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?

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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.

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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.

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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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extremely lame content promise

Two big posts in the works, plus something really, really, really cool.

Really.

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Three Cups Deep: Lions at Broncos

>> 10.31.2011

coffee

Espresso impresario David Schomer once offered this advice to Seattle-area espresso cart owners about the winter months:

During January and February, hunker down and dream of springtime. No one does great business during the after-Christmas slowdown, and it is particularly hard when you face your coldest weather at that same time. Do not close! The coffee business is built on daily customers who have a habit of stopping at your stand. If you close for a couple of months they will be gone.

The blue fire had been slowly waning over the last few weeks, from an unstoppable inferno to a relaxed, comfortable bonfire. Last week at this time, the fire shuddered alarminglyy, and I realized that the wood racks were almost bare. I set to work with the axe and sled, and many offered their hands and backs in the effort.

Today, all is well. The 45-10 defeat of the hapless Broncos set everything as back it was: the defensive line ate well all afternoon, hauling Tebow down seven times. Matthew Stafford completed 70.0% of his passes for 8.90 YpA, three touchdowns, and no picks. Calvin Johnson hit a home run, and came within several inches of tacking on a second score. The Lions defense outscored the Broncos all by themselves; even if the Lions offense had been completely shut out the Lions would still have Mile High Stadium At Whatever the Corporate Sponsor’s Name Is Geographic Location as winners.

Now, we have the bye week . . . a disruption in the rhythm that keeps us hooked into the Lions seven days a week in-season. Every day, we go to our favorite sites knowing what to expect: the recap, the rehash, the opinion, the analysis, the preview. Somewhere around Thursday it’ll hit us that there will be no Lions football this week.  We’ll break our habit. We’ll attend to the yardwork or that light switch or play catch in the yard or maybe even take a nap.

Meanwhile, the NFL will rage on. The Bears will host the Panthers, and unless Cam Newton does to Chicago what he couldn’t to Minnesota, the Bears will draw to within a game of the Lions. This will make the Lions return to action all-important. Pivotal. Season-defining. If the Lions can defeat the Bears, that’s a 2-game lead with all the tiebreakers; effectively a three-game lead with just six games to play.

The Lions would have the beautiful luxury of being able to go 3-4 through the meat grinder and still end up at 10-6—and likely, in the playoffs. The Lions could dispatch the Panthers and Vikings in Ford Field, and split at Oakland or at home against the Chargers, and still have a nearly guaranteed postseason berth. Were the Bears to lose to Carolina, the Lions could even suffer a Marinellian post-Chicago collapse and still be the second-best team in the NFC North.

In the past, the old bye-week joke has gone, “Well, at least the Lions can’t lose this week.” Instead, let’s be disappointed we can’t get our every-Monday cup of victory.

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Fireside Chat Week 8: Lions vs. Broncos

It was very, very nice to get back to dissecting a win during the Fireside Chat this week. We talked expectations, schedule, the bye week, and memetics. No, really:

Remember, if you dig it you can join in around 10ish every Sunday night; hit the Podcast page at the top to see all the zillion ways you can listen!

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Fireside Chat at 10:30 pm!

>> 10.30.2011

Join us LIVE at the Podcast tab up there at 10:30 pm!

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The Watchtower: Lions at Broncos

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This game sets fire to the Watchtower concept as a whole. Everything about this game confounds this process. The Broncos offensive coordinator has never been a coordinator, or even a coach, under anyone but John Fox. Even if he had, the offense the Broncos are running for Tebow is nothing like the one the Panthers ran with Jake Delhomme, etc.

On the Lions side, the offense of the last two weeks has not resembled the offense of the first five. Last week, I happily predicted a 34-37 point performance for the Lions, and they couldn’t muster half that. Is this a harbinger of things to come for the rest of the season, or just a bump in the road?

I can’t tell you. But what I can do is compare the two teams’ performances so far, and tell you what ought to happen.

Mike McCoy vs. Gunther Cunningham

McCoy Ornk PgG YpA YpC Gun Drnk PpG DYpA DYpC PTS PTSΔ YpA YpAΔ YpC YpCΔ
DEN 21st 20.5 6.35 4.39 DET 7th 19.6 5.57 5.03            

As I said above, Mike McCoy has one of the weirdest resumes I’ve ever broken down. He played quarterback in the CFL. After retiring, he immediately joined the Panthers under OC Bill Musgrave, who I Watchtowered earlier this year (he’s now the Vikings OC). After Musgrave resigned in shame, the Panthers brought in Dan Henning, the current Miami OC (the guy who deployed Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams in the Wildcat).

It was under Henning that McCoy ascended from "offensive assistant" to QB coach. Though Henning was fired after a disappointing 2006 campaign, Fox kept McCoy around. Henning was replaced by Jeff Davidson, a member of the Belichick/Weis coaching tree. It's likely this experience that's informing McCoy's current offense, with a lot of multi-WR shotgun and multi-TE inside runs.

However, trying to analyze Gunther Cunningham’s success against Weis-style offenses would be folly, because once the ball is snapped, the plans go out the window.

When the Broncos line up under center, they’re doing a nice mix of power runs and clever zone stretch type stuff. Very very very little passing, and even then it’s one-read stuff like screens. When the Broncos line up in shotgun, it’s either a screen, or Tebow Time.

Ndamukong Suh and Cliff Avril are going to have three sacks apiece. Why? They’re relentless in pursuit. Tebow, if he doesn’t have an obvious read, breaks down and starts running around looking to make something happen. It reminds me—a lot—of Mike Vick. Tebow isn’t quite as dangerous on a broken play as Vick, but he’s plenty dangerous. What Tebow must work on is executing the offense; when you see the Broncs line up in a multi-WR shotgun the playcall is effectively “Broken Play.”

