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.

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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!

i-am-thankful_design

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.

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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.

Nope.

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.

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Three Cups Deep: Detroit Lions at Chicago Bears

>> 11.14.2011

coffee

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."

Obviously.

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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

Conclusion

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.

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