I am a Detroit Lions Fan; I Support Ndamukong Suh

>> 11.29.2011


The Lions in Winter is more than a Detroit Lions blog. It’s about more than game previews and reviews, or analysis and breakdowns, or numbers or charts or wins or losses or even my feelings about all of the above. Though much of what you read here falls into one of the above categories, part of TLiW’s mission is to write about Detroit Lions fans: the state of Lions fandom, what it means to be a Lions fan, and what it means to be a fan of anything.

Over at Cheesehead TV, the preeminent Packers blog, writer CD Angeli (formerly of Tundra Vision) wrote a post called “Packers’, Lions’ Destinies Diverge.” As the self-appointed chronicler of Lions fandom, I feel duty-bound to respond.

Angeli effectively brings to bear his memories of the Forest Gregg Era. Gregg took over the Packers in 1984, when Green Bay was coming off 12 straight years without a winning season. Gregg immediately led the Pack to their second and third consecutive 8-8 seasons, but couldn’t break the .500 barrier. In 1986 and 1987 the Pack went 4-12 and 5-9-1, respectively, ending Gregg’s run as Packers head coach.

As Angeli writes, there wasn’t much to root for during those losing seasons except the Packers’ penchant for vicious hits:

As the Packers posted just thirteen wins over the final three years of Gregg’s tenure, Charles Martin delivered the “Body Slam Heard Round Mostly Wisconsin”. Yes, with no chance to beat the Bears on the scoreboard late in 1986, Martin grabbed Punky QB Jim McMahon a full two seconds after the ball was away and threw him into the Solider Field artificial turf, separating his shoulder. It was the beginning of a new approach for the “hard-nosed Packers and their hard-nosed coach”. If you can’t beat them, beat them up.

And, I am humbled to say that, like many Packer fans at the time, I didn’t completely decry the incident. In fact, I kind of celebrated it. I mean, the Bears were cocky, right? And McMahon was a jerk, right? He kind of deserved it. You saw Martin’s face as he was ejected, and there wasn’t a look of outrage or contriteness on his face. He looked almost bemused. And so did many Packer fans, as we found ourselves face-to-face with Bear fans that week in our cubicle, our classes, or our local tavern and let them know we scored a point against them.

Angeli goes on to describe what he calls a “loser’s mentality,” getting in a cheap shot or complaining about the refs because it’s all you can do when overwhelmed by a superior opponent. He correctly notes that the Lions are a much more talented team than the mid-80s Packers, and the Lions don’t need to be dirty to gain an advantage. They can, and should, test their mettle against great teams like today’s Packers while playing clean, fair football.

Ultimately, Angeli lays blame for Detroit’s loser mentality on Lions head coach Jim Schwartz:

Abraham Lincoln once said, “Character is like a tree and reputation like a shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.” I am thankful that Mike McCarthy and Ted Thompson preside over a team that is thoughtful enough to protect both.

And, as the shadow of the Lions’ reputation gets longer and longer, you only need to follow it to the source…and that is the character of Jim Schwartz.

A bit of perspective: in 2008, the Lions capped off a seven-season stretch of going 31-81 by losing every single game they played.

Those 2008 Lions had the worst defense ever assembled. They surrendered over 2,700 rushing yards at an average of 5.1 yards per carry, and over 3,700 passing yards at an average of 8.29 YpA. Opposing quarterbacks had a 25:4 TD/INT ratio, and a passer rating of 110.1. As wretched as the defense was, the offense wasn't much better. The 2008 Lions not only went 0-16, they didn’t even belong on the same field as their competition.

Since then, Jim Schwartz’s Lions are 15-28. Incredibly, that’s a better winning percentage than any of his three most recent predecessors, despite the talent cupboard being completely bare when he took over. The Lions’ statistical Great Leap Forward from 2009 to 2010 was remarkable, and after 2011 there will be a similar jump. When Schwartz was hired, the Lions were the worst team in professional sports, and in Schwartz’s third season they are legitimate playoff contenders in the strongest division in football.

Jim Schwartz is the best thing to happen to the Lions since Barry Sanders—not since Barry left, mind you, but since he arrived.

Angeli’s use of Lincoln’s shadow metaphor is particularly apt; before Thanksgiving  most of Ndamukong Suh’s “dirty” reputation was built upon a shadow. Suh “ripped Andy Dalton’s helmet off,” though it actually popped off in the midst of a legal sack because Dalton didn’t fasten it. Suh “horse collared” Marion Barber, though Suh legally grabbed Barber’s hair only. Suh “forearm shivered” Jay Cutler, though Suh just pushed one flat hand into Cutler’s back.

Perception, though, sometimes becomes reality. In the PR-minded NFL, any negative publicity is reacted against with a knee-jerk gavel and mob-justice sentence. Suh has been branded a “dirty player,” and the Lions a “dirty team,” so officials are cautioned to watch them more closely.  Minor Lions infractions draw flags, and major Lions infractions become talking points for talk radio. The Packers are “winners” who play “the right way,” so their minor infractions are overlooked and their major infractions are lauded as hard-nosed play—Charles Woodson, j’accuse.

By Angeli’s definition, Evan Dietrich-Smith has a loser’s mentality. Faced with a far superior opponent—Suh—Dietrich-Smith did what he had to do to stay competitive: he cheated. He clutched, he grabbed, he flailed, he did everything he could to keep Suh from killing Aaron Rodgers. On the down before the incident, Dietrich-Smith and center Scott Wells resorted to attempting to tackle Suh, both wrapping both arms around Suh’s chest and hanging on for dear life.

I’m not supposed to complain about this. That’s the loser’s mentality, right? The Packers blatantly cheated to hold off Ndamukong Suh, sure, but that stuff happens all the time in football, right? If Suh’s really so great, he should just overcome it, right? Unfortunately, yes: no matter how dirty the other guy plays, no matter how many obvious penalties go uncalled, no matter how many flags are getting thrown at the Lions’ offensive line for much lesser fouls, Ndamukong Suh is—and I  am—expected to keep a stiff upper lip.

This is the funny thing about being a fan—a true fan, a diehard fan, a supporter in the world’s parlance. You wrap yourself up in your team, allow their identity to become part of yours. You feel a kinship with the team and players. When you brand yourself a fan, your team’s successes and failures reflect back on you—both inwardly, in your emotions, and outwardly, in how other people treat you.

When what your team does clashes irrevocably with who you are as a person, it's an awful feeling. It’s the feeling I got sitting in the stands, watching Suh nuke the Lions’ chances of pulling off the biggest Lions win since 1991. It’s the feeling I got when I got home and had to explain the incident to my kids. It’s what makes people call in to sports talk radio and shout “THIS IS UNACCEPTABLE!” They’re saying, “I can’t accept being a fan of this team anymore, if this team is stands for [fill in the blank].”

After the incident, I lashed out on Twitter, and got dozens of Packer fans filling my feed with comments along the lines of “ha ha, losers weepers.” It was like a flood of 140-character versions of C.D. Angeli’s piece. What could I do? What could I say? I was impotent in my frustration and rage. I am not a dirty person. My favorite players shouldn’t be dirty players. My favorite team shouldn’t be a dirty team. It’s unacceptable.

If I go on a rampage like Suh, I’ll face a backlash of scorn and ridicule like he did. If I say nothing, I have to hear a bunch of crap from Packers fans who are no more righteous in their offended sensibilities than Evan Deitrich-Smith is in his.

Ultimately, this is fandom's great illusion. I am not Ndamukong Suh, and C.D. Angeli is not Evan Dietrich-Smith.  I am not a loser because the Lions lost, and he is not a winner because the Packers won. I have no more business being indignant about the terrible officiating than he has lecturing Lions fans about “character.”

What Ndamukong Suh did WAS unacceptable. It has no place in the game. He deserved the penalty, deserved to be ejected, deserves a big fat fine, and deserved to be suspended for two games without pay. I completely denounce his attack on Dietrich-Smith, and pray he never does anything like it ever again.

But . . . I am a Lions fan. It’s part of my identity. If I can brand myself with the colors of 0-16, I can brand myself with the colors of Ndamukong Suh, for good or bad—and believe me, even with this incident, Suh has done much, much, much more good in his life than bad. I am hurt, ashamed, and disappointed—but I choose to continue to accept Suh and these Lions as my team. Their destiny on the field is my destiny as a fan, and I will support them to it, come what may.

