This game sets fire to the Watchtower concept as a whole. Everything about this game confounds this process. The Broncos offensive coordinator has never been a coordinator, or even a coach, under anyone but John Fox. Even if he had, the offense the Broncos are running for Tebow is nothing like the one the Panthers ran with Jake Delhomme, etc.
On the Lions side, the offense of the last two weeks has not resembled the offense of the first five. Last week, I happily predicted a 34-37 point performance for the Lions, and they couldn’t muster half that. Is this a harbinger of things to come for the rest of the season, or just a bump in the road?
I can’t tell you. But what I can do is compare the two teams’ performances so far, and tell you what ought to happen.
Mike McCoy vs. Gunther Cunningham
As I said above, Mike McCoy has one of the weirdest resumes I’ve ever broken down. He played quarterback in the CFL. After retiring, he immediately joined the Panthers under OC Bill Musgrave, who I Watchtowered earlier this year (he’s now the Vikings OC). After Musgrave resigned in shame, the Panthers brought in Dan Henning, the current Miami OC (the guy who deployed Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams in the Wildcat).
It was under Henning that McCoy ascended from "offensive assistant" to QB coach. Though Henning was fired after a disappointing 2006 campaign, Fox kept McCoy around. Henning was replaced by Jeff Davidson, a member of the Belichick/Weis coaching tree. It's likely this experience that's informing McCoy's current offense, with a lot of multi-WR shotgun and multi-TE inside runs.
However, trying to analyze Gunther Cunningham’s success against Weis-style offenses would be folly, because once the ball is snapped, the plans go out the window.
When the Broncos line up under center, they’re doing a nice mix of power runs and clever zone stretch type stuff. Very very very little passing, and even then it’s one-read stuff like screens. When the Broncos line up in shotgun, it’s either a screen, or Tebow Time.
Ndamukong Suh and Cliff Avril are going to have three sacks apiece. Why? They’re relentless in pursuit. Tebow, if he doesn’t have an obvious read, breaks down and starts running around looking to make something happen. It reminds me—a lot—of Mike Vick. Tebow isn’t quite as dangerous on a broken play as Vick, but he’s plenty dangerous. What Tebow must work on is executing the offense; when you see the Broncs line up in a multi-WR shotgun the playcall is effectively “Broken Play.”
The Broncos are averaging 20.5 points per game, 21st-best in the NFL. The Lions scoring defense is ranked 7th, allowing just 19.6. The Broncos are averaging 6.35 YpA, and a solid 4.39 YpC. The Lions are still only allowing 5.57 YpA, which is really pretty incredible. However, the run defense is still alowing 5.03 YpC. I project the Broncos to score 15-17 points, pass for 5.75-6.25 YpA, and rush for 4.75-5.50 YpC. I have medium-to-low confidence in this projection.
Scott Linehan vs. John Fox
An itinerant, quick-climbing defensive backs coach in college and the pros, John Fox was Pitt’s Defensive Coordinator/DBs coach when Chuck Noll hired him to coach DBs for the Steelers. John Fox is technically a member of the Chuck Noll coaching tree, but if you’re looking for an extensive 3-4 pedigree, you’ll have to look elsewhere.
After three seasons in Pittsburgh, Fox moved on to play the same role in San Diego. He was hired to coordinate the Raiders D by Art Shell, and stuck around for the first year of the Mike White days. Though Fox’s defenses were 17th and 10th in his two years, Fox abruptly resigned as Raiders DC. He has since hinted that clashes with Al Davis forced him out.
His next real gig was coordinating the Giants defense under Jim Fassel; he eventually built a top 5 defense that took the Giants to the Super Bowl. He got his first head coaching job replacing a legend: Carolina Panthers coach George Seifert. Of course, Seifert wasn’t a legend for his work in Carolina, and Fox’s nine-year run nearly quintupled his predecessor’s. Throughout almost all of this, Fox ran a very effective 4-3.
