Watchtower Review: Lions at Vikings

>> 9.29.2011

From this week’s slightly-truncated Watchtower:

I can't find any game where Bill Musgrave faced off against a Schwartzingham defense as a playcaller, at least not while running anything like this offense.

With no schematic advantages either way, we must project the Vikings’ offense to meet expectations. Though I don’t typically use data from the current season until after the third game, at this point I’m left with no choice. The Vikings are currently scoring 18.5 points per game, after averaging 17.6 points per game in 2010. The Lions are the second-best scoring defense in the league, allowing just 11.5 points per game. I don’t expect the Lions to finish the season allowing so few points per game, but I do expect the Vikings to score fewer than their season average today.

Therefore, I project the Vikings to score between 10 and 13 points. I have extremely low confidence in this projection.

Obviously, this isn’t what happened.

The Lions are scoring 37.5 points per game, but I don’t expect that to last all season. I’ll project the Lions to outperform what I think will be their season averages on the year, scoring 34-37 points. I have extremely low confidence in this projection.

Obviously, this isn’t what happened either.

The objective of the Watchtower is to tell the story of the game from what we see in the data; to look at the matchup of the two teams and see how their offenses and defenses will play against each other. The story the data told me was this:

I project a 34-13 Lions victory. My gut feeling on the relative strengths of these two teams agrees with that projection.

The key phrase in there is “the relative strengths of these two teams.” If the Lions and Vikings played ten times on a neutral field with no one watching, I suspect the average outcome would be something like 34-13. I truly believe the Lions are one of the best teams in the NFL this season, and the Vikings are going to struggle to something like a 5-win season.

However, the two teams weren’t playing on a neutral field, which I considered a mitigating factor:

One thing I'd keep an eye on: the Vikings have started hot in each of their first two games, only to fall apart. They’re pretty much playing for their season, at home, in a place where the Lions almost never win. If they jump out to an early lead, momentum may carry them beyond expectations . . .

I feel like this Vikings team is backed against the wall at 0-2, and—though they’re saying all the right things—I have to believe the Lions are believing their own press at this point, too. I worry about the Vikes getting the jump on the Lions and popping the hype balloon.

I avoided a Michigan State-Notre Dame comparison because I don’t want to associate my Lions stuff with various local rivalries. There’s a reason I keep my college stuff over at A Beautiful Day For Football. But the comparisons were just too obvious. A 2-0 team feeling its oats after a complete and total blowout win, travelling to a notorious stadium to play a rival fighting for its life at 0-2.

The Vikings moved the ball just as well as they had through the first two weeks, gaining 5.86 YpA (5.93 avg. through Week 2), and 5.74 YpC (5.85). Since the Lions have a better-than-average defense (through Week 3, 3rd-best defense in football), this means the Vikings performed better offensively against the Lions than they did in the first two weeks.

Defensively, the Vikings stopped the Lions’ run game cold, allowing 1.05 YpC (3.31 avg. through Week 2). The passing offense moved the ball at an 8.22 YpA clip, down slightly (8.59 avg.)—but of course, Stafford was sacked five times for -40 yards, and the Lions were assessed 7 penalties for -65 yards. This was how the Vikings held the Lions’ 33.7 PpG offense (through Week 3, ranked 4th) to 26 points.

Really though, the story of the game was the one I worried about: the Vikings playing their brains out, the crowd noise and the pass rush handing the Vikings the momentum, and the Lions finding themselves having to scrap their way out of a hole, as opposed to putting it in the cooler.

This is why I was so grumpy about the probably-enhanced crowd noise: it made an enormous difference in the way the game played out. The lesson to take away from this game, and this Watchtower, is that the Lions are clearly much better than the Vikings. The Lions took Minnesota’s best shot—and staggered—but leaned on the ropes long enough for their talent and skill to win the day.


Lankownia,  September 29, 2011 at 5:28 PM  

Kudos to you for writing this feature on the regular. This kind of look back is instructive and informative.

Tough to gauge it, but I have a hard time believing that home field was that much of a factor - especially in South Bend, but that's another conversation. The Vikings have lost plenty of home games. Yeah, it's probably more than the standard homefield advantage (+3), but it's hard to see it changing the margin of victory from 3 point to 3 touchdowns. Even after the Lions had adjusted, the OL weakness was evident. This is a team that really relies on Johnson, Best, and Stafford to make all-pro caliber plays. When healthy, they have the talent to do that.

Agree with your conclusion - the Lions are much better than the Vikings. Looking forward to seeing them take the next step and beat a team where that's not the case.

Keep up the good bloggin

Ty,  September 30, 2011 at 12:03 AM  

Thanks Lankownia!

I really feel like the Watchtower isn't useful unless we go back and examine its findings.

I realize Notre Dame Stadium isn't exactly Cameron Indoor, but the Spartans and Lions were both 2-0, coming off of really impressive wins, and travelling to traditional rivals who were 0-2 and fighting for their lives. Both ND and Minnesota stepped their games way, way up, and both MSU and the Lions got caught off guard. The difference is, the Lions stuck to the plan and had enough of an execution advantage to grind out a win.

Thanks for the kind words, man (or woman!).


Anonymous,  September 30, 2011 at 10:26 AM  

Playing a below-average opponent at home a week before playing a more-talented opponent on the road does present an additional challenge.

randomguy313,  September 30, 2011 at 2:57 PM  

Ty, I understand the concern with the running game and the pass protection. These items are significant; however I think the biggest thing the Lions need to continue doing is feeding the run game.

Currently, they are 7th in the league in attempts a game and to be successful they need to maintain that discipline. The majority of the teams that are getting better carry averages have popped off a run more than 20 yards and the Lions have only managed that once; on a reverse no less.

If they stay disciplined with the run game it will work to keep the defense honest and Stafford upright.

I think an underrated part of Stafford's game is his play action fake. He has been getting the LBs to bite very hard on that as evidenced by the Pettigrew getting loose down the middle of the field.

Anonymous,  October 2, 2011 at 4:34 PM  

Unbelievable game

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