What else am I supposed to do—root for the Packers?


Watchtower Review: Lions vs. Packers


It’s nearly a week after the fact.

It doesn't feel any better.

I couldn't complete the ritual healing of the Fireside Chat on Sunday night, despite my best efforts. My struggles with my DSL connection provided an apt metaphor for the Lions’ struggles against the refs, injuries, and their own failures. The talent was there, the effort was there, but they shot themselves in the foot and circumstances conspired to prevent them from recovering.

Though I did file my weekly “The Absolutely Worst of the NFL” column for B/R, I didn’t post here yesterday. I’m up to my eyeballs in film, studying what went wrong and how the Lions can fix it. I’m also studying Ndamukong Suh’s claims that he was mugged, and also the bizarre inconsistency in officiating. In the meantime, let’s have a look at that Watchtower.

When Scott Linehan offenses meet Dom Capers defenses, something very interesting happens. It’s one of the strongest statistical trends that has ever cropped up in The Watchtower. First, the Linehan offenses tend to rush much better than expected. Second, they tend to outperform scoring expectations as a result. Third, and most interestingly, quarterback runs are wildly more successful than usual.

Might the Lions draw up some surprise quarterback draws for Stafford? Or, might he scramble for some yardage? It’s something to keep an eye on.

Well, at least that part held up. Stafford scrambled for a career-high 31 yards, including a career long of 21, on a tied-for-career-high four rushing attempts. That and six dollars will get me a latté these days.

It’s hard to project Kevin Smith to repeat his NFL Offensive Player of the Week performance, or anywhere close, on Thursday. But his dramatic welcome-back party plays right into the Lions’ hands. With a back that can take advantage of the Lions’ systemic advantage, the Lions should exceed nominal expectations.

Therefore, I project the Lions to score 33-35 points, passing for 7.0-7.50 YpA and rushing for 4.75-5.0 YpC. I have very high confidence in this projection.

Or, you know, Kevin Smith could go out in the first quarter with a high ankle sprain . . .

Actually, that didn't have much effect on the game. Between Smith, Maurice Morris, Keiland Williams and Nate Burleson, the Lions racked up 136 rushing yards on just 21 attempts, a per-carry average of 6.48 yards. This wasn’t a Javhid-Best-against-the-Bears YpC average inflated by one length-of-the-field scamper, either. The Lions were legitimately running it down the Packers’ throats.

Once again, we see the schematic advantage. When Scott Linehan offenses face Dom Capers defenses, they run wild. It happens every single time.

Passing, not so much. The Lions gained 276 yards on 45 pass attempts, a 6.13 YpA average. Maurice Morris led all Lions with nine receptions. Burleson was second, with five. Calvin Johnson, Brandon Pettigrew, and Keiland Williams all had four. Kevin Smith caught three, Tony Scheffler two, and Titus Young one. Seeing a pattern here?

The Lions played it very, very very close to the vest. Against the Panthers, Stafford followed the mantra of “settle down and execute the offense” I’d been chanting for the previous month—and it served him very well. Against the Packers, his fear of turnovers (or the coaches’ fear of turnovers) turned “settling down” into “going into a shell.”

Against the Packers, the Lions more-or-less abandoned the downfield pass, settling for slants and curls and ankle-biting. If this had actually resulted in a turnover-free performance, the Lions would have won this game. Instead, a batted ball, a picked pocket, and a combination underthrow/mad linebacker hops hurt the Lions like they took bomb-it-downfield risk, with no bomb-it-downfield reward.

The defense gets sacks, gets turnovers, stiffens up on third down, and gets stops. This is doubly true when the offense isn’t going three and out, or turning it over right back, and the coverage units aren’t allowing scores. On Thanksgiving, the Lions’ defense will need the Lions offense to help them get it done.

Without any systemic advantage, I would expect the Packers to slightly outperfom their season average against the 19th-ranked defense. Taking the strong systemic advantage into account, I project the Packers offense to score 27-30 points, passing for 7.00-7.50 YpA and rushing for 4.25-4.50 YpC. I have medium-high confidence in this projection.

This is eerily similar to the very first Packers Watchtower, where my expectations of the Packers’ offensive output was right on the nose, while Daunte Culpepper and Drew Stanton combined for three interceptions and zero points. In both cases, if the offense hadn’t thrown three picks, the defense would have dramatically outperformed expectations.

The Lions defense did a magnificent job against the Packers, holding them to just 86 yards in the first half. Gradually, all four active Lions cornerbacks, plus safety Louis Delmas, went out with injuries. At one point, At one point, #5 safety (and special teams ace) John Wendling was in at cornerback, and WR Rashied Davis was playing safety. With all Lions secondary hands on deck, Aaron Rodgers started moved the ball well with quick passes to the outside—and his targets started to make hay after the catch.

With the secondary in tatters, Rodgers and the Packers passed for 9.30 YpA. Though they rushed for only 2.94 YpC, the Packers scored 27 offensive points, right on the button with my projections. Still, the defense has to be commended for this shorthanded effort in a game where their offense (and one of their own) hung them out to dry.


Fireside Chat Reminder

>> 11.27.2011

Hey all, don’t forget: Fireside Chat tonight a little after 10 pm ET. Hit the “Podcast” tab above, or just head over to the Ustream Fireside Chat site at the appointed time.


Cold Leftovers on Black Friday

>> 11.25.2011

Though moral victories don’t count, and a good show in a “noble loss” would be bitterly disappointing for all these wonderful opportunities left hanging, it wouldn’t end the Lions season. If they take care of business against the Vikingses and the Chargerses of the world, the Lions can still make the playoffs without a ‘W’ on T-day.

To quote Dr. Seuss, "I said and said and said those words. I said them--but I lied them."

What happened yesterday was not a "noble loss" or a "good show." With the nation looking on, and the world to play for, the Lions went out and disgraced themselves--and I'm not just talking about the Suh thing.

Briefly: you can't do that. I am going to do a whole thing about the Suh incident after I review the tape, so I won't steal my own thunder. Suffice to say, it was a terrible thing and it cost the Lions dearly. It was far from the only terrible decision the cost the Lions dearly, though.

Activating only 4 cornerbacks against a team with a slew of offensive weapons, and paying the price with a busted coverage when two of them went down. Going for the end zone on 3rd-and-2 in Packers territory, then giving up and trying a long field goal with a hurt kicker. Worst of all: getting a defensive stop, having a chance to get that missed field goal back, and running out the clock instead.

The worst thing is, the Lions outplayed the Packers throughout the first half. The Lions defense had the high-flying Packers grounded. The offense was effectively moving the ball, on the ground and in the air. They had every opportunity to take control of that game, they just didn't. Or couldn't.

I am also going to do a whole thing about the refs. Again, briefly: the officiating was awful, wretchedly inconsistent, too intrusive . . . and, I have to say, felt tilted towards the Packers. I said as much on Twitter and got railed for it, but it felt that way at the time.

It was a loss. A brutal, terrible, injurious, soul-crushing loss when a win would have meant the world. However, it was still a loss--and an expected one, at that. The Lions have a mini-bye-week to lick their wounds, get healthy, and get ready for the Saints.

In the meantime: Go Raiders, and Skol Vikings.


Scott Mitchell, Matthew Stafford, and the Ghosts of Thanksgiving Classics Past

>> 11.23.2011

Mitchell_Scott9_Lions_vs_Vikings“They’ll never win anything with that quarterback.” My grandfather’s steel jaw was set like a trap. His eyes were narrowed into burning slits. Bellies full of turkey and trimmings, he and I were ‘relaxing’ after dinner by—what else?—watching the Lions.

It being 1995, Football Outsiders and Pro Football Focus didn’t exist. Dividing yards  by carries to explain why Barry Sanders is better than Emmitt Smith got you branded a pencil-necked geek playing with fake voodoo numbers. Still, my 14-year-old self refused to let that statement go unchallenged.

Unfortunately, being challenged wasn’t exactly my Grandpa’s thing.

"Well . . ." I ventured, swallowing hard. "Actually, Grandpa, Scott Mitchell’s been having an awesome year. I mean, his completion percentage is up around sixty, he’s got a two-to-one touchdown-to-interception ratio, he’s on pace to throw for well over four thousand yards . . .”

“He’s a bum,” said my Grandpa. His eyes never wavered from the wood-cabinet-enclosed TV.

