Watchtower Review: Lions vs. Packers

>> 11.29.2011


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.


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