Reviewing the first “wrong” Watchtower of the year is never fun, especially when it’s also a loss. From the defensive side:
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.
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.
The scoring projection was spot on: the 49ers scored 23 offensive points. The run/pass effectiveness was all over the map, though: they passed for a miserable 3.91 YpA, and ran for a stonking 7.00 YpC. I hinted at the ultimate problem, though, in the Mitigating/Aggravating Factors: “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.”
Yup, that was the problem. The Lions defense precisely met expectations, but needed to exceed them to win the game. The only way they were going to exceed them was if the 49ers had to do a lot of passing . . . meaning, the Lions offense needed to force the 49ers offense to keep pace.
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.
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.
Well, they didn’t make it into the 20s, but it wasn’t due to lack of turnovers. It was due to a total lack of passing effectiveness. The Lions averaged 5.86 YpA, a ridiculous 2.07 fewer yards per attempt than what they’d averaged to day. The Lions rushed for 3.67 YpC, which is not fantastic—but it’s only slightly below the Lions season average coming into the game (3.96), and above the 49ers season average allowed (3.57).
Yesterday’s Matthew Stafford piece got into the whys and wherefores behind the failure of the passing game, and I don’t want to repeat myself. Long story short, the 49ers pass defense was too good for the Lions dominate with pure talent. The 49ers defense was too good for Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson to just pitch and catch over. The Lions decided to put the pedal to the metal rather than downshift into a dink-and-dunk gear, and it didn’t work.
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.
Heebie jeebies, yes. Lions win, no.