The Watchtower: Lions at Saints

>> 12.03.2011


This Watchtower is a little extra special to me. The last time the Lions played at New Orleans, it was the first regular season game of Jim Schwartz’s career. It was the first regular season game after the founding of this blog. And to prepare for it, I wrote the first Watchtower.

It was a rough-and-ready thing. I didn’t have my table CSS figured out, and I didn’t project a score or per-play effectiveness. Most of the piece is spent explaining the Watchtower concept, and not on analysis. However, I isolated some systemic advantages, and told the story of the game: “The most probable outcome of this game is a shootout that the Lions lose.

Honestly, that was giving the Lions a touch more credit than they deserved. The eventual Super Bowl champion Saints were up 14-0 within what seemed like minutes of kickoff, and they barely slowed down. Drew Brees threw for six touchdowns, and images from the blowout loss were plastered all over Madden ‘10. Louis Delmas returned a fumble 65 yards for a touchdown, which made the final score 45-27 instead of 45-20. Then again, for a team fresh off 0-16 against a team about to go 13-3 en route to winning it all, it wasn’t too bad.

This time, these two teams are much more evenly matched. The Saints are 8-3, one game ahead of Atlanta in the NFC South. The Lions are 7-4, knotted up with Chicago for second place in the NFC North. With Chicago going up against patsy Kansas City, a win would mean the world for their chances of hanging with the Bears. A loss could put one more nail in the Lions’ coffin.

Sean Payton vs. Gunther Cunningham

Pay Ornk PgG YpA YpC Gun Drnk PpG DYpA DYpC PTS PTSΔ YpA YpAΔ YpC YpCΔ
NYG 21st 20 7.2 3.8 TEN 29th 27.2 8.05 4.62 29 45% 8.04 16.7% 1.53 -60%
DAL 15th 20 6.7 3.6 KCC 16th 20.3 6.58 4.10 27 33% 9.59 44% 5.83 63%
NOS 1st 31.9 8.01 4.50 DET 32nd 30.9 7.80 4.42 45 41% 10.53 31% 4.49 0%
NOS 2nd 32.9 7.74 4.83 DET 18th 22.4 5.75 4.84            

In previous Watchtowers, I thought I'd identified a systemic advantage for Gunther Cunningham defenses against Sean Payton offenses. But looking at the numbers today--and including the 2009 game--it's hard to come to the same conclusion.

Almost without fail, Gunther's defenses have been heavily outmanned when facing Payton's offenses. Trying to distinguish between fine shades of blowout is not a methodology that will produce strong results.

So, let's look at this season. The Saints are the second-best offense in football, scoring 32.9 points per game. No surprise, Drew Brees leads the way: the Saints are averaging 7.79 YpA. However, the Saints' running back by committee is one of the most effective platoons I've ever seen: they've chewed up ground at 4.83 yards per carry, to the tune of 1,380 yards and 12 touchdowns.

Defensively, the Lions currently rank 18th, allowing 22.4 points per game. But they've been playing much better than that; note the outstanding 5.75 yards per attempt allowed. They've been run on--allowing 4.84 YpC--but they've been great.

The reason the defensive points-allowed doesn't look that great is because of the offense and the special teams. Since the 5-0 start the defense has had to contend with the offense turning it over, the offense going three-and-out, and the kick coverage teams allowing plenty of long returns and short fields for the other team.

Still, it is what it is: opposing teams are scoring an average of 22.4 points per game on the Lions, and the Saints are much more potent than an "average" offense.

Given, though, how the Lions put the clamps on the Packers, I can't project the Saints to exceed their season average. I project the Saints to score 27-30 points, passing for 6.50-7.00 YpA, and rushing for 4.75-5.00 YpC. Without a clear systemic effect, I have low-to-medium confidence in this projection..

Mitigating/Aggravating Factors

There are several aggravating factors here, and their names are Ndamukong Suh, Chris Houston, and Louis Delmas. They will be missing, and it will be aggravating.I still think the Lions can slow down the Saints' passing attack, but it's going to be a tougher task. Many will worry about the Saints' running game--but as we've seen many times this season, the Lions can handle a potent running game.

Really, the biggest problem facing the defense is the offense.

