The Watchtower: Lions at Cowboys

>> 9.30.2011

Any Cowboy Bebop fans in the house?

The Detroit Lions’ season hinges on this game. This week and next are two tough tests before a nice stretch of winnable games. However, with the Lions’ back-half schedule it’s conceivable the Lions could be 7-3 heading into Thanksgiving and miss the playoffs. The Lions, I think, would do just fine to get a split of the next two weeks—but if they’re 4-0 heading into Monday Night Football, they’ll be set up for biggest Lions victory in years. With the soft underbelly of their schedule coming up after that, a 5-0 start could propel the Lions into truly rarefied air.

However, if the Lions don’t win today, and can’t win on Monday Night, they’ll likely have to win their last three games to make the playoffs: at Oakland, vs. San Diego, and at Lambeau. Betting on breaking a losing streak old enough to vote and smoke cigars against the best team in football on The Frozen Tundra in January is . . . well, a bad bet.

Every year, I gnash my teeth waiting for the chance to use the current year’s data. It really, really, really helps to see what the teams are really doing—and if a systemic advantage is obvious, there have to be accurate expectations before we can accurately project under- or over-performing those expectations. This year’s wait is over.

Jason Garrett vs. Gunther Cunningham

‘10 DAL 7th 24.6 7.02 4.17 DET 20th 23.1 6.75 4.51 28 +13.8% 6.15 -12.4% 4.47 -0.7%
‘11 DAL 13th 23.0 8.95 3.16 DET 3rd 15.3 5.17 4.99            

Last season, The Lions - Cowboys Watchtower was the first analyzing a coaching staff after a midseason firing. We took a look at Garrett’s pedigree from the Norv Turner/Ernie Zampese branch of the Air Coryell offense, and determined there wasn’t a clear systemic advantage.

In that game, the Lions’ defense held the Cowboys to 6.15 YpA, down 12.4% from their season average. The Cowboys’ running game outperformed their season average (4.17 YpC), but almost exactly met the average the Lions allowed in 2010 (4.47 attained, 4.51 avg. allowed). The Cowboys only managed to score seven points  in the first half; it wasn’t until the controversial 97-yard punt return by Bryan McCann that Kitna and the ‘Boys finally got the offense going.

Last year’s Lions managed to significantly slow down a potent passing offense—something they didn’t do often. They did it by surrendering to a middling rushing attack, but the tradeoff held the Cowboys to their scoring expectations.

This season, the Cowboys have been much more effective through the air, averaging a ridiculous 8.95 YpA—yet, partly thanks to an anemic 3.16 YpC they’re averaging fewer points per game, 23.0 vs. 24.6 last season. Meanwhile, the Lions swagger into Jerryworld with the 3rd-best scoring defense in the NFL. They’re allowing just 15.3 points per game, and a tiny 5.17 YpA. Other teams have been able to run on the Lions, though, rolling up a robust 4.99 YpC.

The Cowboys have no systemic advantage over the Lions, so I project them to meet expectations, scoring 17-20 points. If last year’s pattern holds, they will throw for 6.75-7.50 YpA, well below season averages, and run for 3.75-4.0 YpC, well above season averages. I have medium confidence in this projection.

Mitigating/Aggravating Factors

Last season, I really felt the Lions had the Cowboys figured out until that back-breaking punt return changed the game. This season, the Lions will face a banged-up Tony Romo instead of Kitna—but honestly, I’m not sure that’s a clear win for Dallas. The key will be how well the Lions handle the big stage of Jerryworld, and the big expectations.

Scott Linehan vs. Rob Ryan

Lin Ornk PgG YpA YpC Ryan Drnk PpG DYpA DYpC PTS PTSΔ YpA YpAΔ YpC YpCΔ
MIA 16th 19.9 5.94 3.69 OAK 25th 23.9 6.67 3.79 31 +56% 8.42 +42% 4.53 23%
STL 10th 22.9 6.69 4.26 OAK 18th 20.8 5.89 3.96 20 -13% 6.23 -7% 4.23 -1%
DET 27th 16.4 5.42 3.95 CLE 21st 23.4 7.44 4.57 37 +126% 9.81 +81% 3.56 -10%
DET 4th 33.7 8.45 2.80 DAL 13th 23.0 6.48 2.97            

Rob Ryan started out as an assistant under . . . wait for it . . . wait . . . yes, of course, his father Buddy in Arizona. In 1994, his first season as defensive backs coach, the Cardinals held opponents to just 16.7 points per game; 4th-best in the NFL. Cornerback Aeneas Williams went to the first of what would be six consecutive Pro Bowls. In a hilarious side note, Steve Beuerlein, Jay Schroeder, and Jim McMahon (yes THAT Jim McMahon) all started at quarterback for the Cardinals that year.

After the 1995 season, the Ryan clan was let go, and after a year out of fooball Rob ended up at Oklahoma State as defensive coordinator. Ryan was named Coordinator of the Year by Sporting News in his very first season, and after two more years leading a top-notch defense, he was hired by Bill Belichick to coach the Patriots’ linebackers. Ryan coached the linebackers there from 2000-2003, and left to coordinate the Raiders defense under HC Norv Turner.

