating:

“I would think common sense would say at the end of the day, after all the fighting and after all the words are said, we understand who butters our bread. That’s where the urgency comes in at.”

I went to the NFL's CBA information site (, which is kind of a neat trick), and the only recent reference to the negotiations (that wasn’t a straight parody of an NFLPA release) is a link to a USA Today story that says it’s NFL who’s getting anxious about the NFLPA’s lack of commitment:

Last Sunday night, Goodell told reporters in Foxborough, Mass., that his "biggest frustration is the commitment and the energy that needs to be there. .. we (need) to get there as quickly as possible."

. . . A day later, in Minneapolis, Goodell told reporters, "I have said it publicly and I will say it again: If everyone gives a little, everyone will get a lot.. .. Any negotiation you have, not everyone is going to get what they want."

Ganis, who said he spoke with Goodell in Fort Worth, said the commissioner's "mood is not quite anxious yet, but clearly he wants to get to the negotiating table. .. get to the substance of it."

. . . of course, the last line in that article kind of puts the damper on all this supposed eagerness:

The Chicago-based businessman, who has done stadium-related work for the league in the past, said owners are "absolutely determined" not to repeat what they believe were mistakes that led to the last extension agreement.

“Absolutely determined” not repeat the mistakes that made the last agreement possible?  Someone must have left a window open, because I certainly feel winter’s chill setting in.  I know that doomsday talk and posturing is all part of process, but it seems like an agreement is still painfully far away.  Let’s enjoy the Lions this Sunday folks; it may be a long, long time before we see them again.


Presenting TLiW's Inagural Blue Flame Awards

>> 12.28.2010

Since it’s award season on the Internets, with everyone handing out notional hardware for their Ten Best ------ or ------ Of The Year, I decided to try bestowing some completelly meaningless, but mildly entertaining, honors of my own.  Behold: the inaugural, and possibly annual, Blue Flame Awards!

  • Game of The Year: Detroit Lions 23, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 20

    This was a difficult choice.  Of course, my indelible memory from this year will be my son’s first Lions game, against the Jets.  But in a season with five-and-counting wins, one of the ten heartbreaking losses can’t be the game of the year.  The completely improbable 7-3 defeat of the Packers will stand out as the Lions’ most impressive victory, the tallest giant they toppled.  But the win that snapped the Lions’ road streak gets my vote as the Game of the Year.  It featured the game of Drew Stanton’s life, a sustained rushing attack, a masterful drive to tie the game, and a suspense-ending first-possession overtime victory.  Drama.  Majesty.  Victory on the road against a quality opponent.  Game of the Year.

  • Tom Moore Coach of The Year: Scott Linehan, Offensive Coordinator

    Three different quarterbacks have started (and won) football games for this team, and Linehan has done a flatly masterful job of tailoring the offense to the strengths of each.  A downfield aerial attack with Stafford in, a high-percentage shell game with TEs and RBs in the slot with Shaun Hill, and an wild grab bag of quarterback runs, running back by committee (if not an entire Congress), and quick slants with Drew Stanton in.  For most of the season, the Lions have been in the top ten in the NFL in scoring (they’re currently 14th).  Considering the revolving door at quarterback, their nearly-a-touchdown-per-game improvement in scoring over last year (from 16.4 ppg to 22.8) borders on miraculous.  Honorable Mention: Gunther Cunningham, defensive coordinator; Kris Kocurek, defensive line coach.

  • Barry Sanders Cannot Hope To Stop Him Award: Calvin Johnson, WR

    Given to the most dominant offensive player, this award was a complete no-brainer.  For reference, see Johnson’s preposterous 46-yard touchdown catch against the Bears.  He consistently presents a nightmare matchup to any defense in the NFL, anywhere he is on the field.  Just before “print time,” Calvin was named a Pro Bowl starter.  Honorable Mention: Jahvid Best, RB

