The Lions host the St. Louis Rams on Sunday, and all the months of half-informed, befuddled claptrap about the Lions “regressing” or “taking a step back” or having “discipline problems” or whatever will but up against the hard reality of the Detroit Lions taking the field and playing honest-to-God competitive football.
The baseless “regression” hogwash that floated throughout the diaspora has been logically debunked, most spectacularly by Nate Washuta of Holy Schwartz! and Jeremy Reisman at Detroit OnLion. Now, the Lions have a chance to physically debunk it, by playing four quarters of great football against a team that’s served as a benchmark for Jim Schwartz’s Lions twice before.
It was against the Rams that the Lions suffered the most obnoxious defeat of the 2009 campaign: the Rams’ 17-10 win at Ford Field was their only win of the season, the only “W” standing in between them and repeating the Lions’ 2008 feat.
It was against the Rams that the Lions enjoyed their most emphatic win of the 2010 season: a 44-6 romp that not only answered the question of which team’s turnaround was further along, but served as a desperately-needed release for apoplectic Lions fans; it was a laugher in every sense of the word.
Now, somehow, the stakes are exactly the same: a loss to the lowly Rams would be again be a gut-punch, a convincing win all the proof we need that everything is going to be alright.
Scott Linehan vs. Jeff Fisher
Scott Linehan has faced off against Jeff Fisher twice before: in 2005, as the offensive coordinator of the Dolphins under Nick Saban, and the season before, as architect of the Vikings offense. The ‘04 Vikings were a powerful unit, ranked 6th in the NFL in scoring. They averaged 7.16 yards per pass attempt, and 4.71 yards per carry on the ground—both figures second-best in the NFL.
The Titans were not, as they say, in their glory in these days. In 2004, the Titans were ranked 30th (3rd-worst) in the NFL in scoring defense. They allowed an average of 27.4 points per game, 7.27 yards per pass attempt and 4.55 yards per carry.
Surprisingly, Linehan’s Vikings only scored 20 points against the Titans that day, 21% below their season average. They also held the Vikings to 6.1 YpA, 15% below their season average. The Vikings, however, ran at will: 5.63 YpC, a 20% boost above their already-stout 4.71 season average. Further, it didn’t really matter: the Titans’ offense could only muster a lousy three points; the Vikings didn’t have to put up pinball numbers to win comfortably.
In 2005, the Titans at least managed an offensive touchdown: Billy Volek hit Drew Bennett for a 55-yard score in the fourth quarter. But 10 points couldn’t match the Dolphins’ 24. Linehan’s Dolphins scored 21% more points than their season average against Fisher’s Titans, and again ran wild: 5.05 YpC, a 37% boost over their 2005 norm.
Interestingly, the YpA depression was exactly the same as in 2004: 15%. So we have two contests between these two coaches, with two different teams running the same offensive system against the same defensive system. In both cases, there was a major talent gap: the 2004 and 2005 Titans defenses were terrible overall, the 2005 Dolphins were average, and the 2004 Vikings were excellent.
We have only two games to work with, and the scoring differentials weren’t consistent. But the passing depression was exactly 15% both times, and the running boost was significant both times. I'm willing to declare: when facing Jeff Fisher/Jim Schwartz defenses of poor quality, Scott Linehan offenses tend to pass less effectively, and run much more effectively, than their season averages.
Brian Schottenheimer vs. Gunther Cunningham
The last time the Lions faced Brian Schottenheimer, I went on one of my most ridiculous flights of if-then fancy. Not only did I play telephone with Schottenheimer’s mentors and influences, going all the way back to Sid Gillman, I went to ridiculous lengths to construct a narrative from the data I cobbled together. The result? Durr Sharks.
From that original Watchtower, I pointed out:
If there were no systemic advantage or disavantage, the expectation for the Jets’ offense against the Lions’ defense would be 24-27 points.
The Jets needed an overtime field goal to get there, but 24 points is exactly what they scored. That field goal pushed the points delta from –7% to +6%, to go with a whopping 45% increase in YpA. The Lions, surprisingly, held up very well against the Jets’ bruising running attack, holding them to just 3.67 YpA (-27%) . . . fat lot of good it did them.
That the Jets had the 12th-best offense, and the Lions the 19th-best defense, and they did such a fantastic job of holding down such a powerful running attack (very much unlike the rest of the season). The Jets met scoring expectations, but only because they dragged it out into overtime. Their YpA was extraordinarily high; I’d be surprised if Mark Sanchez equalled that mark in any other game. Of course, he was helped tremendously by two 74- and 52-yard bombs; subtract those two throws and Schottenheimer’s Jets only netted 5.68 yards per attempt.
The bottom line here is that it seems as though there may be a mild systemic advantage for Jim Schwartz defenses against Brian Schottenheimer offenses, especially against the run. However, I got burned really badly when speculating on Schottenheimer before, and now we’re dealing with a completely different team.
I’m not doing mitigating/augmenting influences this time; we have no strong statistical trends and no data from this season to work with, either. This might also be the most incestuous game I’ve ever Watchtowered, too: Schwartz, of course, coached under Fisher in Tennessee for years, and Gunther Cunningham worked with Brian Schottenheimer (and his father) in Kansas City.
All of these coaches know each other (and each other’s schemes) very well; there’s going to be a lot of chess-matchery going down. But in this battle of student and master—or, should I say, mentor and Grandmaster—the student is playing with quite a few more pieces.
The Rams have two strong running backs and a great pass-rushing defensive line. They also have a young quarterback who’s still more potential than reality, and a bevy of talented new faces in the secondary. They don’t have any real receivers, or an offensive line worth mentioning.
The injuries to the Lions’ secondary make me wonder if this will be a shootout, but I can’t believe the Rams’ offense will be consistent enough to string several scoring drives together. Based on last year’s Lions offensive output and pass rush, plus the Rams’ profound awfulness and in-progress recovery therefrom, I see the most likely outcome as a 32-17 Lions win. As a corrolary, watch to see if the Lions’ systemic advantage in running the ball, and disadvantage passing the ball comes into play.
I can't pretend this is a mathematically derived anything, and so have very low confidence in this projection. AFTER this game, we’ll have a pretty clear idea on whether or not Gunther really does have the drop on his homeboy’s kid, and whether the student truly has become the Grandmaster. Going into it, I’m going with my gut.