Where the Lions Stand in the Arms Race

Seemingly every day, I read a new power ranking or “expert picks” piece that trashes the Lions, picks the Packers to win 17 games in the regular season, and says the Bears will improve by at least 3 wins to claim the wildcard. They cite vague reasons for their lack of confidence in the Lions like “I don’t trust the defense” or “They’re undisciplined”. Instead of actually doing some analysis, they just regurgitate ESPN’s ready-made storylines in convenient list form and follow each other’s leads with similar sleeper picks and dark horse candidates. I think all of us Lions fans are getting a little sick of all that, so here’s why I think they’re wrong.

The Defense Does Not Concern Me

I’ll be comparing the Lions to some of the other similar teams around football, namely the Packers, Patriots, Saints, and Giants. I’m not going to get into a Lions vs 49ers debate because their offense doesn’t compare to the Lions’ and the Lions’ defense doesn’t compare to theirs. Debating Lions vs 49ers is like debating apples or oranges. But apples are way better.

First, let’s look at total points allowed.

  • Saints: 339 pts
  • Patriots: 342 pts
  • Packers: 359 pts
  • Lions: 387 pts
  • Giants: 400 pts

This is pretty much the exact opposite of what I’d expect. All of those ESPN experts that have been spending their days writing power rankings have been conceding that the Giants offense isn’t quite as potent at the top 3, but their defense is otherworldly because of their quarterback-swallowing pass rush. Well, turns out they gave up just 7 fewer points than the St. Loius Rams last year. Yikes. Still, the Lions don’t compare very favorably here, but I’ll look a little deeper into things.

For me, the logical next step has to be yards. If you let a team drive all the way down the field, but don’t give up points, it’s probably due to a missed field goal or a forced turnover. Since the defense doesn’t have anything to do with missed field goals and turnovers fluctuate greatly from year to year, yards is a pretty good predictor for your defense’s performance.

  • Packers: 6585 yds
  • Patriots: 6577 yds
  • Giants: 6022 yds
  • Saints: 5895 yds
  • Lions: 5881 yds

So this one is a bit kinder to the Lions. As you can see, they’re almost identical to the Saints and about 700 yards better than the Packers and Patriots. And again stuck in the midst of these admittedly bad defenses are the New York Giants. Not so ferocious now, eh?

Well then you might say that those other teams always had their defenses on the field because they were so efficient offensively without much of a running game to eat up clock. Other than my assertion that the Lions were in the same situation, I can just look at a yards per play average.

  • Packers: 6.3
  • Patriots: 6.2
  • Saints: 5.8
  • Giants: 5.6
  • Lions: 5.6

Somehow, these other teams have managed to look even worse by adjusting it per play. But hey, what about first downs? Those other teams give up yards, but certainly, they buckle down and get off the field when they need to, right?

  • Patriots: 370
  • Packers: 358
  • Giants: 338
  • Saints: 326
  • Lions: 325

The Patriots allowed the most first downs in the league last year. Ouch.

Well, those stats somehow conceal the Lions’ inadequate pass defense, right? Here’s the net yards per pass attempt (sacks included, giants fans) last year.

  • Packers: 7.2
  • Patriots: 7.1
  • Giants: 6.4
  • Saints: 6.3
  • Lions: 5.9 (The Lions were 8th best in the league in this category)

So the Lions pass defense wasn’t as bad as we all thought. In fact, it was one of the best in the league last year. The Giants are performing pretty poorly in these stats. What happens if we look at their bread and butter, pass rush? Here’s the sack percentage, defined as sacks per dropback.

  • Giants: 7.5%
  • Lions: 6.4%
  • Patriots: 6.1%
  • Saints: 5.0%
  • Packers 4.4% (worst in the league)

The Giants really are considerably better at that. Still, they’re far from the leaders at 8.8% (Eagles), 8.5% (Vikings), and Ravens (8.2%). In fact, this vaunted Giants pass rush is 8th in the league, right behind the Washington Redskins (Yikes). Don’t get me wrong, I’d love for the Lions to be 8th in the league. But somehow this Giant d-line isn’t quite the monsters of the midway like we’ve been led to believe. JPP isn’t getting 30 sacks. His entire team had 48 last year.

With that, I’ll look at rush defense for the sake of completeness. Here’s rushing yards per attempt.