  • Mike Cofer Tecmo Super Bowl Beast Mode Award:  Ndamukong Suh, DT

    Given to the most dominant defensive player, this award was much harder to give out.  For starters, an argument could be made that Suh, despite the numbers, has not even been the most consistently dominant defensive lineman on the roster.  Corey Williams has been a force against both the run and the pass, and Cliff Avril has blossomed into the edge rusher we all thought he could be.  But Ndamukong Suh, in a position that practically demands two or three years of physical maturation, has brought down the enemy quarterback nine times in his rookie season, leading all NFL DTs.  Further, he’s done it against frequent double-teams.  He’s still against the run, and some of his sacks have more to do with pursuit than penetration—but Suh is a monster talent who’s already dominant—as of this writing, he’d just been named a starter in the Pro Bowl—and is nowhere near his ceiling.  Honorable Mention: Corey Williams, DT; Cliff Avril, DE

  • Mel Gray Three Phases of the Game Award: (tie) Stefan Logan, PR/KR/WR; John Wendling, ST

    I couldn't just pick one of these two as the most game-changing special teams player of the year.  Logan’s long, dynamic returns consistently shortened the field for the offense—and once, even put points on the board.  Logan was also a willing and able tackler on the kick coverage unit.  Wendling consistently lengthened the field for the opponent with his amazing play as a punt gunner, both with on-the-spot tackles of opposing returners, and heroic kills of Nick Harris’s punts.

  • Chris Spielman Heart of a Lion Award: Kyle Vanden Bosch, DE

    Given to the Lion who most profoundly exudes fire, toughness, and determination to win, KVB had this one sewn up Week 1.  His ten-tackle, sideline-to-sideline performance against the Bears was one of the most incredible single games any defensive Lion has had in my memory—singlehandedly willing the Lions to victory.  He clearly set the tone for the Lions’ best unit, both on the field and off.  His approach to practice, preparation, training, and games were cited by coaches and teammates alike as the model for the rest of the squad.  Honorable Mention: Drew Stanton, QB; Dominic Raiola, C

  •   Bryant Westbrook Realized Potential Award: Cliff Avril, DE Cliff Avril, perhaps the prototypical 3-4 rush OLB, was as surprised as anyone when Rod Marinelli drafted him to play as a 4-3 end.  After his rookie season, where he picked up 5 sacks in just four starts, it looked as though the third-round pick was going to quickly develop into the Lions’ premier pass rusher.  However, a change to a philosophy that emphasizes bigger ends, and a lingering hamstring injury, stunted his growth in 2009.  Gunther publicly questioned his “mean streak.”  However, he showed up to OTAs and blew the coaches away with his preparedness, physically and mentally.  He immediately locked down a starting spot, and has racked up eight sacks so far this year—including three against Green Bay.  He responded to the loss of KVB by taking his play to the next level; a sure sign that he has arrived.  Honorable Mention: DeAndre Levy, MLB
  • Commenter Matt TLiW Commenter of the Year Award: echo

  • Those of you who’ve been reading for a long time know that “Matt” has been a prolific, intelligent, and well-spoken commenter since nearly the beginning.  I’m going to name the award after him—but I’m going to give this year’s award to “echo,” who blew up the Emmitt vs. Barry: By the Numbers post with page after page of incredibly well-researched info.  Given how high that post ranks for “Barry vs. Emmitt” searches, echo has done the whole world a permanent favor.  Thanks, man.


Three Cups Deep: Lions at Dolphins

>> 12.27.2010

Detroit Lions cornerback Nathan Vasher.

As I said on last night’s Fireside Chat, yesterday the Lions flipped the script.  Instead of being the scrappy overachievers, staying one step ahead of the bear by luck and pluck for three quarters, until finally tripping over their own feet and being messily devoured, they were the bear—or, you know, lion.  The Lions were the better team yesterday, and it showed throughout the game.  They had more talent, more playmakers, and a great gameplan.  Time after time, the Lions were just shy of catching their prey: linemen flushing Henne but not quite bringing him down, batting passes high in the air but not quite getting underneath them, corners jumping routes but never quite catching them.  The swipes of their claws were always just short, their teeth never quite able to strike home.

