The Detroit Lions made the playoffs exactly twenty years, after their last playoff win, and their first foe is familiar: the New Orleans Saints. The Saints were the first opponent of the Schwartz era, and they’re also the first opponent this blog Watchtowered. The methods have been refined, the predictions made more specific, and the tables prettier, but the idea is the same: use data to tell the story of the game before the game happens.
When the Lions last went down to New Orleans for an 8:00 pm showcase game, the data told me this story:
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.
The final score was 31-17, but the winner of that game was not the Lions. There were two big reasons for that. First, the Lions without Ndamukong Suh, Chris Houston, and Louis Delmas—so the key phrase “the Lions play much better pass defense” in the above quote didn’t bear out (see my Lions vs. Brees pass defense film breakdown for details). Second, the Lions killed themselves with a few stupid mistakes.
Finally, there was the little matter of the referees:
My personal belief is that the league and/or officials are trying to send a message to the Lions. Now that they’re a “dirty team,” the Lions not only have to play as clean as everyone else, they have to play cleaner. They’re going to get flagged for things no other team gets flagged for. Rough stuff from the other side is going to go unpunished. The league is sending a message to the Lions, and it’s up to them to listen.
Now, the Lions are completely healthy. On Thursday, the Lions had full roster participation in practice: per John Kreger of CBS Rapid Reports, 21 of the 22 Week 1 starters will be expected to start on Saturday night, with Jahvid Best the only casualty. We can presume, then, that the Lions will do a much better job of playing to their season averages on Saturday night. Ah, yes—season averages.
One of the many, many benefits of making the playoffs is that the 2011 season-average data is actually an entire season; all the highs and lows of this year are as ironed out by sample size as they’ll ever be. With a full roster, and a full season, we can look at these numbers with as much confidence as possible.
Sean Payton vs. Gunther Cunningham
In the last Watchtower, I had a difficult time identifying any consistent trend with the three games Sean Payton had called against Gunther Cunningham. In the first contest, Payton’s Giant’s were the 21st-ranked offense in the NFL, and faced off against Cunningham’s 29th-ranked Titans. The Giants scored way above expectations, 45% better than their season average, despite Tennessee holding them to within 10% of their usual YpA and completely shutting down their run game.
In the next meeting, Payton’s 15th-ranked Cowboys met Gunther’s 16th-ranked Chiefs; a very even matchup of talent. Again, the Cowboys outperformed expectations, scoring a touchdown more than their season average—only this time, the rushing and passing effectiveness were both well above average, too, up 44% and 63% respectively.
Then came 2009's slaughter: the No. 1 Saints scoring offense faced a Lions unit ranked butt-naked last. What happened was predictable: a 41% boost in scoring output, accompanied by a 31% gain in passing effectiveness. Rushing effectiveness, interestingly, stayed flat.
Finally, we have December’s matchup. The Saints’ 34.2 PpG offense was the second-best this season—and it’s been extremely balanced, averaging 8.08 yards per attempt and 4.94 yards per carry. The Lions’ defense is ranked 23rd, allowing 24.2 points per game, 6.34 YpA, and exactly 5.00 YpC.
As discussed above, the Lions pass defense couldn’t meet their typical 2011 performance standards—not with their top interior pass rusher, top cover corner, and playmaking/coverage-quarterbacking safety all out of commission. They allowed 9.50 YpA to Brees and the Saints, 18% better than the Saints’ average gained and 33% more than the Lions’ average allowed. I’d expect that figure to be between 7.00 and 7.50 on Saturday.
Though the Lions had been allowing a healthy 5.00 YpC all season, and the Saints had been gaining rushing yards at an almost identical rate (4.94), New Orleans only ground out 4.35 YpC last month. That’s a very surprising result; I’ll project the Saints to more closely match their average: between 4.75 and 5.00.
Despite the lack of Suh, Houston, and Delmas—and despite the first-half loss of Nick Fairley, who was having an incredible game—and despite allowing 10.35 yards per attempt and despite allowing 21 points in the second quarter, the Lions still held Brees and New Orleans to 31 total points. That’s right: the 2nd-best offense met the 23rd-ranked defense and scored 9% fewer points than their season average.
Were the systemic wrinkles I caught on film enough to explain the Saints’ underperformance? If so, it’s tempting to project that same advantage on the Lions again. But the Saints have access to way more Lions tape than I do; Gunther and company will have to come up with an all new set of surprises if they want to get the drop on Payton again.