Scott Linehan vs. Gregg Williams

MIN 8th 24.4 6.60 5.3 HOU 27th 24.8 6.20 4.49 39 60% 6.24 -5% 5.46 3%
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 10th 22.9 6.69 4.26 WAS 20th 19.2 7.18 4.47 37 62% 10.21 53% 5.05 19%
DET 27th 16.4 5.12 4.42 NOS 20th 21.3 6.57 4.49 20 22% 4.95 -3% 3.17 -28%
DET 4th 28.7 6.72 4.48 NOS 19th 22.9 6.52 5.03            

Ah, yes, the offense. For all its struggles, the Lions offense is still the 4th-most potent in the NFL. Averaging 28.7 points per game, the Lions are still putting up points. However, the shift in per-play effectiveness has been dramatic. Going into Monday Night Football, the Lions were averaging 7.44 YpA and 2.95 YpC. Since then, as you can see, the rushing game has gotten far more potent, but the passing effectiveness has fallen off a cliff. Now the Lions are only averaging 6.72 YpA, though they’re grinding out 4.48 YpC.

This has been a reflection of both the tougher defenses the Lions have face, and Matthew Stafford’s struggles with consistency. The Saints defense, statistically, is very similar to the Lions’: 19th-ranked in scoring at 22.9 PpG, allwoing 6.52 YpA and 5.03 YpC.

In the previous Watchtower, I identified a strong trend: Linehan offenses tend to outperform expectations against Gregg Williams offenses. The situation is similar comparing Payton offenses to Cunningham defenses: in every meeting, the offense had a significant upper hand, and performed significantly above their season averages . . . until 2009.

In the last meeting between the Lions and Saints, the Lions had the 27th-ranked offense. They were averaging a pathetic 5.12 YpA through the air, and the solid 4.42 YpC couldn’t make up for it. Yet, when going up against the 20th-ranked Saints defense, the Lions scored 20 offensive points. This, despite falling well short of their usual rushing effectiveness, and slightly shy of their average YpA.

Even if I’m reaching slightly on the specific versus-Williams advantage (and, look at the numbers, I don’t think I am), the Lions typically do well against aggressive 3-4 defenses. With that in mind, I project the Lions to score 30-33 points, pass for 6.75-7.25 YpA, and rush for 5.00-5.25 YpC. I have medium-high confidence in this prediction.

Mitigating/Aggravating Factors:

Actually, there aren’t too many. Unless Stafford completely melts down—or ditching the gloves unleashes a truly magnificent performance—I don’t see much wiggle room here. I expect the Lions to be able to take advantage of the Saints pass defense . . . whether that’s early on in an upset win, or in garbage time of a blowout loss, like last time.


The Saints are like the mini-Packers, and the Lions are like the mini-Saints. These two teams hold up a mirror to one another, and the Saints are a little bit better in every phase of the game—except the Lions play much, much better pass defense. I could see this going either way, and the Saints have a huge advantage in the Superdome (they’re 5-0 at home).

However . . . last week I was rooting for a huge Monday Night Football win for the Saints over the Giants. Why? Because we’ve seen all too well what can happen to a team that pulls out all the stops for a huge home MNF win, and face a tough follow-up test the following Sunday. The Saints are due to come out flat, and the Lions are coming off a long week of rest and preparation.

I could sit here and flip thought-experiment coins all day, but that wouldn’t help much. I’ll just follow the numbers: The most likely outcome of the game is a 30-28 Lions win. From these numbers to the Football Gods’ ears, eh?



Anonymous,  December 4, 2011 at 10:02 PM  

1/2 time and 3 words "Pa, tha, tick!

Ty, u r gonna need some hot sauce; Lions will NOT make the playoffs! SOL

Wheelz,  December 4, 2011 at 11:14 PM  

It's hard enough to win in the NFL as it is, but the Lions consistently put themselves in the position of having to beat two teams every week - themselves and whoever they are playing. I think your future Watchtowers need to start taking into account the penalties that will be called based on the track records of the two teams playing. I'm sure that'll fix the problem you've been having of predicting Lions wins against more disciplined teams.

Wheelz,  December 4, 2011 at 11:20 PM  

The Lions put themselves in the same position every week - that of having to beat two teams every game: themselves and whoever they happen to be playing. Perhaps in future Watchtowers you should start taking into account penalties that will be incurred. That should fix the problem you've been having of predicting Lions wins against teams that are obviously more disciplined.

Wayne F.,  December 5, 2011 at 10:52 AM  

Lack of discipline is extremely frustrating. I thought Schwartz was supposed to clean up house.

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