Armando Salguero of the Miami Herald compared the Dolphins and Lions to pack horses and thoroughbreds, respectively.  The Dolphins are a mostly-complete, mature team—one composed of smart, tough veterans who give it their all on every play.  But, they have an almost total lack of dynamic talent, of home-run hitters, of game-changing playmakers.  Meanwhile, the Lions are stocked with such playmakers—but have some glaring holes, too.

Infuriatingly, the Dolphins were staying ahead of the Lions with one of the Lions’ best tricks: controlling the interior of the line.  On offense, the Dolphins were able to run between the Lions’ DTs—either by simply pushing them out of the way, or running past them when they penetrated.  On defense, the Dolphins denied the between-the-tackles run, even to Maurice Morris.  In a reversal of this year’s trend, the Dolphins were much better on third down (8/17, 42%) than the Lions were (4/12, 33%).  Just as we’ve seen the Lions do against the Jets and Pats, the Dolphins held the Lions back by holding onto the ball.

. . . until it was just too much.  Until the Dolphins’ dam burst.  Until the Lions, so close to making the game-changing play all game long, finally made something happen.  Down by ten with five minutes left, the Lions started a drive where they absolutely needed to get points—and on the first play, Jahvid Best caught a little swing pass, turned on the jets, got a great block from Nate Burleson, and took it to the house.  It was a beautiful example of a dynamic, thoroughbred playmaker making a play.

On the ensuing possession, the defense finally took advantage of Henne’s many mistakes.  Nathan Vasher jumped a route, and picked it off cleanly.  When some dude named Brian Clark dropped a first-down catch, the Lions had to settle for a field goal—but Dave Rayner came through with a tremendous 47-yarder.  On just the third Miami play after that, DeAndre Levy picked off Henne again, and this time he took it to the house for the go-ahead score.  17 points scored in just 2:24!  The Dolphins’ collapse echoed the Lions’ wilting at the end of the Jets and Pats games—and this morning, the Dolphins bloggers are calling into question whether they have the right head coach on the sidelines.

It’s really, really nice to be on the other side of this one for once: being the better team, having superior talent out itself in the end, feeling relaxed and confident that the Lions are headed in the right direction—fast.


The LIons in Winter a Blog of the Year Finalist; Ain’t Too Proud to beg

BallHyped Sports Blogs of the Year

The good folks behind, a new sports-blog promotion community (kind of a sports-specific Digg, Reddit, etc.), put out a call for nominations for the best sports blog of 2010.  Amazingly, TLiW was one of the sixty most-nominated sites, and is therefore a finalist for their Blog of the Year award.

This isn’t an unbiased quality-based scientific thing, here—all the nominations came from BallHyped members, and votes may be cast by any Internet user.  That having been said, I’m deeply honored that my fellow sports bloggers threw my name in the ring.  So if you have a second, and don’t mind doing me a favor, click on the widget above (or in the sidebar), and vote for The Lions in Winter for BallHyped’s 2010 Blog of the Year.  If you need to round out your three-blog ballot, but aren’t sure how, I also endorse my friend Zac at SideLion Report, and my ad network’s flagship site, The Big Lead.

Sorry to hijack the blog with a self-serving meta post.  SOON: Three Cups Deep!

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Fireside Chat: Lions at Dolphins

We had a blast on Sunday night doing the unprecedented post-third-straight-victory Fireside Chat. Many took the lack of a Sunday Night Game as an invitation to check out the live show for the first time, and it was a rollicking good time. Check it out:


Fireside Chat Reminder

>> 12.26.2010

Tonight at 11:00 pm EST, join me over at Ustream for the Fireside Chat live broadcast! Of course, we'll be celebrating an unprecedented THIRD STRAIGHT LIONS VICTORY, so tune in! Don't forget, bring your questions and comments to interact in real time!



I didn't have time for a fulll Watchtower, so I wrote up a Fallen Watchtower for you. Right at the end, my phone (which I was writing on) crashed, and I lost it all. So I don't even have that for you. But, I do have a prediction: 20-10 Lions.

Let's hope I'm right!


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