Ahh, the long-awaited Watchtower. For those of you unfamiliar, the Watchtower is my weekly preview of the Lions’ matchup against their opponent. I analyze the prior matchups between the Lions’ coordinators and their opponents’; I look for statistical trends that could reveal a systemic advantage for one side or another. To review prior works, just search for the label “the watchtower.”
Late in the 2010 season, the 4-10 Lions traveled to the 8-6 Bucs. The Lions, of course, dragged a three-year, 26-game road losing streak down to Florida with them. Due to some overambitious scheduling, I couldn’t complete a full Watchtower before that game. I did do some quick analysis, though, and projected a 17-20 Lions loss:
I know the Lions are circling this date as the date the snap the road losing streak--but that losing streak is a mighty dragon, and I don't have enough data to say the Lions will slay it.
Of course, that final score was awfully close; the teams were knotted at 20 after four quarters, and the Lions needed Dave Rayner to convert his third field goal of the day to win it in overtime. How did the Lions outperform offensive expectations that day? Well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Greg Olson vs. Gunther Cunningham
Greg Olson’s name sounds familiar to most Lions fans.
No, not Greg Olsen, Greg Olson.
Yeah, Greg Olson—Detroit Lions quarterbacks coach in 2004 and 2005, and offensive coordinator from when Steve Mariucci got the ziggy to the conclusion of the 2005 season.
Olson’s coaching pedigree is all over the map, and his Lions connections are dizzying. He was OC and QB coach at his alma mater, Central Washington, from 1990-1993. If the name of that NAIA school rings a bell, it’s because Olson oversaw the development of legendary CWU quarterback Jon Kitna.
Olson moved up to take over Idaho’s offensive coordinator gig, left vacant by the departure of Scott Linehan. Olson’s next job was QB coach at Purdue under spread guru Joe Tiller, and from 1997-2000 Olson’s star pupil was one Drew Brees. In 2001, the San Francisco 49ers’ Steve Mariucci hired Olson to coach the quarterbacks; Olson guided Jeff Garcia to his second consecutive Pro Bowl.
After returning to Purdue for one season as recruiting coordinator and tight ends coach, Olson returned to the NFL, again as QB coach, this time for Chicago. When Steve Mariucci was hired in Detroit, he hired Olson to be his quarterbacks coach. Olson actually took over playcalling duties for the Lions for the last three games of the ‘04 season, theoretically to free up Mooch so he could focus on overall coaching.
When Mooch’s overall coaching did not go so well, and the Lions tabbed
Gary Moeller Dick Jauron [Ed.- this is why you don't blog the midnight oil] as the interim head man, Olson took over the offensive coordinator duties, as well. Unfortunately, Jauron, Olson, and the rest of the Lions’ staff were broomed to make way for Rod Marinelli and Mike Martz.
Olson found a home in St. Louis, working as offensive coordinator underneath . . . wait for it . . . Rams head coach Scott Linehan. Olson then jumped to Tampa Bay, where he served as quarterbacks coach under OC Bill Muir and head coach Jon Gruden. When Raheem Morris took over, he hired former Boston College head coach Jeff Jagodzinksi—then fired him on the eve of the Bucs’ first preseason game. Olson was then elevated to offensive coordinator.
So. Olson has run the Dennis Erickson spread, the Mariucci WCO, the Joe Tiller spread, the Scott Linehan Dennis Erickson With Double Meat, and the Jon Gruden WCO. He’s coached Jon Kitna, Jeff Garcia twice, and Joey Harrington. Unfortunately, what he hasn’t done with any frequency is coach against Gunther Cunningham.
The Lions didn't play the Chiefs in 2004 or 2005, and when Olson was working with Linehan, Gunther was running Herman Edwards’ Tampa 2, not his usual system. The Lions didn’t play the Bucs in 2009 either, so the most recent clash is all we have to go on.
Last year, the Bucs’ offense was the 20th-most potent in the NFL, racking up 21.3 points per game. They passed for a respectable 6.80 yards per attempt, and ran for a very solid 4.64 YpC. Meanwhile, the Lions had the 19th-best scoring defense in the NFL, allowing 23.1 PpG, 6.75 YpA, and 4.51 YpC. My expectation would have been for the Bucs to score a little more than usual, while running and passing just as effectively as they typically did.
Instead, the opposite occurred.