An airtight argument, to be sure. But . . . I mean, couldn’t he see? The Lions were outgaining everyone in football! Barry Sanders! Herman Moore! I mustered my logics, and cleared my throat.

A BUM.” The matter was closed.

Of course, the Lions went on to win that game, 44-38. Mitchell completed 30 of 45 passes for 410 yards, four touchdowns, and just one pick. Barry reeled off 138 yards on 24 carries, including a 50-yard touchdown run. I was quite satisfied with myself; logic and reason and faithful fandom had won the day. These Lions and their incredible air attack were certainly on their way to greatness.

My grandfather wasn’t happy the Lions won that day, at least not visibly so. He seemed appeased. Like, at least this time, the Lions’ absence of bumbling was acceptable to him. Meanwhile, I was punch-drunk on Lions Kool-Aid.

The Lions reeled off four more consecutive victories (seven total) to make the playoffs. Mitchell and the Lions were the second-highest-scoring offense in the NFL that year. Mitchell’s 58.3% completion percentage, 4,338 yards, 32 touchdowns and 12 interceptions made for the best statistical season any Lions quarterback has had in my lifetime. I thought it was the beginning of a 49ers-esque run of offensive dominance.

Unfortunately, Scott Mitchell was a bum; those Lions never won anything.

As we speak, Matthew Stafford is on pace to complete 61.3% of his passes for 4,548 yards, 40 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. The Lions are the 3rd-highest-scoring team in football. These Lions are 7-3, not 5-6, going into the hallowed Thanksgiving Day game—but unlike 1995, the 2011 Lions started hot. It’s technically possible for these Lions to win their last seven games like the ‘95 team did—but after the midseason stumbles, and with the remaining schedule, that seems like a ridiculous pipe dream.

Just how good are these Lions? We’re still not sure. Are they the team that started 5-0? The team that went 1-3 from mid-October to mid-November? Are they headed for a mediocre 9-7 finish, or an outstanding 12-4? Matthew Stafford is not a bum—but 16 years from now, will he be remembered as the second coming of John Elway, or the second coming of Carson Palmer?

This Thanksgiving Day game will be the truest test of the Lions mettle. The Packers are undefeated; the undisputed reigning champions of the NFL. They’re comfortably atop the NFC North division standings. Until the ultimate crucible of Lambeau Field in Week 17, the Lions will not have a better chance to prove they belong amongst the best of the NFL.

I'm thankful that chance comes during the Lions’ annual showcase game. I’m thankful they can slam the door, once and for all, on decades of futility while a nation full of doubters looks on. I’m thankful they’ll be able to put a barbed-wire fence around Ford Field, and the generations of tradition the Thanksgiving game is imbued with.

Above all, I’m thankful that for the first time in my life, I’ll be there.

That’s right, I’ll be making the Pilgrimage to the Thanksgiving Classic. It’s on the bucket list of every true Lions fan, and I cannot be happier that I’ll be able to scratch it off my own. I’ll be there to cheer the Lions on with everything I’ve got, and give the Lions every possible advantage over the Packers—who, if history holds, will have an audible contingent of supporters there, too.

Though moral victories don’t count, and a good show in a “noble loss” would be bitterly disappointing for all these wonderful opportunities left hanging,  it wouldn’t end the Lions season. If they take care of business against the Vikingses and the Chargerses of the world, the Lions can still make the playoffs without a ‘W’ on T-day.

But, if they can pass this test, if they can fell these giants, every Lions fan everywhere will be able to rejoice: finally, finally, the Lions have taken their place amongst the very best teams in football . . .

. . . and somewhere, my Grandpa will stand up and cheer.


Thanksgiving Watchtower: Detroit Lions vs. Packers


This is it.

This game is the game. The game that everything is riding on, the game that everything has come down to. The Lions have done their part through the first ten weeks of the season, going 7-3. They’re neck-and-neck with the Bears, and keeping within striking distance of the 10-0 Packers. They’re two games into the difficult half of their schedule, and though it’s been a painful test, they’re as close to the mountaintop by as anyone could have expected.

With a win, the Lions make the NFC North title race a race again, clawing to within two games of the Packers and picking up the head-to-head tiebreaker. With a win, the Lions will have handled one of the two “hard” games the Bears won’t have to handle. With a win, the Lions solidify their hold on the division-record tiebreaker—the mark that gives the Lions the upper hand on the Bears, even after being blown out by them in Week 9.

The Lions, as always, get a national showcase for this game. After years of hearing the pundits gripe about how our team is harshing America’s collective turkey buzz, there isn’t a game the football-watching world would rather see.

Mike McCarthy vs. Gunther Cunningham

NOS 14th 21.2 6.43 4.46 TEN 29th 27.2 8.05 4.62 12 -43% 8.04 25% 1.53 -66%
NOS 14th 21.8 6.62 3.96 KCC 16th 20.3 6.58 4.10 27 24% 9.59 45% 5.83 47%
GBP 3rd 28.8 7.56 4.30 DET 32nd 30.9 5.42 4.42 26 -10% 9.68 28% 3.57 -17%
GBP 3rd 28.8 7.56 4.30 DET 32nd 30.9 5.42 4.42 34 18% 8.92 18% 2.96 -31%
GBP 10th 24.2 7.63 3.81 DET 19th 23.1 6.75 4.51 21 -13% 10.65 40% 4.28 12%
GBP 10th 24.2 7.63 3.81 DET 19th 23.1 6.75 4.51 3 -88% 6.03 -21% 3.30 -13%
GBP 1st 35.5 9.18 3.88 DET 19th 21.9 5.45 4.97            

Over the years, Gunther Cunningham’s defenses have consistently put the clamp on Mike McCarthy’s offenses. Time and time again, the Packers fall well short of what you’d expect when a high-flying Packers air attacks meets a mediocre-to-terrible Lions defense. Look at the chart above. Note the respective offensive and defensive ranks, and points-scored deltas: there’s an undeniable trend.

For 2010's first Packers game, I projected the Lions defense to be relatively stingy; they did even better than I projected. When the 10th-ranked scoring offense (7th at the time) faces the 19th-ranked scoring defense (25th at the time), and they score 13% fewer points than average, something is up.

When Watchtowering last year’s second Packers game, I couldn’t fully trust this effect. The numbers, combined with a strong systemic advantage, were projecting a seriously low-scoring effort from Green Bay. I couldn’t believe the Lions’ D could do it again—so when I projected the Packers’ point totals, I pulled back the reins:

It seems unlikely that the Lions’ defense does that well against an offense that good twice in a row, though, so I’m going to project the Packers to slightly underperform scoring expectations: gaining 23-26 points. I expect the Lions to be more successful defending the pass with zone coverage, allowing 8.0-8.5 YpA, at the expense of fewer interceptions. The Lions will likely cede the run to the Packers again, allowing 4.25-4.5 YpC. I have high confidence in this projection.

Of course, nobody could predict the Lions holding the Packers to just a measly field goal. They knocked Aaron Rodgers out of the game with a concussion in the second quarter—and despite what Rodgers and Packer fans will tell you, that wasn’t the only reason the Lions were successful against him. Before leaving the game Rodgers attempted 11 passes, completing seven of them for 46 yards, no touchdowns, and a pick.

This season, the Packers offense is #1 in the NFL, racking up a ridiculous 35.5 points per game. It’s no surprise that Rogers and his array of targets are fueling this scoring machine; they’re moving the ball through the air an average of 9.18 yards a pop. The ground game has struggled at times, but at 3.88 YpC it hasn’t been awful.

After the slew of defensive and return touchdowns in the past two weeks (which I cannot find season scoring totals that correctly exclude), the Lions defense is now technically the 19th-best in the NFL, allowing 21.9 points per game. You can see in the effectiveness stats that those averages don’t reflect the true performance of the secondary: they’re allowing a miniscule 5.45 YpA this season. On the ground, the Lions defense has allowed 4.97 YpC—this is actually an improvement; the Lions are no longer allowing more yards per rushing attempt than passing attempt.

The defense gets sacks, gets turnovers, stiffens up on third down, and gets stops. This is doubly true when the offense isn’t going three and out, or turning it over right back, and the coverage units aren’t allowing scores. On Thanksgiving, the Lions’ defense will need the Lions offense to help them get it done.

Without any systemic advantage, I would expect the Packers to slightly outperfom their season average against the 19th-ranked defense. Taking the strong systemic advantage into account, I project the Packers offense to score 27-30 points, passing for 7.00-7.50 YpA and rushing for 4.25-4.50 YpC. I have medium-high confidence in this projection.

