The Watchtower: Lions vs. Rams

>> 9.07.2012



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

MIN 6th 25.3 7.16 4.71 TEN 30th 27.4 7.27 4.55 20 -21% 6.10 -15% 5.63 20%
MIA 16th 19.9 5.94 3.69 TEN 29th 26.3 6.84 4.22 24 21% 5.03 -15% 5.05 37%

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

Shot Ornk PgG YpA YpC Gun Drnk PpG DYpA DYpC PTS PTSΔ YpA YpAΔ YpC YpCΔ
NYJ 12th 23 6 4.8 DET 19th 23.1 6.75 4.51 24 6% 8.62 45% 3.67 -24%

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.


Week 1 Preview: Q&A with WIll from


To help break down the regular season opener, I traded Qs and As with Will Horton of, whose site got a killer makeover today.  RamsHerd combines smart Rams opinions with deep-dive analysis and snappy charting, much the same as we endeavor to here at TLiW. But, you know, with Lions.

Will, who is an excellent follow on Twitter @RamsHerd, sent me five well-researched questions and I attempted to do the same. Here’s how he replied:

The first question Lions fans are going to want to answered: How is Sam Bradford adapting to Brian Schottenheimer's offense? Schottenheimer took a lot of heat from Jets fans over the years, and this season must be considered the make-or-break for Bradford's development as a franchise quarterback?

The adaptation for Bradford seems to be going well, in terms of his understanding Brian Schottenheimer’s playbook (which is akin to Pat Shurmur’s, but a little more diverse) and being able to direct traffic. Most importantly, the ball is coming out of his hand much quicker than it was under McDaniels. Whether it’s route simplicity or more decisiveness on his part, he looks much closer to his rookie year form than his 2011 “deer in the headlights” form.

I still have concerns about his mechanics, especially his footwork and his ability/willingness to slide in the pocket to avoid pass rush, rather than simply bailing out or tucking in. He showed progress this summer, but a strong pass rush like the one the Cowboys put on him in game 3 of the preseason made him revert to last year’s bad habits.

As far as this being a “make or break” season, I think Bradford needs to have a good year, but it’s still too soon to expect greatness. Give him two years in the same offense and continue to upgrade his weaponry, and I still believe he can be a top-ten quarterback in this league.

For that matter, can Steve Smith, Danny Amendola and the rest of the Rams' receivers test the Lions' beleaguered secondary? With Chris Houston and Louis Delmas looking very unlikely to play, can the stoppable force move the movable object?

Bradford has been targeting outside receivers more often in Schottenheimer’s offense than he did under Shurmur, but the real wildcard will be TE Lance Kendricks. He plays the invaluable Dustin Keller role in this offense, and has looked very good at times. His hands run hot and cold, which is a big concern, but Bradford still looks comfortable throwing to him, particularly on third downs.

We have seen a decent amount of intermediate targets and a handful of deep throws in the offense so far, which is potentially good. But unless the offensive line picks up the Lions’ pass rush, though, Sam won’t have much time to hang in and stretch the secondary.

Chris Long had a breakout performance rushing the passer in 2011, and was rewarded with a lavish four-year extension. How will his ever-changing role change for 2012, and how hard will the Rams' pass rush be for the Lions to contain?

To use a Detroit metaphor, Chris Long’s best attribute is that he has plenty of horses under the hood. He is relentless on the pass rush, and is making a more focused effort against the run as well. He should have a strong year. But Robert Quinn is the pass rusher you have to fear. His speed to the passer is breathtaking, and he has a knack for finding the ball. However, with Michael Brockers out, Quinn will face more double-teams. Long has the better running partner this week in Kendall Langford, but long-term Quinn will be the guy that takes the big step forward this year.

You posed this one to me, let me turn it back on you: "This will be an interesting matchup of coaches, with the pupil taking on the master. How will Jeff Fisher gameplan against a team that might be his strategic mirror image?"

If I’m Jeff Fisher on offense, I try to take advantage of Ndamukong Suh’s over-aggressiveness with a lot of inside running plays, redirecting him out of a lane and sending a back through there. If we consistently get a back into the second level, that has the dual effect of putting your D back on its heels and saving Bradford from a lot of early wear and tear. Plus it makes Sam’s play-action (which is very good) a more potent weapon.

On defense, I don’t think you have to do anything special to contain the Lions’ running game. I roll the dice with Janoris Jenkins or Cortland Finnegan singled up on Calvin Johnson, and roll a safety over to help. However, given our woeful situation at safety, it’s really going to be up to the corners and the pass rush to keep Megatron from blasting huge holes in the defense.

Even if it doesn’t pay off, Fisher is looking to establish a blueprint based on strong individual cornerback play and this game gives him a great stress test.

The Rams' defense has a lot of new faces--including Cortland Finnegan, whom Lions fans coveted from the instant Schwartz was hired. Which one will have the biggest impact against the Lions?

Finnegan’s impact and leadership has already been huge in restoring a swagger to a decrepit Rams secondary. But the key difference-maker is Janoris Jenkins, who has as much pure playmaking ability as any rookie I’ve seen in a Rams uniform since Torry Holt. I’m really excited to see how he performs, especially since opponents will likely be targeting him like mad. If he plays up to the potential he flashed in camp, he has a very real shot at running away with the DROY award.

I’ve often cited the Rams and Bucs as comparison cases for the Lions: all three franchises hired new coaches in 2009, all three franchises rebuilt around a first-round quarterback, and all three had some measure of early success. But while the Lions were slower to get to a winning record, both the Bucs and the Rams crashed out, and find themselves at something like square one this season.

The Rams’ rebirth and re-death was stunning: they went from a 1-15 team to a 7-9 team and back down to 2-14, all with the eminently qualified Steve Spagnuolo (“Candidate 1A”) at the helm. The collapse also occurred with Bradford, the quarterback people said the Lions should pass on Matthew Stafford and tank the 2009 season to get, under center.

With Tampa Bay, Raheem Morris’s turnaround job always felt like smoke and mirrors. His resumé was laughably thin, his demeanor and approach unconventional. Many refused to believe that Morris was getting it done with anything other than smoke and mirrors—and in 2011 his detractors seemed to be proven right.

None of the strongest bounceback indicators are there; with the Rams’ -13.4 points-per-game scoring differential, Pythagoras expected them to go 2.3-13.7. But despite a lot of roster turnover on the defense and in the WR corps, the identity is the same: Sam Bradford and Steven Jackson, Chris Long anchoring a strong defensive line.

I can’t help but feel like that 7-9 team just needed a quick dusting-off before the playoff-bubble teams from two seasons ago would shine through.

If I’m right, we’ll find out quickly.

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