The Watchtower: Lions vs. 49ers

>> 10.16.2011


If, during the long dreary lockout months, you engaged in a Completely Useless Waste of Time, when you came upon “vs. SFO” you doubtlessly checked the “W” side of the ledger. Instead, the 4-1 49ers come to town as one of the hottest teams in football. Coming off a 48-3 dismantling of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, my favorite predictive metric thinks the 49ers are the fourth-best team in football.

This is why reviewing the schedule and predicting wins and losses is a completely useless waste of time.

If the Simple Rating System is right, the Niners are the strongest non-Packers opponent the Lions will host all season long. They come at a weird time. The Lions are just six days removed from a franchise-defining MNF win, and at an improbable 5-0 are more than due for a letdown. The 49ers just blew out the Bucs in ridiculous fashion, though, so they’re unlikely to be playing with maximum fire, either.

Let’s go to the tape.

Jim Harbaugh vs. Gunther Cunningham

CHI 7th 28.4 7.75 4.01 DET 4th 17.8 5.91 4.78            

This one will be quick.

Jim Harbaugh jumped right from his playing career to coaching quarterbacks Raiders, then from the Raiders to the college head coaching ranks. He’s never been an offensive coordinator, but he’s most definitely an offensive coach. Though he played under a variety of systems, he’s a member of the Bill Walsh coaching tree. He coached QBs under Raiders OC Marc Trestman and HC Bill Callahan. Practically the first words out of Harbaugh’s mouth after being introduced as coach were “We will install the West Coast Offense in San Francisco, birthplace of the West Coast Offense.”

There are several layers of that not being quite true, but whatever. Harbaugh brought his “running game coordinator,” Mark Roman, with him from Stanford. Roman has never been a full-fledged coordinator in his career, either, so there’ll be no historical data.

Led by the suddenly-efficient Alex Smith, the 49ers are the 7th-best scoring offense in football, averaging a solid 28.4 points per game. They’re moving the ball incredibly well through the air, at a 7.75 YpA clip. On the ground, tailbacks Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter have combined for a solid 4.01 YpC.

Defensively . . . you may want to sit down for this. The Detroit Lions have the fourth-best scoring defense in football. They’re allowing a miniscule 17.7 points per game, and a meager 5.91 YpA. Their running defense has been less than stout; opposing running backs have been rolling up the Lions for 4.78 YpC.

Without any systemic advantages either way, we must project the 49ers offense to to meet expectations against the Lions defense. I project the 49ers to score 21-24 points, passing for 6.50-7.00 YpA and rushing for 4.25-4.50 YpC. I have medium-to-low confidence in this projection.

Mitigating/Aggravating Factors

Of course, it’s pretty much all up in the air, schematically speaking. There are many different flavors of the “West Coast Offense,” and the Callahan/Gruden branch is one we don’t have a lot of prior history with. The Lions are definitely soft against the run, and the 49ers are calling runs 54.2% of the time. The Lions showed against Chicago that merely grinding it out against them won’t work if the offense can score. For the Lions’ defense to exceed expectations, the offense may need to force Alex Smith to play catchup.

Scott Linehan vs. Vic Fangio

Lin Ornk PgG YpA YpC Vic Drnk PpG DYpA DYpC PTS PTSΔ YpA YpAΔ YpC YpCΔ
MIN 6th 25.3 7.16 4.71 HOU 15th 21.2 6.82 3.91 34 34% 7.92 11% 2.46 -48%
DET 4th 31.8 7.79 3.96 SFO 2nd 15.6 6.85 3.57            

Vic Fangio is a 3-4 zone blitz coordinator; a contemporary, colleague, and sometimes employee of Green Bay defensive coordinator Dom Capers. Latif Masud did an excellent history of Fangio that I’ll just link you to in the interests of getting this bad boy up. In prior Watchtowers, I’ve projected an advantage for Linehan’s offenses against Caper-y defenses. However, turnovers and poor quarterback play have repeatedly hamstrung the Lions’ efforts against Capers.

The one time a Scott Linehan offense faced a Vic Fangio defense, the result was a game that got under my skin for years hence. You see, Daunte Culpepper threw for five touchdowns, no interceptions, and 396 yards against Capers’s Texans (with Fangio coordinating the defense). The Vikings won in overtime, 34-28, and Culpepper’s “MVP Caliber season” took flight. You know, the one where they went 8-8.

The offensive explosion against Houston was partially fueled by game conditions—it was an overtime  shootout—but the Vikings’ 6th-ranked offense faced Houston’s 15th-ranked defense and scored 34% above their season average. At 7.92 YpA, Culpepper moved the ball even better than he usually did, but the Vikings’ dangerous running attack was stopped cold: only 2.46 YpC, a decrease of 48% from their typical 4.71.

This jibes with what I’ve found with Linehan offenses: they do well against 3-4 zone blitz defenses. This time, the Lions won’t be starting Drew Stanton the non-touchdown-throwing version of Daunte Culpepper or whoever, they’ll be starting Matthew Stafford.

Stafford is at the helm of the second-best scoring offense in football. The Lions are averaging 31.8 points per game, 7.79 yards per attempt, and 3.95 YpC (up 1.01 yards after Jahvid Best’s explosion last week). The 49ers are the second-best scoring defense in football, averaging 15.6 points per game, 6.85 YpA, and 3.57 YpC. They’re actually allowing better balll movement through the air and on the ground than you’d expect, given the scoring average. That’s due in part to their excellent +10 turnover ratio.

Given these unit’s equal strength (they’re both outstanding), if there really is no advantage for Scott Linehan’s offenses against Vic Fangio’s defenses, the Lions should exactly meet expectations. Since I’ve been trying to weigh recent performance more heavily than historical, I’ll roll with that as my official projection. Factoring in the 49ers penchant for allowing more yardage than points, I project the Lions to score 23-26 points, throw for 7.5-8.0 YpA, and run for 3.75-4.0 YpC. I have medium confidence in this projection.

Mitigating/Aggravating Factors

Of course, if there really is a systemic advantage for Lions offenses against Capers/Fangio 3-4 defenses, then the Lions should add another touchdown or so. As with Monday Night Football, I expect the crowd to give the Lions a lift—though not to the same extreme. However, if the Lions turn the ball over two or more times, they may not make it into the mid 20s.


This game gives me the heebie-jeebies. Both teams are coming off enormous wins. Both teams are “due” to drop one against an extremely tough opponent. The data shows the Lions to hold about a field goal advantage in this one. Both teams take care of the ball extremely well, and both teams force a lot of turnovers. I feel like this will be the difference in what could be a very dramatic, very physical, low-scoring slugfest. The most likely outcome of this game is an extremely hard-fought 23-21 Lions win.


Anonymous,  October 16, 2011 at 11:22 AM  

My random prediction for the day is a Nate Burleson touchdown. I have medium-high confidence in this projection. Great post as always!

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