Of course, the Broncos just switched to a 3-4 a couple of years ago, but that didn’t stop Fox from declaring his intent to switch back. The stunning lack of talent on the defensive side is exactly what you’d expect from a team that has overhauled it’s roster to go from 4-3 to 3-4 and back in three seasons.
In Fox’s prior meetings with Linehan, though, lack of talent was never a problem. In 2002, Linehan’s 8th-ranked Minnesota Vikings took on Fox’s 5th-ranked Panthers. Despite an offense that was putting up 24.4 points per game, the Vikings only mustered 14 against Fox’s Panthers. The Vikes’ potent 5.30 YpC rushing attack was held to just 4.06. Minnesota passed for 6.37 YpA, just 3% off their usual pace, but were intercepted 4 times, sacked 5 times, and were fortunate to only lose 1 of their 4 fumbles.
In 2005, things were different. Linehan’s Dolphins were the median offense in the NFL, while Fox’s Panther defense was almost identical to his 2002 unit. They were ranked 5th, allowing an average of 16.2 PpG, 5.79 YpA and 3.59 YpC. Semi-miraculously, the Dolphins actually scored 36% better than average, not at all what you’d expect from the 16th-ranked offense meeting the 5th-ranked defense. In that game, the Panthers slowed the Fins passing attack by 13%, but Ronnie Brown had a field day, boosting the Dolphins rushing effectivness by 30% to 4.80 YpC. Worth noting: Fins QB Gus Frerotte had only one pick, and there were no sacks or fumbles.
In 2006, it was back to the same old story. Linehan’s Rams were the 10th-ranked offense in the NFL, averaging 22.9 points per game. Fox’s Panthers were again a top ten unit, ranked 8th and allowing 19.1 PpG. The Panthers stone cold shut out the Rams, allowing zero points, a meager 4.17 YpA, and 3.75 YpC. The Rams had one pick, one fumble lost, and were sacked seven times for –62 yards.
We see a pattern emerge: when a Scott Linehan offense surrenders sacks and turnovers to a John Fox, scoring is ridiculously and wildly depressed, as well as offensive efficiency. When the offensive line is able to control the line of scrimmage, Linehan offenses are disproportionately successful at scoring, and possibly running the ball.
This year’s Broncos are nothing like the vaunted Panthers defenses of the 2000s. Ranked 29th in the NFL, they’re allowing 25.8 PpG , 7.43 YpA, and 3.75 YpC. The rushing defense is solid, but they’re being victimized through the air and allowing points in bunches. The Lions, technically, are the 6th-best offense in the NFL, averaging 27.7 points per game, 7.19 YpA, and 4.08 YpC.
In theory, the Lions have a massive advantage here. They should be able to complete passes and move the ball against a hapless Broncos pass defense. They should be able to make hay with Maurice Morris and Keiland Williams in the space this opens up. The Lions should score 30-34 points, averaging 8.50-9.0 YpA and 4.00-4.25 YpC, and so I will project them to, but at this point I have medium-to-low confidence in this projection, despite having plenty of data.
Well, there are plenty of these. Matthew Stafford will likely play, but will he play well? Will the Lions offense play like an average of all the games they’ve played to date, or like an average of the last two weeks? Will they control the line of scrimmage, deny sacks, and run the ball effectively, or have Stafford on the run again? In fact, what the Lions should score is almost assuredly what they will not; they’re more likely to do much better or worse than to meet expectations square on the nose.
Well, uh. The averages and stuff project a 33-17 Lions win.
Given that the Lions offensive starters have more talent than the Broncos 53-man roster put together, I’m not sure why I feel so bad about signing my name to that projection. Maybe it’s because I said almost the same score last week and was brutally disappointed. However, Denver is not Atlanta—not even close. And I have to believe the Lions defense will feast on Tebow and the Broncos offense, giving Stafford many bites at the apple. Worst-case scenario, the D should have some chances to take matters into their own hands, as they did against Minnesota and Dallas.
Those of you who've been reading a while already know my final word; I wouldn't have deployed the bold if I didn't mean it. 33-17, Lions.