By skill against skill, I'd expect the Saints to score about 40 points. By average against average, it should be 30. By “take what happened last time and add in Suh, Fairley, Houston and Delmas,” it should be 20. But what’s the one thing The Watchtower has taught us, above and beyond anything else? The story of two teams playing against each other twice in one season is never the same.
Throughout this season, I’ve realized that “points per game” is far from an ideal metric. When the offense throws a pick six, that counts against the defense. When the defense gets a pick six, that counts for the offense. Watching the second Minnesota game, the offense played poorly and the defense very well—yet the 34-28 final score suggests a shootout. It’s for these reasons I discount “the Saints hang 40+” storyline that “2nd-best offense versus 23rd-best defense” suggests. Similarly, “A performance + B player = A+B performance” never works cleanly in the NFL.
With full season averages and a fully healthy roster, I give the two teams’ average performance levels the most weight. Therefore, taking into account the projected pass and run figures, I project the Saints to score 27-30 points, passing for 7.00-to-7.50 YpA and rushing for 4.75-to-5.00 YpC. Despite the lack of a strong, consistent historical systemic advantage, I have medium-to-high-confidence in this projection.
As I said above, I don’t see the Saints racking up 40-plus unless the Lions do, too in a Week 17-style track meet. There is the potential for a surprisingly low-scoring game, if Suh, Fairley, Houston, and Delmas all make as big an impact as possible. However, the Lions defense still played very, very well in that game; I’m not sure how many plays those players would have made that their replacements didn’t.
The huge factor in the last game was penalties—stupid ones the Lions made, and terrible ones the referees called. If that factor is removed from the previous meeting, the outcome of that game is likely different.
As potentially huge as each of those two factors could be, they could also potentially be non-factors. I remain confident in the projection.
Scott Linehan vs. Gregg Williams
Throughout the history of the Watchtower, one of the most consistent effects I’ve identified is Scott Linehan offenses against 3-4 defenses, and 4-3 defenses that feature a lot of aggressive blitzing. Gregg Williams and his aggressive 4-3 defense are no different; he has struggled mightily against Scott Linehan offenses.
Look at the first four rows of this table. Linehan’s units were ranked anywhere from 6th-best in the NFL to 6th-worst, and the “PTSΔ” (change in points scored from season average) is massively positive every time. The running and passing effectiveness has been all over the map, with a lot of games near average—so against Gregg Williams defenses, Linehan offenses tend to get better point production from typical between-the-20s performance.
This season the Lions’ 4th-ranked offense, racking up 28.7 points per game, faced the Saints’ just-below-median 22.9 PpG defense—and only scored 17 points. This, despite completing 31 of 44 passes for 408 yards! Stafford’s 9.27 YpA performance was one of his best of the year, and it came with a below-typical-but-not-terrible 3.95 YpC effort from the running game. How could a high-flying offense spend a whole game gaining nearly one first down per pass attempt’s worth of yardage, but only muster 17 points?
Does the phrase "offensive pass interference" mean anything to you?
The Lions had 25 first downs to the Saints’ 21, and outgained them 466 to 438. But that one interception and those critical penalties swung the game around in a big, big way. The other problem was a missed field goal and a blocked field goal, wiping a usually-guaranteed six points off the board.
What are those expectations? I’m glad you asked. Last time, I projected this:
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.
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.
Well, the Lions certainly were able to “take advantage of the Saints pass defense,” two-and-a-half yards per attempt better than I thought they would! Yet Lions’ inability to drive it all the way to the red zone and score killed them. This is the opposite of the effect we usually see when Linehan offenses meet Williams defenses.
The numbers have barely changed since I last looked at them. Even without the advantage, I’d expect the Lions to keep pace with the Saints here—and referees aside, that advantage was in evidence throughout the previous game. I’m going to bump the projected passing effectiveness to account for Stafford’s hot streak, and aim high on the rushing effectiveness because of a healthy Kevin Smith. Hanson won’t miss two field goals again.
Ultimately, I’m going to stay with the data, and project the exact same point total as I did a month ago: 30-33 points, coming from 8.00-8.50 YpA and 4.50-4.75 YpC.
Did I mention the penalties?
It’s the same two teams, nearly the same set of numbers, in the same place at nearly the same time for even higher stakes. Last time Lions performed even better than I expected, but mistakes, injuries, and the officials held them back. I expect the Saints to take their game to the next level, too, though, so I can’t project a complete turning of the tables.
The data, and my instincts, compel me to project an even closer, 31-30, Lions win.