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?



Ndamukong Suh/Packers film Breakdown

>> 12.02.2011

Hey all: I broke down the film of everything that went down between Ndamukong Suh and the Packers offensive line that provoked The Stomp over at Bleacher Report. I humbly suggest it’s worth the time to click.


Slowing Down Drew Brees & the Saints With the 3-3-5

>> 12.01.2011

With the suspension of Ndamukong Suh, the Detroit Lions are down one starting interior lineman. With injuries to Louis Delmas, Chris Houston and Brandon McDonald, the Lions may be down two starters and one contributor in the secondary. Now, they face the No. 1 passing offense in the NFL: Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints.

How can the Lions hope to slow down the lightning-fast Saints without their best interior pass rusher and a banged-up secondary? The answer may lie in a package the Lions deployed on Thanksgiving: the 3-3-5 nickel.

The Lions have used this formation a few times before, most extensively in their first win under Jim Schwartz. Gunther Cunningham’s talk about it during his first minicamp as Lions DC helped fuel speculation the Lions would run a base 3-4. Here's how it looks:


The four square boxes are the three nickel cornerbacks, along with safety Amari Spievey. They're playing tight man-to-man coverage on the three Packers wideouts, as well as tight end Jermichael Finley. Louis Delmas is playing one-high zone, lined up deep off camera.

Kyle Vanden Bosch stays put at right defensive end, but 330-pound Sammie Hill is in at the zero-technique nose tackle. Suh is playing LDE. Behind them are the Lions' base linebackers: MLB Stephen Tulloch, and OLBs DeAndre Levy and Justin Durant.

The down and distance here is 3rd-and-3, so the Lions are trying to force a quick incompletion. Let's watch what happens:

The Lions blitz all three linebackers, bringing a total of six rushers. The Packers send Finley out but keep RB John Kuhn in to block, for a total of six blockers. The Packers do establish a pocket, but QB Aaron Rodgers knows he doesn't have all day. He throws the short out to Greg Jennings, and the tight coverage forces him to lead Jennings to the sideline rather than downfield. Even if Jennings had been able to keep his feet, Eric Wright was there to help prevent the first down.

This is a very aggressive play call, but it's perfect for the situation, and would be effective against the Saints' many multi-WR sets.

In different situations, the Lions could blitz two, one or none; this would allow for a variety of zone and man-coverage packages. Defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham could also do some clever stuff with safety and zone blitzes. By platooning Durant (an outstanding run stopper) with Bobby Carpenter (much better in coverage), the Lions could further tailor this package to suit non-nickel situations.

The onus would be on the defensive line to continue to bring pressure and maintain outside run containment, but the Lions' depth will help them there. Sammie Hill and Corey Williams could platoon at the two-gap nose tackle spot, with DTs Nick Fairley and Andre Fluellen at left end. Vanden Bosch and Cliff Avril could platoon at RDE, though asking Avril to fill two run lanes might be asking too much.

Running the 3-3-5 for 40 or 50 snaps would give Brees time to figure out the looks and attack the deep coverage, especially if the Lions need to blitz two or more players to get pressure.

But, if the Lions are to have a chance, they'll need to avoid what happened the last time they went to the Superdome at all costs: two Saints touchdowns in the first few minutes, leading to a 47-25 blowout. Running a lot of 3-3-5 early, with a lot of blitzing and confusion, could keep the Saints off-balance enough to give Matthew Stafford—and the Lions—a chance.


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.

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