Mitigating/Aggravating Factors

Sometimes, my projection seems very close to the “ceiling” or the “floor” of possible scenarios. For example, I thought Monday Night Football game against the Bears could be lower-scoring than I projected, but not higher. This game has wild possible movement in both directions.

All season long, the Packers have gotten themselves caught up in shootouts. They get a big lead early, but their secondary can’t shut down the other team. The Packers then have to keep the pedal to the metal to stay ahead of the other team. It is possible, if not probable, that this happens on Thanksgiving; I have been telling everyone to prepare for a possible 100-point combined effort.

Then again, the Lions scoring defense had been a Top 10 defense all season long, up until the last two weeks’ explosion of turnover- and special-teams-fueled scoring. By Pro Football Focus grades, they’re still the NFL’s second-best pass coverage unit. They simply don’t get beaten through the air.

If the Lions jump out to an early lead instead, I can see the Lions defense shutting the Packers passing game down—and dramatically depressing their scoring output.

Scott Linehan vs. Dom Capers

Lin Ornk PgG YpA YpC Dom Drnk PpG DYpA DYpC PTS PTSΔ YpA YpAΔ YpC YpCΔ
MIN 6th 25.3 7.16 4.71 HOU 21st 19.3 6.89 3.92 34 34% 7.92 11% 4.69 0%
STL 30th 14.5 5.67 3.95 MIA 21st 21.6 6.61 2.35 12 -17% 4.26 -25% 4.30 9%
DET 24th 18.1 5.60 3.91 GBP 12th 20.3 6.17 4.46 0 -100% 4.20 -25% 4.33 11%
DET 27th 16.4 7.80 4.42 GBP 7th 18.6 5.96 3.59 12 -27% 4.95 -37% 3.17 -28%
DET 15th 22.6 6.02 3.99 GBP 2nd 15.0 5.90 4.65 26 15% 6.13 2% 5.86 47%
DET 15th 22.6 6.02 3.99 GBP 2nd 15.0 5.90 4.65 7 -69% 5.32 -0.12 4.63 16%
DET 3rd 30.1 6.79 4.30 GBP 15th 21.2 7.40 4.72            

When Scott Linehan offenses meet Dom Capers defenses, something very interesting happens. It’s one of the strongest statistical trends that has ever cropped up in The Watchtower. First, the Linehan offenses tend to rush much better than expected. Second, they tend to outperform scoring expectations as a result. Third, and most interestingly, quarterback runs are wildly more successful than usual.

This was a quirk Commenter Matt noticed back in 2009, and it’s held up. Before last season’s game against the Packers at home, it drove me to boldly predict the following:

The Lions will be starting Drew Stanton, whose running ability is well-known, and whom the Lions have never hesitated to call designed running plays for. I expect to see at least one rushing touchdown, or 20-plus-yard scramble, from Drew Stanton on Sunday.

Stanton rushed 4 times for 44 yards, with a YpC of 10.0 and long of 17. As a whole, Jahvid Best, Maurice Morris, Stefan Logan and Stanton combined for 4.63 YpC, over half a yard per carry better than season averages. Might the Lions draw up some surprise quarterback draws for Stafford? Or, might he scramble for some yardage? It’s something to keep an eye on. Of course, it didn’t translate into any more than a measley seven points, thanks in part to two Stanton picks and a missed field goal.

If the offense turns it over twice in the first three possessions for the third straight week, it’s going to be hard for the Lions to meet expectations.

However, those expectations will be extremely high. The Lions are scoring 30.1 points per game, third-best in the NFL. Meanwhile, the Packers defense is ranked 17th, allowing 21.2 points per game. Keen observers will note the Lions’ and Packers’ units are ranked very, very similarly to each other. Without any kind of systemic advantage factored in I’d project the Lions to slightly outperform season averages, just as said I’d do for the Packers above.

However, we have a strong systemic advantage in place—and look at the per-play effectiveness stats! The Packers’ pass defense is allowing 1.95 more yards per passing attempt than the Lions’. Their rushing-allowed and scoring-allowed figures are nearly identical, though. Again, we know why this discrepancy exists: the Lions defense has been victimized by special teams and defensive scores in the past two weeks.

It’s hard to project Kevin Smith to repeat his NFL Offensive Player of the Week performance, or anywhere close, on Thursday. But his dramatic welcome-back party plays right into the Lions’ hands. With a back that can take advantage of the Lions’ systemic advantage, the Lions should exceed nominal expectations.

Therefore, I project the Lions to score 33-35 points, passing for 7.0-7.50 YpA and rushing for 4.75-5.0 YpC. I have very high confidence in this projection.

Mitigating/Aggravating Factors:

Well, jeez, there’s a lot of stuff going on here. The bottom line is that we have two very high-powered offenses, and two middling defenses. However, there are very strong systemic advantages in play when the ball’s moving in either direction, and both of them favor the Lions. There’s a very high potential for a “whoever scores last wins” kind of shootout, in which case whoever scores last will win, and the Packers have won half their games by being the kind of team that always finds a way to score last.

If that’s not what happens, though, the Lions have the upper hand.

The Lions should run and pass more effectively than the Packers, and God willing that will translate into more points—without too much interference from turnovers or return touchdowns. If, however, the Lions play with fire for the third straight week, they will get burned.


Of course, there’s one more factor I haven’t mentioned: us. The Lions fans. The ones who, in the words of Peter King, were the “ninth, 10th, 11th and 12th man in the Oct. 10 Monday night win over the Bears,” and awarded a game ball for our contributions.

If we do our part on Thanksgiving like we did on Monday Night Football, if we force the Packers into beating themselves with false starts and allowed sacks, the Lions will have every opportunity to make my projection of a 33-30 Lions win look brilliant.


Three Cups Deep: Detroit Lions vs. Carolina Panthers

>> 11.21.2011


This season has been full of incredible moments, wonderful memories, and harbingers of success. My faith in this team, its players, its coaches, and its leaders has been converted with almost-perfect success into reality; my bold predictions and ludicrous claims have—almost without fail—come true. This team’s play has cashed nearly every check this blog has written.

The ridiculous defeat of the Panthers was the most surreal moment of my Lions fan life. Last Sunday’s debacle against the Bears was hard, but it didn’t test my faith. “All would be well,” I’d thought. “The Lions will whoop up on the Panthers, then turn around and come in hot against the Pack.”

Sitting in the stadium, staring up at a scoreboard that read “PANTHERS 24 LIONS 7,” it started to drain out of me. For the first time that season, I felt that feeling. That old familiar sensation of my stomach falling through the floor, the flood of frustration and disappointment. If the Lions lost to the Panthers, I knew, they could kiss the playoffs good-bye . . . and the Lions were about to lose to the Panthers.

Matthew Stafford, though, never wavered. His calm, confidence, and resolve were palpable. He stood confidently inside the pocket, and executed the offense to a T. He spread the ball around, found the open man, moved the chains, and never let the scoreboard change his performance or his attitude.

It's the same kind of patient execution we marvelled at in the Vikings and Cowboys games, and the lack of which we decried after the 49ers, Falcons, and Bears losses. Stafford knew he had to just keep executing, and eventually the Lions overall superiority would win the day . . . and it did. Even after the first pick, and the second (which I believe was on the receiver), his numbers were jawdroppingly good: 28-of-36 (77.8%), for 335 yards and 5 TDs; an incredible 121.9 passer effectiveness rating.

Stafford completed multiple passes to seven different Lions, and one touchdown pass to five different Lions—none of whom were Calvin Johnson. This is the Yodaesque field vision I was talking up in the preseason. This is the maturity and ability we’ve all been lauding for so long. With the season on the line and everything in doubt, Stafford Got His Groove Back.

The rest of the game was a joy. Watching Kevin Smith roll like I always thought he could, watching Stafford destroy the Panthers with surgical precision, watching the defense slowly suffocate the incredible young quarterback . . . I went from the edge of despair to the peak of elation. The Lions are well and truly back.

And not a moment too soon.


Fireside Chat, Week 11: Lions vs. Carolina Panthers

Not for the first time, but for the first time in a long time, I went big-time with the Fireside Chat: VIDEO.

Congrats to @appajack for winning the TLiW Thanksgiving Twitter contest! As always, if you like what you hear, subscribe to the Fireside Chat on iTunes (and rate it highly, if you wouldn’t mind).