The Broncos are averaging 20.5 points per game, 21st-best in the NFL. The Lions scoring defense is ranked 7th, allowing just 19.6. The Broncos are averaging 6.35 YpA, and a solid 4.39 YpC. The Lions are still only allowing 5.57 YpA, which is really pretty incredible. However, the run defense is still alowing 5.03 YpC. 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.

Scott Linehan vs. John Fox

Lin Ornk PgG YpA YpC Fox Drnk PpG DYpA DYpC PTS PTSΔ YpA YpAΔ YpC YpCΔ
MIN 8th 24.4 6.60 5.30 CAR 5th 18.9 5.73 3.69 14 -43% 6.37 -3% 4.06 -23%
MIA 16th 19.9 5.94 3.69 CAR 5th 16.2 5.79 3.59 27 36% 5.18 -13% 4.80 30%
STL 10th 22.9 6.69 4.26 CAR 8th 19.1 6.00 3.87 0 -100% 4.17 -38% 3.75 -12%
DET 6th 27.7 7.19 4.08 DEN 29th 25.8 7.43 3.86            

An itinerant, quick-climbing defensive backs coach in college and the pros, John Fox was Pitt’s Defensive Coordinator/DBs coach when Chuck Noll hired him to coach DBs for the Steelers. John Fox is technically a member of the Chuck Noll coaching tree, but if you’re looking for an extensive 3-4 pedigree, you’ll have to look elsewhere.

After three seasons in Pittsburgh, Fox moved on to play the same role in San Diego. He was hired to coordinate the Raiders D by Art Shell, and stuck around for the first year of the Mike White days. Though Fox’s defenses were 17th and 10th in his two years, Fox abruptly resigned as Raiders DC. He has since hinted that clashes with Al Davis forced him out.

His next real gig was coordinating the Giants defense under Jim Fassel; he eventually built a top 5 defense that took the Giants to the Super Bowl. He got his first head coaching job replacing a legend: Carolina Panthers coach George Seifert. Of course, Seifert wasn’t a legend for his work in Carolina, and Fox’s nine-year run nearly quintupled his predecessor’s. Throughout almost all of this, Fox ran a very effective 4-3.

Of course, the Broncos just switched to a 3-4 a couple of years ago, but that didn’t stop Fox from declaring his intent to switch back. The stunning lack of talent on the defensive side is exactly what you’d expect from a team that has overhauled it’s roster to go from 4-3 to 3-4 and back in three seasons.

In Fox’s prior meetings with Linehan, though, lack of talent was never a problem. In 2002, Linehan’s 8th-ranked Minnesota Vikings took on Fox’s 5th-ranked Panthers. Despite an offense that was putting up 24.4 points per game, the Vikings only mustered 14 against Fox’s Panthers. The Vikes’ potent 5.30 YpC rushing attack was held to just 4.06. Minnesota passed for 6.37 YpA, just 3% off their usual pace, but were intercepted 4 times, sacked 5 times, and were fortunate to only lose 1 of their 4 fumbles.

In 2005, things were different. Linehan’s Dolphins were the median offense in the NFL, while Fox’s Panther defense was almost identical to his 2002 unit. They were ranked 5th, allowing an average of 16.2 PpG, 5.79 YpA and 3.59 YpC. Semi-miraculously, the Dolphins actually scored 36% better than average, not at all what you’d expect from the 16th-ranked offense meeting the 5th-ranked defense. In that game, the Panthers slowed the Fins passing attack by 13%, but Ronnie Brown had a field day, boosting the Dolphins rushing effectivness by 30% to 4.80 YpC. Worth noting: Fins QB Gus Frerotte had only one pick, and there  were no sacks or fumbles.

In 2006, it was back to the same old story. Linehan’s Rams were the 10th-ranked offense in the NFL, averaging 22.9 points per game. Fox’s Panthers were again a top ten unit, ranked 8th and allowing 19.1 PpG. The Panthers stone cold shut out the Rams, allowing zero points, a meager 4.17 YpA, and 3.75 YpC. The Rams had one pick, one fumble lost, and were sacked seven times for -62 yards.

We see a pattern emerge: when a Scott Linehan offense surrenders sacks and turnovers to a John Fox, scoring is ridiculously and wildly depressed, as well as offensive efficiency. When the offensive line is able to control the line of scrimmage, Linehan offenses are disproportionately successful at scoring, and possibly running the ball.

This year’s Broncos are nothing like the vaunted Panthers defenses of the 2000s. Ranked 29th in the NFL, they’re allowing 25.8 PpG , 7.43 YpA,  and 3.75 YpC. The rushing defense is solid, but they’re being victimized through the air and allowing points in bunches. The Lions, technically, are the 6th-best offense in the NFL, averaging 27.7 points per game, 7.19 YpA, and 4.08 YpC.

In theory, the Lions have a massive advantage here. They should be able to complete passes and move the ball against a hapless Broncos pass defense. They should be able to make hay with Maurice Morris and Keiland Williams in the space this opens up. 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.

Mitigating/Aggravating Factors

Well, there are plenty of these. Matthew Stafford will likely play, but will he play well? Will the Lions offense play like an average of all the games they’ve played to date, or like an average of the last two weeks? Will they control the line of scrimmage, deny sacks, and run the ball effectively, or have Stafford on the run again? 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.

Conclusion

Well, uh. The averages and stuff project a 33-17 Lions win.

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.

Those of you who've been reading a while already know my final word; I wouldn't have deployed the bold if I didn't mean it. 33-17, Lions.

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