During the craziest coaching situation in recent history, Ryan remained a stalwart. Through two years of Norv, one insane year of 1994 flashback with Art Shell as head coach and Tom Walsh as OC, a year of Lane Kiffin, and then Lane Kiffin starting 2008 as a lame duck and Tom Cable taking over midway, Rob Ryan remained the defensive coordinator in Oakland.

After 2008, Ryan reunited with fellow former Pats defensive assistant Eric Mangini in Cleveland. In Ryan’s two seasons, the Browns were the 21st-ranked and 13th-ranked scoring defenses in the NFL. It wasn’t enough to keep Mangini employed, but it got Ryan hired to replace Wade Phillips as the Cowboys’ defensive signal-caller.

The apple hasn’t fallen too far from the Ryan defensive tree. If you’ve got some time, I highly recommend this Dallas Cowboys Times piece discussing Ryan’s zone blitz philosophies, and how offenses attack them due to presnap tells. It has diagrams. I like diagrams. 

When the Lions faced the other Ryan brother last season—he of the very similar hyperaggressive 3-4 defense—I thought Rex Ryan might have Linehan’s number a little bit. I based it mostly on how thoroughly Ryan dismantled Linehan’s awful 2007 Rams team. However, the Lions’ output exactly matched what I projected if there were no advantage for Rex Ryan against Linehan. So, Rex has no advantage against Linehan—but what about Rob?

In 2005, Linehan’s Dolphins faced off against Ryan’s Raiders. Linehan’s offense was the 16th-best that year, averaging 19.9 PpG. Oakland was the 25th-ranked defense, allowing 23.9 PpG. The ‘Fins exceeded their scoring average by a whopping 56%, passing and running more effectively, to boot.

This pattern was followed in 2009, when the Lions faced off against the Browns. If that sentence gave you a little twinge in the nether regions, it’s because it is the “Stafford Mic’d Up” game. The two struggling teams aired it out like crazy, and the meager 16.4 PpG Lions offense racked up 38 points, a ridiculous 128% boost. Stafford and the Lions netted 9.81 YpA, an 81% improvement over average. Some of that was just the track-meet nature of the game, but some of it, I’m convinced, was systemic.

The odd duck is the 2006 matchup, where Linehan’s 10th-ranked Rams slightly underperformed their season averages against Ryan’s 18th-ranked Raider D. The explanation, though, comes in the nature of the game: the Rams shut out the Raider offense; the Rams put it in the cooler early. They ran the ball 35 times compared to just 22 pass attempts, depressing scoring in the process.

So, we’re left to conclude that Scott Linehan’s balanced offense has a systemic passing advantage against Rob Ryan’s hyperaggressive 3-4 defense. Linehan’s offenses pass much better than expectations, and score much better than expectations, when facing a Rob Ryan defense. Therefore, I project the Lions offense to outpeform expectations, especially through the air, scoring 33-35 points. I have medium-to-high confidence in this projection.

Mitigating/Aggravating Factors

I could be wrong about the offensive advantage. The season averages could still be too wet-behind-the-ears to matter. The Lions’ offensive line could melt in the face of the hot, hot, Dallas blitz. but you know what? I think the data is right here. I like the Lions to get downfield early and often, exposing the Dallas blitz. Random prediction: Jahvid Best takes a screen pass to the house.


I believe this game is critical to the outcome of the Lions’ season. The Lions will be a very tough out at home, but have a vicious last three games of their schedule. To get a road win on this big of a stage would be huge, and it makes me gunshy that the data leads my proverbial horse to water. Yet, what have I to do but drink? The most likely outcome of the game is a 34-20 Lions win.


MrMomWorld,  October 2, 2011 at 12:00 AM  

That is the most optimistic projection in favor of the Lions I've seen all week. I like it. Does it hold true if Romo comes out and Kitna comes in?

Dustin_aka_D,  October 2, 2011 at 12:04 AM  

I love the watchtower. I think you will be pretty close with your prediction. Random prediction: Titus leads the receivers in yards and catches. Calvin gets 2 TDs and Harrison rushes for 100

Diraghio,  October 2, 2011 at 1:41 AM  

Another nice watchtower. Disappointed you didn't make a Cowboy Bebop reference. Is that just a random pic you found?

Anonymous,  October 2, 2011 at 8:08 AM  

I love your random prediction of Best taking it to the house. My random prediction is that Carp either causes a fumble, has a fumble recovery, or gets a pick. I have medium-to-high confidence in this prediction.

Jeremy,  October 2, 2011 at 10:25 AM  

I just threw up a little from excitement.

Ty,  October 3, 2011 at 11:40 AM  

Mr. Mom World-

Yeah, didn't turn out so accurate--but I'll take it!


Ty,  October 3, 2011 at 11:43 AM  


Hey, you got the one out of the three that mattered!


Ty,  October 3, 2011 at 11:44 AM  


Oh no, I'm a big Cowboy Bebop fan; check the alt text of the pic! I was hoping someone would notice.


Ty,  October 3, 2011 at 11:52 AM  


"My random prediction is that Carp either causes a fumble, has a fumble recovery, or gets a pick. I have medium-to-high confidence in this prediction."

WOW. Have you ever considered writing a blog where you regularly predict things?


Anonymous,  October 3, 2011 at 8:24 PM  

Nope...I spend too much time reading about The Great Willie Young and watching Jahvid Best Youtube videos while listening to "Gridiron Heroes" over and over again

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