Fireside Chat reminder!

>> 11.20.2011

Come and talk Lions right here: http://tinyurl.com/firesidechats a little after 10 pm ET. Also, announcing the winner of the remote/T-shirt giveaway!


The Fallen Watchtower: Detroit Lions vs. Carolina Panthers

There will be no real Watchtower today.

I had to choose between a late, rushed gameday Watchtower of the Panthers (skipping Green Bay), and doing up Thanksgiving right with an early-week Watchtower and some good solid Thanksgiving postin'.

I chose the latter.

This is a very strange game. The 6-3 Lions are hosting the 2-7 Panthers; by those bare facts alone this game has should be an easy victory.

If you're reading this, you know there's plenty to worry about.

SRS, my favorite predictive tool, rates the Lions at +8.7; the Panthers at -5.1. Add two point for home field advantage, and the Lions should be expected to win by two touchdowns. Of course, we're left with the Jekyll -and-Hyde problem: will these be the Lions that slaughtered the Broncos, or got slaughtered by the Bears?

Assuming they split the difference, the Lions are averaging 28.0 points per game, still 4th-best in the NFL. They're gaining 6.57 yards per attempt, and 4.1 per carry. The Panthers are allowing a whopping 26.3 points per game, 3rd-worst. They're allowing a massive 7.93 yards per attempt, and 4.7 yards per carry on the ground.

The averages say the Lions should tally 37-42 points, passing for 7.50-8.0 YpA, and rushing for 4.25-4.50 YpC.

The defense is, technically, allowing 20.4 points per game 12th-best in the NFL--though that includes the raft of defensive and special teams points they didn't actually "allow" last week.

The Panthers offense is moving the all through the air at an impressive clip: 7.93 YpA. They're also running like gangbusters, picking up 5.9 YpC. However, that's all adding up to just 21.1 PpG. Sacks, turnovers, and penalties have severely limited Carolina's ability to convert all that yardage into points--and since that's Detroit's defensive calling card, that plays right into the Lions' hands. I project Carolina to score 17-21 points, passing for 7.0-7.50 YpA, and rushing for 5.0-5.25 YpC.

What can I say? The numbers say this should be an unmitigated tail-whooping, and the last time the numbers said that, it happened. Knowing I could well look foolish, I'll project a 38-17 Lions win..


The Lions Running Game: Success and Lack Thereof

>> 11.18.2011

First: for those of you who don’t typically check out my Bleacher Report stuff, you should probably look at today’s Matthew Stafford film breakdown. I took a good look at Stafford’s pocket presence, footwork, and mechanics against the Bears.

Okay, now. A few weeks ago I discussed the Lions success running the football on first and second down. Several of you had been asking for me to update the piece in the aftermath of the Broncos game, but Chase Stuart of Smart Football went and did a leaguewide rushing success analysis.

This is pretty much brilliant, and exactly what I’d planned to do for the Lions. Just as with Pro Football Focus, though, I am happy to stand on the shoulders of giants (or even metaphorically tall regular folks who put in the time and effort that I can’t).

First, Stuart broke it down by individual runner. He sorted the table by total number of successful runs—but since the Lions don’t run nearly as often as other teams, I knew that would skew things. I re-sorted the table by success rate, and here’s what I got:

  Name Tm Car Succ Succ% RshYd YPC
1 Danny Ware NYG 28 18 0.64 91 3.3
2 Jacquizz Rodgers ATL 32 20 0.63 137 4.3
3 DeMarco Murray DAL 97 59 0.61 646 6.7
4 Peyton Hillis CLE 59 35 0.59 216 3.7
5 Derrick Ward HOU 29 17 0.59 88 3
61 Jahvid Best DET 82 34 0.41 388 4.7
62 Maurice Morris DET 41 17 0.41 172 4.2
63 Chris Johnson TEN 146 59 0.4 496 3.4
64 Montario Hardesty CLE 75 29 0.39 245 3.3
65 Deji Karim JAX 54 20 0.37 131 2.4
66 Thomas Jones KAN 67 24 0.36 199 3
67 Javon Ringer TEN 44 16 0.36 147 3.3

Okay, that’s the top five, and bottom seven, rushers by success rate. The first thing you’ll notice is that the Lions’ primary runners to date have identical success rates, despite big disparities in carries, yards, and yards-per-carry. In the Smart Football piece, Stuart singled out Jahvid Best as an example of a runner with deceptively high yards-per-carry: he has the numbers of a back who’s been highly successful when he hasn’t been.

However, he correctly notes that the Lions’ run blocking is atrocious. That Maurice Morris—a different back with different skill sets—has the exact same success rate indicates that the problem isn’t the Lions running backs, it’s the Lions’ running game.

You see the same issue with Tennessee: Chris Johnson and Javon Ringer are almost identically terrible, despite being different runners with different tools. What proves the rule, though, is Cleveland’s backs: Peyton Hills is the 4th-most-successful back, getting the job done 63% of the time with just 3.7 YpC—and his running mate Montario Hardesty is only successful 39% of the time, with 3.3 YpC.

Stuart helpfully included the table of team rushing success, and this time he broke it down by rate as well. Atop the list were New Orleans, Buffalo, and New England, with success rates in the mid-50s. At the bottom? Detroit and Tennessee, with success rates of 40.7% and 39.6%, respectively.

So the Lions aren’t moving the chains on the ground. Worse yet, without Best there’s no threat of the home run, either. Opposing defenses can key on the pass—and that’s putting an awful lot of pressure on Matthew Stafford, the receivers, and the pass protection. They’re talented enough to overcome that pressure, but they have to bring their A game against every non-pushover foe.

I'm thrilled that Stuart included the defensive rushing success rate, as well, because it's an entirely different story: the Lions have the 4th-most successful rushing defense in the NFL. When considering down and distance, the Lions are allowing only 42.2% of carries to succeed. Seattle, San Francisco, and Atlanta are ahead of them with 39.5%, 41.4%, and 41.5% respectively.

The Lions have allowed 944 yards, far more than either of those three teams (771, 516, 676) at a far higher per-carry rate, 4.7 YpC (3.5, 3.3, 3.8). Considering that Stuart eliminated all third- and fourth-and-long carries (so tailbacks wouldn’t be punished for calling the Incredibly Surprising Draw on 3rd-and-forever), this is really impressive stuff. Though the Lions run defense is giving up the occasional long gainer, they’re otherwise completely shutting opponents down—mostly without help from the defensive line.


Detroit Lions Thanksgiving T-Shirt & DirecTV Remote Giveaway Announcement

>> 11.17.2011

As Lions fans, we need to be thankful for what we have. After all the years of failure and ennui, we finally have a winning team—a team worthy of celebrating, a team worthy of our fierce pride and endless support. We have a team we can watch every Sunday, because their performance demands premier viewing slots, and because we fill the stadium every game.

This is a privilege in the NFL: one not earned easily, and one that can be taken away faster than we think possible. I hope Colts and Eagles fans were thankful for their long stretch in the sun, because their time may be up. To that end, I’ve created a new design in my Detroit Lions T-shirt store: “I am THANKFUL.” With quick shipping, you can show everyone your appreciation for this team in person at the game!


Now, not every fan gets to see the Lions live, or even every Sunday. John Tracy from Des Moines is a finalist in DirecTV’s Ultimate Displaced Fan Contest, and he needs as many votes as we can give him. He’ll win the Lions fan experience of a lifetime, and judging by his video it’s well deserved. Click on that link, watch John’s video, and vote him up!

Now, the fun part: in celebration of Lions fans everywhere, I am giving away a customized Lions DirecTV remote. Check this baby out:

detroit_lions_directv_remoteAll you have to do is A) follow me on Twitter @lionsinwinter, and 2) Tweet the following:

I am thankful to be a Detroit Lions fan! http://t.co/3BIB5hsg #littleblueflame @lionsinwinter

If you want to enter, but you’re stuck with Comcast or Time Warner or something, don’t worry. The winner will get their choice: either the remote, or their favorite T-shirt from my shop. Entries close Saturday night at Midnight ET. I’ll draw a winner at random, LIVE, on my weekly Fireside Chat Detroit Lions podcast, about 10:00 pm ET Sunday night.


