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.
Now, the final score was 27-20, but the Watchtower only accounts for offense-defense interaction. For the purposes of Watchtower evaluation the “real” score was 27-13. Before you folks cry foul, a quick reminder: the goal of The Watchtower is to spot systemic advantages that the Lions’ offense and defense have over their opponents’ schemes. Counting special teams and return scores throw off our evaluation of those effects.
Detroit Lions defense vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers offense:
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’ offense will meet expectations, scoring 20-23 points. I have extremely low confidence in this projection.
Right off the bat, we see the enormous difference: instead of LeGarrette Blount destroying the Lions at a 7.33 YpC clip, he was held to just 15 yards on 5 carries; a 3.0 YpC. As a team, the Bucs didn’t fare much better: 16 carries for 56 yards, 3.50 YpC.
The Lions’ pass rush didn’t hit home quite as often as last year’s contest, or for as many negative yards (two for -7 vs. three for -25). But, there was just enough pressure to rattle Freeman a bit.
Freeman’s completion percentage was nearly identical, 65.1% to last year’s 65.6%, but his yards-per-attempt was down dramatically. Freeman netted only 5.78 YpA this year—well off last year’s average of 6.80, and well well off the 7.64 he managed against the Lions last season. Between the there-enough-to-be-felt pressure and the excellent downfield coverage, the Bucs’ passing offense had to settle for underneath stuff—again, depressing scoring.
The Lions also intercepted Freeman once, and forced four fumbles, recovering one. Last season, the Bucs didn’t give away the ball at all, so two turnovers this time doubtlessly depressed scoring. We don’t have season averages to work with, but I ascribe this better-than-expectations performance to the Lions’ defense skill level being vastly improved. Over the course of 2011, I expect the Buccaneers to ouutperform their 2010 scoring average—meaning this Lions defense performed like an above-average unit on Sunday.
Detroit Lions offense vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense:
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.
Of course, the Lions offense did outperform my “wildazzed guess,” as one MLive wag (downbeat) called it. As with the Bucs’, the Lions rushing attack wasn’t nearly as effective this time around. 35 carries for 126 yards netted only 3.6 YpC—nearly identical potency. But twice as many carries is a strong indicator that the Lions were A) moving the chains and B) winning.
There’s an old saying amongst young statisticians: “You’re not winning because you’re running, you’re running because you’re winning.” The Lions weren’t pounding the rock any better than the Bucs were. They were just effective enough to control the ball and deny the Bucs possession. Tampa Bay couldn’t do the same thing because they were playing catch-up. Once they abandoned the run, the Lions could focus on pass rush and coverage—which, I’ll say it again, was excellent.
Through the air, Matthew Stafford’s execution was visibly worse than it was in the preseason—which, since that was quite nearly perfect, was to be expected. He completed 24-of-33 passes—that’s an astounding 72.7%. He wasn’t just dinking and dunking either: he netted 9.24 YpA; equally astounding. He threw three touchdown passes, not including a perfectly-placed TD pass Brandon Pettigrew dropped, and a wide-open Calvin Johnson He threw one interception, counting one tipped catch that came down in Aqib Talib’s hands, and not counting another one Jahvid Best basically shovel-passed to a stone-handed defender.
Even though the story of the game was correctly told as, “Stafford had the butterflies early and then settled down,” Stafford’s “jittery” performance was still outstanding by any measure. The ongoing performance of the Buccaneers’ defense will tell us a lot about how good the offense was this day. If the Bucs’ D turns out to be as good as many expect, this was an excellent statistical showing by an offense likely to average 30+ points per game the rest of the way out. If the Bucs’ defense is more hype than substance, then this was a pretty okay showing—but not near what we think the offense will be capable of.
I projected a close Lions win in regulation, 24-21. I can’t call it “right” or “wrong” because there was neither a long track record of coordinator matchups, nor any in-season data with which to establish expectations. This 27-13 performance showed us a lot of good things, though: the defense stopped the run and covered downfield better than we expected, and the running game was just good enough to control the game after Stafford built a lead.
There were a lot of mistakes, a lot of missed opportunities, and a lot of room to improve. But overall, this Lions team won on the road against a notional playoff contender—and looked better doing it than we could have hoped for.