The Lions held the Bucs to 20 points; down 6% from their season average. Yet, the Bucs were 12% more effective passing, and a whopping 36% more effective on the ground. This was mostly due to the walloping efforts of LeGarette Blount, who racked up 110 yards on just 15 carries. His 7.33 YpC average on the day was much greater than his season average of 5.0. Tampa Bay protected the ball well, too: no fumbles or picks. So why didn’t the Bucs score more?
Well, the three sacks for 25 yards made an impact; one was on 3rd-and-5, one was on 2nd-and-14, and the last was on 1st-and-10 but was for –14 yards. Two of the three stopped drives. Tampa’s 3rd-down percentage was just 41%, compared to 50% for the Lions. Finally, The Bucs were also penalized nine times for –65 yards.
Unfortunately, I can’t identify a systemic advantage from one data point. Disproportionately disrupting scoring by stopping drives with sacks is the design goal of the defense. I’m kind of stunned it worked with Blount being so devastating; I expect the Bucs to give Blount more than 15 carries this Sunday. We have no current performance data to go on, so I’ll have to recycle last year’s. I project the Bucs’s offense will meet expectations, scoring 20-23 points. I have extremely low confidence in this projection.
The Bucs as a team, the Bucs’ offense in particular, and Josh Freeman in even more particular, are on the rise. Greg Olson’s resumé is stunning (I expect him to be a hot head coaching candidate soon), and Tampa Bay’s offense could be much more potent this year than last. Of course, the same could be said for the Lions’ defense; they’ve dramatically upgraded the back seven, especially against the run. I was stunned at the complete lack of turnovers for both sides; any turnovers in this game could have a big effect on the bottom line.
Scott Linehan vs. Raheem Morris
Raheem Morris’ path to NFL head coaching is short and sweet. He attended Hofstra University, coached there as a grad assistant, got a job, got hired away by Cornell, got hired back. The Bucs hired him as a quality control assistant, then two promotions, then he went to Kansas State to coordinate their defense for one season, then back to the Bucs as DB coach, then promoted to defensive coordinator after the season, then promoted to head coach a month later when Jon Gruden was fired.
Morris turned 35 a week ago. I turn 30 this weekend. This does not compute.
As a Monte Kiffin disciple, first once then twice removed, Morris runs a more aggressive flavor of the Tampa 2: the “Tampa 2.1.” It’s still smaller D-linemen in one-gap schemes, backed with lots of zone coverage by the linebackers and safeties. But there’s a lot more blitzing, and more press coverage by the cornerbacks.
Last season, the Bucs’ defense tightened up tremendously from 2009: they allowed 19.9 PpG, a whopping 5.9-point improvement. They went from being the 27th-best offense to the 9th-best, allowing just 6.17 YpA. The run defense was less impressive; offenses averaged 4.75 YpC.
The Lions’ offense finished as the 15th-best unit in the NFL last season, averaging 22.6 points per game. The passing offense was underwhelming, averaging just 6.02 YpA. The running game was an eyelash short of 4.0 YpC, the stoutest season-long team rushing performance from the Lions in quite some time.
In last year’s contest, the Lions scored 23 points, right on target with their season average—considering this was against a top ten scoring defense, that sounds like impressive outperformance of expectations . . . but they needed overtime to do it, and the Bucs were without DT Gerald McCoy. We’ll say they met expectations. However, they netted 6.63 YpA, a modest-but-noteworthy 10% boost above their season average. They also gained a monster 6.46 YpC, a walloping 62% increase. How’d they do it?
Well, Maurice Morris matched LeGarrette Blount’s astonishing 7.33 YpC performance with 7.27 YpC of his own: given the same 15 carry workload, he toted it 109 yards. For those of you trying to figure out whether Jerome Harrison or Keiland Williams will be the backup and change-of-pace back, you may want to re-watch this game.
The story is basically the same in reverse: the Lions more-or-less met expectations last time. Without any established trends for this year, I can only project the Lions’ offense to meet expectations, scoring 21-24 points. I have extremely low confidence in this projection.
Well, the Lions will have a healthy Matthew Stafford and Jahvid Best this time around; when they had both healthy year they were a much more potent offense. That having been said, this Bucs team went 10-6 last year and figure to be better this year; beating an opponent like that on the road will be no easy task.
I really wish I had more than one data point to go on. This is a fantastic Week 1 matchup; a really intriguing set of talented units with experienced and clever coaches. Strength of projection aside, I wish these coordinators had had more chess matches against each other! Again, while highlighting the extreme paucity of data, I’m going to swallow hard, wipe the sweat from my forehead, tug at my collar and project the most likely outcome to be another narrow Lions victory: 24-21, albeit in regulation this time.