Watchtower Review: Detroit Lions at Chicago Bears

>> 11.15.2011

I’ve been procrastinating. I didn’t want to do this. I really, really didn’t. But it’s time to review the Bears Watchtower:

I am extremely, extremely nervous about this game. It was a low-scoring slugfest before, despite only one turnover and four sacks between the two teams—mostly thanks to an absolutely ridiculous 26 total penalties that wiped 198 yards of combined offense off the field.

If the hankies aren’t flying this time like they were a few weeks ago, which offense benefits more? Can two teams currently ranked 1st and 7th in the NFL in turnover margin play another game without turnovers playing a significant role? I’m also haunted by one of my strongest Watchtower rules of thumb: rarely do two teams meet twice in the same season and play to the same result.

Partly because I’m so twitchy about it, I’m going to take the high end of my Bears projection and the low end of my Lions projection; I’ll say the most likely outcome of the game is a 23-21 Lions win.

Ouch. Right. Well.

The story here wasn’t the failure of the Lions defense. They allowed just 16 offensive points, 3.11 yards per carry, and 6.15 yards per attempt. In fact, that’s even better than I projected:

I project the Bears to score 17-21 points, passing for 6.50-7.00 YpA and rushing for 4.75-5.25 YpC. I have medium-high confidence in this projection.

Of course all that doesn’t matter. What matters is the dumpster fire that was the offense, and its six turnovers. The Lions scored just 13 offensive points, and passed for only 5.22 yards per attempt. They did rush for 4.22 YpC, but that doesn’t even sort of matter in the grand scheme of things.

Before this season, when Linehan has faced Lovie Smith, Linehan’s offenses tended to move the ball well—but score fewer points than expected, due to lots of turnovers. It was a really strong statistical trend—but on Monday Night Football, the Lions didn’t turn it over, so I wondered if the offense had evolved to the point that was no longer true.


Going forward, there isn’t much to take away. The two lost fumbles that ended the first two drives were total flukes—and the rest of the game, Stafford was pressing like crazy trying to get them back. The Lions need to learn from this debacle, but I’m not sure there’s much we can learn from breaking it down.


Three Cups Deep: Detroit Lions at Chicago Bears

>> 11.14.2011


Jim Schwartz said it best:

"Obviously we aren't going to win many games with six turnovers and three returns for touchdowns, including a punt return," he said. "There is nothing else that happens in that game that is going to change that."


This game went off the rails so hard, so fast, that it looked like there were never any rails to begin with. This was a 53-car trainwreck from almost the minute it left the station, and there was absolutely no recovering from it.

Last week, reporters noticed Matthew Stafford wearing gloves in practice. He said it was to help prepare him for the Windy City, but after the Chicago game Stafford admitted he was protecting a broken finger on his throwing hand. It’s tempting to blame his performance on the finger, but the problem is between his ears.

In the Chicago and Atlanta games, we saw Matthew Stafford become a victim of pressure: pass rush pressure, game situation pressure, and high stakes pressure. Even when Stafford had time, he was playing like he didn’t. Chicago was able to generate pass rush without blitzing, or even rushing four—because Stafford assumed the rush was about to get him whether it was or wasn’t.

One of the reasons the Lions decimation of the Broncos was so crucial—or so I thought—was the reestablishment of Lions Awesome. Stafford and the Lions came out and played their game and completely outclassed the Broncos, as they should have. Everyone was laughing and joking and Tebowing and getting their swagger back. With two weeks afterwards to vibe on those good times and prepare for Bears team they’ve already beaten, I thought the Lions would be in the best form all year for the biggest game of the season.

Instead, two freak fumbles on the opening two drives punched the Lions in the mouth—and instead of taking the blow and punching back, the Lions keeled over onto their backs. Throw in the towel, stop the fight, first-round TKO.

If the finger had been bad enough to keep Stafford from playing any better than that, they'd have held him out. The reality is, he again lost confidence in his line and in his receivers. He tried to rally the Lions back from all those turnovers himself, and he just dug the hole deeper. The Lions can’t win like that; no team can.

As I said last week, the first half of the season was the easy part. This is the hard part. This is when it counts. This is when the cream rises to the top. If the Lions are that cream, if they belong in the playoffs, then they’ll bounce right back and whip Carolina. They’ll learn from their mistakes, get better, and Stafford and the wide receivers will play like Stafford and the wide receivers.

All of this, of course, is prologue for Thanksgiving. If the Lions want to establish themselves alongside the Packers and Bears as NFC North playoff teams, they’ll have to take at least one from Green Bay—and since they haven’t won in Lambeau since I was ten years old, the amount of pressure to win on Thanksgiving will be enormous.

Let's hope Stafford and the Lions learned from this game how to prepare for that game.


Fireside Chat Podcast: Lions at Bears

Well, if you're a glutton for punishment, here's last night's Fireside Chat:

As always, you can subscribe via iTunes or RSS if you like what you hear.


Fireside Chat Reminder: 10:15 pm ET!

>> 11.13.2011

Don't forget, the TLiW Fireside Chat Detroit Lions podcast goes live at 10:15 ET! Join in at http://tinyurl.com/firesidechats or hit the "podcast" tab above!


The Watchtower: Detroit Lions at Chicago Bears

beartowerIn the last Bears Watchtower, I projected both teams to score about ten more points than they actually did. I correctly projected the winner and the margin, however, so things weren’t too far off. If the numbers lead us in that direction again, I wouldn’t mind it.

Mike Martz vs. Gunther Cunningham

Martz Ornk PgG YpA YpC Gun Drnk PpG DYpA DYpC PTS PTSΔ YpA YpAΔ YpC YpCΔ
CHI 21st 20.9 6.47 3.90 DET 19th 23.1 6.75 4.51 19 -9% 10.63 64% 3.26 -16%
CHI 21st 20.9 6.47 3.90 DET 19th 23.1 6.75 4.51 24 15% 6.50 0% 4.07 4%
CHI 10th 25.0 6.69 5.20 DET 6th 18.4 5.23 5.24 13 -52% 6.55 -2% 4.88 -6%

Since the last time these two teams met, both the Bears offense and the Lions defense have gotten a little better. The Bears offense is now the 10th-best scoring unit, up from 13, and it’s averaging 25.0 points per game. The Lions D is two slots better, up to 6th-best (18.4 PpG). The Bears are averaging 6.69 yards per attempt, and rushing for an astounding 5.20 YpC. Meanwhile, the Lions pass defense has ratcheted it even further down: they’re allowing just 5.23 yards per pass attempt. The rushing D has not been so great, of course; the Lions are allowing 5.24 yards per carry.

Yes, the Lions are allowing more yards per average rushing attempt than average passing attempt. I'll just let that sink in for a minute.

Over the past years of Watchtowering, I’d thought I’d identified a trend: that Mike Martz offenses exceed yardage expectations when facing a Cunningham defense, but fell short of scoring expectations because of sacks and turnovers. That didn’t happen in the second Bears game last season, though, and it didn’t happen on Monday night. In fact, the Bears moved the ball almost exactly as well as they have all year—they just scored half as many points.

Without any kind of systemic advantage at work, the Bears should score about 23 points. However, there’s pretty strong evidence now that Gunther has Martz’s number. I’m not going to project a repeat of Monday Night Football; there’s no way the Bears false start themselves nine times. Therefore, I project the Bears to score 17-21 points, passing for 6.50-7.00 YpA and rushing for 4.75-5.25 YpC. I have medium-high confidence in this projection.

Aggravating/Mitigating Factors

Since Monday Night, Cutler and the Bears have been on a roll, hanging 39 on the Vikings, 24 on the Buccaneers, and 30 on the Eagles. Martz has been keeping more blockers in to buy Cutler time, and it’s paid off. Of course, this plays into the Lions’ hands: with fewer targets to cover, they’ll be able to blitz if need be. I can see Cutler being “efficient” without being “effective,” completing a lot of high-percentage passes but not moving the ball in chunks or scoring a lot of points.

As we’ve discussed at length, the Lions can more or less allow Forte to run for five YpC and not sweat it—but they’ll have to keep him from hitting the home run. If Forte can’t break anything long, this projection should hold up.

Scott Linehan vs. Lovie Smith

Lin Ornk PgG YpA YpC Lovie Drnk PpG DYpA DYpC PTS PTSΔ YpA YpAΔ YpC YpCΔ
DET 27th 16.4 5.42 3.95 CHI 21st 23.4 6.36 4.33 24 46% 7.45 37% 2.46 -38%
DET 27th 16.4 5.42 3.95 CHI 21st 23.4 6.36 4.33 23 40% 7.70 42% 4.00 1%
DET 15th 22.6 6.02 3.99 CHI 4th 17.9 6.17 3.73 14 -38% 5.03 -16% 0.95 -76%
DET 15th 22.6 6.02 3.99 CHI 4th 17.9 6.17 3.73 20 -12% 7.42 +23% 4.96 24%
DET 3rd 29.9 6.90 4.08 CHI 14th 21.8 6.47 5.20 24 -20% 8.42 +22% 9.05 +122%

When it comes to Scott Linehan and Lovie Smith, I’ve identified a very strong statistical trend:

Given greater or equal talent, Lovie Smith's relatively aggressive Tampa 2 will surrender a disproportionate amount of yards to Linehan's balanced offense, but also generate high numbers of sacks and turnovers, disproportionately disrupting scoring. Given mediocre or poor talent, Lovie Smith’s Tampa 2 surrenders disproportionately high yardage and points, respective to the Linehan offense’s talent level.

Given this, I projected the then-2nd-best offense in the NFL to score all over the then-20th-best defense. It didn’t happen. The Bears defense has tightened up significantly; it’s now the 14th-best in the NFL, allowing a field goal less per game than just a few weeks ago. The Lions offense is also a field-goal-per-game less potent, though 29.9 points per game is still third-best in the NFL.

When the third-best offense in the NFL goes up against the 14th-best and takes a 20% effectiveness hit instead of meeting its averages, something is up. I don’t think the previous effect I’d described (sacks/turnovers) was at play, more like a good defense showing up for a big game. I think the odds are good they’ll show up for this game, too.

When the 3rd-best offense faces a near-median defense, they should meet their season averages. However, they didn’t do that on Monday Night—and since then, the Lions offense has had some rough games while the Bears defense has had some great ones. I’ll split the difference between their season averages instead, and project the Lions to score 23-27 points, pass for 7.25-7.75 YpA and rush for 4.25-4.50 YpC. I have medium-high confidence in this projection.

Mitigating/Aggravating Factors

This is kind of all over the place. The Lions will be without Jahvid Best, who had one of his best games as a pro in the last matchup. Since then, Matthew Stafford had two poor games against good teams followed by a great one against a terrible team. It’s hard to know which Lions team will show up—and of course, the Soldier Field elements will come into play.


I am extremely, extremely nervous about this game. It was a low-scoring slugfest before, despite only one turnover and four sacks between the two teams—mostly thanks to an absolutely ridiculous 26 total penalties that wiped 198 yards of combined offense off the field.

If the hankies aren’t flying this time like they were a few weeks ago, which offense benefits more? Can two teams currently ranked 1st and 7th in the NFL in turnover margin play another game without turnovers playing a significant role? I’m also haunted by one of my strongest Watchtower rules of thumb: rarely do two teams meet twice in the same season and play to the same result.

Partly because I’m so twitchy about it, I’m going to take the high end of my Bears projection and the low end of my Lions projection; I’ll say the most likely outcome of the game is a 23-21 Lions win.


From the Windy City to the Mountaintop

>> 11.11.2011

Last night’s moon was full. High, wispy gray clouds glossed over it in a way that often happens in video games but rarely in reality. The air was crisp and clean; I could see my breath. This morning a perfect, razor-thin dusting of snow lays on grass, cars, decks and toys not put away the night before.

Winter is here.

Fittingly, today is November 11th; in the old Julian calendar this day was halfway between the autumnal equinox and winter solstice. In old European tradition, today is celebrated as St. Martin’s Day or Martinmas—the end of harvest and planting, and the beginning of the lean Winter months. As Fat Tuesday is a feast before a spiritual fast, St. Martin’s Day was a time to feast before there was nothing to eat but canned, pickled, and salted winter foods.

This morning I’m reminded of the harsh, cold winter months to come. A reminder that this glorious young 2011 football season, so full of promise and hope, is halfway over. A reminder that the Lions, who we’ve had the pleasure of seeing romp their way to a 6-2 start, have a grim task ahead of them.

Up until this point there’s been no downside; coming off eight wins in 48 tries the Lions could win as many games as they lost satisfy the expectations of many. Now the stakes are higher. The rewards are much greater but the risk is, too. Now the coaches, players, executives and fans are fully invested in this season’s run to the playoffs. If they fall, it will hurt.

In the NFL, you can take nothing for granted. Every year is a blank slate, and while that means a team like the Lions can rise up from nothing and conquer, it also means a rock-solid franchise like the Colts can crumble to dust without warning. As young and as talented as this team is, and as competent and intelligent its leaders, this iteration of the Lions may not ever start 6-2 again. They have begun something great, but they have only begun.

The last time the Lions climbed to this altitude, it was 2007. They started 6-2 and then, halfway to the mountaintop they slipped off the cliff face and fell down, down, down into the abyss of the deepest black crevasse. That they’ve climbed back up to 6-2 again is nothing short of incredible . . . but it’s not enough. This team is good enough to ascend much higher, and if they don’t it will be not only a terrible disappointment, but a wonderful opportunity permanently lost.

Back in the relative warmth of October, the Lions hosted the Bears on Monday Night Football. It was the greatest home-field advantage the Lions have had in my lifetime: a sold-out-beyond-capacity crowd gathered from near and far, hometown music and and video montages, and all the pomp and circumstance of the national prime-time stage. The blue fire of Lions fandom never burned brighter than on that night.

As you know, the crowd fueled and fed the Lions, forcing Chicago into nine false starts and helping push the Lions to a 24-13 victory. Jim Schwartz awarded Lions fans a game ball: permanent, tangible proof that we, the Lions fans, truly helped our team to victory. Being there, lending my support, will forever be one of my most treasured memories and proudest moments.


I suppose we should feel proud, then, that Jay Cutler took pains to note the Lions won’t have that support on Sunday:

"We're going to be outside, not in the dome," Cutler said. "We're going to be on grass. It will be a little bit of a different environment for them as well."

"They don't have that [Ford Field] advantage on their side this time. It's going to be on our side," Cutler said.

Cutler thinks that playing outside will work to their advantage; that the Lions have no teeth outside the supportive comfort of their Ford Field den. He thinks that the elements, cold and cruel, will turn the tables. That Old Man Winter will be at the Bears back when the Lions enter the Windy City, and the cruel, bitter home field advantage he supplies will be as powerful as the mighty heat and warmth of the blue bonfire at full roar.

Well, you know, except for this:

“Sleet and mess forced #Bears to move practice indoors to Walter Payton Center”

via @BradBiggs

Though Matt Forte is being bandied about as an MVP candidate, the truth is that the Bears will go as Jay Cutler and the passing game goes. On that warm October night, Forte rushed 22 times for 116 yards, plus caught four passes for 35 yards, and the Bears could only muster 13 lousy points. Cutler played at an almost superhuman level to avoid a relentless Lions pass rush and couldn’t quite net 250 passing yards, out of 38 attempts.

The Lions and Bears are two talented teams with streaky offenses and stingy defenses. The Lions got plenty of help on Monday Night, but they’re also undefeated on the road. After a decade-long bout of road futility unmatched in 80 years of NFL play, the Lions haven’t lost a road game in three hundred and fifty-five days. If they can get the job done Sunday, that streak will extend to at least December; they’ll have completed a full calendar year without a road loss.

As this December comes, as Winter falls on the land again, the Lions have climbed the easy half of the mountain. Now their test—and ours—begins in earnest. Now is when the Lions need the heat and warmth of the bonfire the most. Let’s keep their blood pumping, their faces flushed, their fingers and toes twitching at the speed of combat. Let’s support our team with everything they’ve got, as they set out from base camp for the glorious mountaintop.


Announcing: TLiW Detroit Lions T-shirt Store

>> 11.09.2011

Hey all. There’s a new tab up there marked “Store,” and if you click on it you will see a few T-shirt designs designed by yours truly and put on T-shirts by Spread Shirt. Spread Shirt is a very cool company who handles all the important nitpicky details like billing, printing, shipping, and stuff so it’s done correctly quickly the first time and not by a guy who once brushed his teeth with a Gillette Mach 3 because he’s just that scatterbrained.

Please, lemme know what you think, good or bad. If they’re awesome, lemme know. If they’re stupid, lemme know. Got any requests, lemme know.


Can The Detroit Lions Outrun The Chicago Bears?

>> 11.08.2011

As the old joke goes, “You don’t have to outrun the bear, just the guy next to you.” But on Monday night, the Chicago Bears gained a step on the Detroit Lions. With their 30-24 defeat of the Philadelphia Eagles, the Bears drew within one game in the NFC North division race—or honestly, with the Packers running away with it, the NFC Wild Card race.

This Sunday the Lions will take on the Bears in an afternoon showcase, and nothing less than their entire season rests on it.

I called the Kansas City game a “must-win.” If the Lions were to make the playoffs, they had to win every winnable game in the front half of the schedule. Now, the Lions’ contest in Chicago is a “must-win” for a different reason: the difference between victory and defeat is enormous.

If the Lions win in Soldier Field, they’ll be two games ahead of the Bears in overall record, and own all the tiebreakers over the Bears. Effectively, they’ll be three games ahead of the Bears with seven left to play—an almost-insurmountable lead. If they lose, they’ll be tied with the Bears, tied head-to-head, tied on division record . . . tied. Huge lead, or tied. That’s the difference between winning and losing this game.

Going forward, both teams host the Chargers. Both will travel to Oakland. Chicago hosts the Seahawks, Detroit hosts the Panthers. Both teams will play the Vikings once more—Detroit at home, Chicago in Minnesota. Both will travel to Lambeau.

So, five out of the seven remaining games are essentially a wash, in terms of strength of schedule. In the two remaining games, the Bears host the Chiefs and play at Denver—but the Lions host the Packers and travel to New Orleans.

You see where I'm going with this: the Lions have two much more difficult games than the Bears. According to SRS, the Lions are the second-strongest team in football (+11.9)—but they play the #1 team twice, projecting a 5-2 stretch run. The Bears (+6.3) “should” go 6-1, by the same metric.

Again: if the Lions beat the Bears, they “should” go 12-4 and possess all the tiebreakers, leaving Chicago effectively two games back at 11-5. If the Lions lose to the Bears, the records are reversed; the Lions will have failed to outrun the Bears.

Here's the good news: the Lions don't need to outrun the Bears to make the playoffs. They just need to outrun the Cowboys (4-4), the Eagles (4-4), the Falcons (5-3) and the Bucs (4-4).


Detroit Lions 2011 Regular Season: Halfway There

>> 11.03.2011

Everyone is furiously trying to prove that this 6-2 start capped by a blowout of the Broncos is not the same as 2007’s 6-2 start capped by a blowout of the Broncos. I have something different in mind.

In the Old Mother Hubbard series, I attempt to contextualize individual Lions performances. We watch these guys all season long year after year after year, and we lose perspective on their strengths and weaknesses. I use Pro Football Focus data and radar charts to give you an at-a-glance impression of how Lions are performing against the high, low, and average NFL performances at the same position.

So, if we’re taking the temperature of the Lions at the bye/halfway point . . . why not do the same thing?


Here are the offensive team grades through Week 8. The dark red line is the New England Patriots, #1-graded offense in the NFL. The bright green line is the Seattle Seahawks, #32-graded offense in the NFL. The thick black line is, as always, the NFL average, and the Honolulu Blue line is the Lions.

This is going to surprise some folks, because we perceive the Lions offense to be one of the best in the NFL—and indeed it is the 4th-best, scoring 29.9 points per game. Keep in mind PFF’s “consistency bias,” as I call it: PFF’s system prefers consistently above-average play to streaky home-run hitters. It’s true for individual players like Ndamukong Suh and Jahvid Best, and it’s true for the Lions as a whole.

No surprise, the Lions’ pass offense was graded 8th-best, at +33.2. Also unsurprisingly, the Lions’ rushing game was well below average; the third-worst in fact. But look: the difference between the best running grades and the worst running grades is miniscule.  Having a very poor running game doesn’t grade out much worse than having an average running game. This is a recurring theme this season.

As far as the offensive line goes, it's no surprise to anyone who’s listened to me or PFF over the years: the Lions do an above-average job of pass blocking. They graded –3.7 (average –6.18) over the course of the season. Also no surprise: they can’t run block for crap. The Lions have the fourth-worst run-blocking line in the NFL to this point, at -40.8 (average –18.15).

On offense, the Lions have taken more penalties than most; they’re ranked 24th with a –5.5 penalty grade. However, since the NFL average is –3.11, that’s not crippling. On the whole, the grades show the Lions have a very good passing offense, a decent pass-blocking offensive line, a terrible running game and a terrible run-blocking offensive line. Add it all up and it’s surprisingly mediocre for a team scoring 30 points per game. Once again, we see: the running game doesn’t matter.


The 49ers have a ridiculous defense. I mean, geez. Just look at that. Also: Indy NOOOOOO!

But check out the Lions: 8th-best graded defense overall, graded +33.7. This jibes with their 6th-lowest scoring defense (18.4 PpG). The run defense is ranked 24th, just –2.2 overall—and the average is +14.8, meaning that’s truly not good. The pass rush, again, is what you’d think: 5th-best in the NFL, graded +21.7 (avg. +8.06).

The jawdropper, though: The Detroit Lions have the best pass coverage grade in the NFL. Not pass defense, not pass rush, not statistical derivation: the play of their corners and safeties grades out better than any other team in the NFL. At +22.1, they’re well ahead of the 49ers’ second-place unit (+14.4), and have lapped the rest of the field (avg. –7.74).

The Lions defense is, as it was last season, heavily penalized. Their -7.9 grade is ranked 27th, well below the –3.4 league average—but not as horrific as it’s been. Special teams-wise, the Lions grade out at +7.4—but that’s not all that, because the average is +12.65.

On the whole, we’re left with a promising, but mixed bag. The Lions offense is struggling to move the ball consistently, but is generating points through the air with home run plays. The run blocking is awful, as is the running game as a whole. The defense is a top ten unit, despite poor run-stopping and penalty grades, because they rush the passer better than most—and cover the pass better than anyone.

At the moment, the Lions are in fantastic shape for the playoffs. My favorite predictive football model, the Simple Rating System, LOVES what the Lions have done this year. It’s a combination of strength of schedule and points differential, and at the halfway point the Lions are the second-highest-rated team in the NFL. Given the teams they’ve played and the results of those games, SRS expects the Lions to be the second-hardest out in football (after the Packers) going forward.

Of course, the Lions play the Packers twice throughout the rest of the season, so SRS would project a final finish of 12-4. Could that really happen? Bizarrely, yes. The road games against Chicago and New Orleans are possible (if not likely) losses—but the Lions should be able to split with the Pack, considering they did so last season without Matthew Stafford. The games at Oakland and against San Diego are worlds less scary than they were a few weeks ago, too.

Let’s be clear: I’m not projecting, or claiming, or promising a 12-4 season. I AM promising, projecting, and claiming that the Lions are going to make the playoffs, as I have since May, and have never wavered from. The Lions are only halfway there, but right now that Lions Kool-Aid tastes sweeter than ever.


Watchtower Review: Lions at Broncos

>> 11.02.2011

The accuracy of last week's Watchtower was a wildly pleasant surprise--both in terms of the confidence I had in the projection, and in the result itself.

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.

Turns out this gave the Broncos too much credit. The Lions defense hassled Tim Tebow and the offense all day, excepting only the first and last drives (which netted the Broncos their 10 points). The Broncos ran for a ridiculous 195 yards on 30 carries, a stonking 6.4 YpC.

In a lesson I'm trying to drive home with a sledgehammer, THAT DOESN'T MATTER.

Points come out of the passing game, and the Broncos neither passed nor scored. They gained 172 aerial yards on 39 attempts, a miserable 4.41 YpA. They were sacked 7 times for –55 yards, fumbled five times (lost two, including one for a touchdown) and interception (also returned for a touchdown).

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.

Bingo. The Lions scored 31 offensive points, passed for 8.50 YpA, and rushed for 4.04 YpC. This officially qualifies as spookily accurate. I thought the Lions could win even bigger or make it much closer, though, and said so:

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.

Whoops. The Lions spooked me so bad with the Falcons game that I just couldn’t trust the numbers:

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.

. . . and indeed they did, boosting the Lions up to a 45-10 clobbering.

As I said in the Fireside Chat, this win, in this fashion, with these stats, proves the numbers right; the Lions are who we thought they were. They are one of the best offenses in the NFL, and one of the most opportunistic defenses in the NFL. When both units are “on” they play football at a very, very, very high level.


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