  • Saints: 5.0
  • Lions: 5.0
  • Packers: 4.7
  • Patriots: 4.6
  • Giants: 4.5

The Lions are pretty bad here. Teams can run rampant on them. But from what I saw last year, the Lions were pretty good on goal line and short yardage, so here are the rushing TDs and first downs allowed by each team:

  • Giants: 15 TDs / 103 FDs
  • Patriots: 13 TDs / 101 FDs
  • Saints: 11 TDs / 92 FDs
  • Packers: 10 TDs / 96 FDs
  • Lions: 10 TDs / 91 FDs

As I suspected, the Lions kept them from doing much real damage despite all the yards. I still wouldn’t call it a good run defense by any means, but there are some encouraging aspects.

Taking into account the whole picture, I don’t see where all of these national media members get off saying the Lions defense flat out prevents them from getting back to the postseason. If that’s the case, I don’t see how an inferior defense, complementing an inferior offense, coming off a 9 win season and improbable playoff run, will lead the Giants to another Super Bowl.

The Offense Doesn’t Worry Me Either

In 2011, the Lions were:

  • 4th in points
  • 5th in yards
  • 6th in yards per play
  • 6th in first downs

Sure, they’re not quite as good as the Packers, Saints, and Patriots, but they beat the Giants in every one of those categories. The Lions have an elite offense, and anyone that tries to argue against that is just plain wrong.

And Age is On Our Side

There is one thing that Lions had in 2011 that none of the other teams I mentioned come close to…a 23 year old quarterback. In 2011, Matt Stafford, as the 5th youngest starting quarterback in the league became only the 4th person in HISTORY to throw for over 5000 yards. It’s something that Aaron Rodgers has never done. Neither has Eli Manning or Peyton Manning or Kurt Warner or Phillip Rivers. Some of the most imbalanced offenses in history, led by some of the most heralded QBs in history couldn’t do what Stafford did last year. Most of them didn’t even really come that close. And guess what…he’s going to get better. Using Pro Football Focus, I plotted PFF rating versus age for evey QB to play 290 or more snaps over the past 4 years (I don’t know what their actual floor is, but that’s the lowest number they had, so I’ll go with it). I also plotted the quarterback ratings of that same set of players in case you don’t believe PFF or are more comfortable with those ratings.

First, I want to point out how similar the quadratic fit is for each of these. The PFF chart shows a peak at 32.16 years old, while the quarterback rating chart shows a peak at 32.19 years old. Basically, that means that the 33 year old Brees and the 35 year old Brady are likely on the downsides of their careers. What it also shows is that at 23 going on 24, Stafford is just now getting into his development. While the average 23 year old had a QB rating of 73.82 (calculated from the fit), Stafford had a rating of 97.2 (5th best in the league). From there, 24 year olds improved to 76.85, over 3 points on their ratings. And by the time they reached their peaks at 32, they’d gained almost 15 points on their QB rating. Think of it this way: At 23, most QBs are just getting their feet wet in the NFL, or still trying to prove themselves in college (Tannehill is just 5 months younger than Stafford).

Many national media members try to discount Stafford’s incredible season, saying that he had the best receiver in the NFL to throw to, so it wasn’t really all him. If that’s true, then why not make the same case for Brady having Welker and Gronkowski or for Peyton Manning spending all those years with future hall of famer Marvin Harrison. Or Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson. Or Kurt Warner and Larry Fitzgerald. Or Joe Montana and Jerry Rice. Or Steve Young and Jerry Rice. Or Rich Gannon and Jerry Rice (Okay, that last one was uncalled for). Anyway, I could also name example after example of analysts doubting that CJ is the best, with even a recent example or two. Still, this circular logic persists that Calvin Johnson is so good that he elevates Stafford to be better than he really is, but better receivers don’t do the same for their QBs.

And the “Undisciplined” Thing Isn’t a Big Deal

First of all, the Giants should be the perfect counterpoint here. In the MIDDLE of the 2008 season, their #1 wide receiver shot himself in the leg and was suspended until his eventual release. They finished 12-4.

The Bengals have built their entire franchise on the idea of being undisciplined. In the early part of last year, Jermone Simpson was arrested in a sting with 5 pounds of weed in his house. Compare that to Mikel Leshoure’s Feb 18th arrest for possession of 1 gram. A paper clip is one gram. Google’s little calculator function thingy tells me that there are 2267.96 grams in 5 pounds. While Leshoure was crucified for his actions, Jerome Simpson was busy becoming an acrobat extraordinaire. And that Bengals team still made the playoffs coming off of a 4-12 season. Off season (or in season), off the field issues have never really been cited as having a major impact on performance until now that it fits a convenient storyline. Somehow, stomp=arrest. Somehow, a moment of frustration and anger of a player on the field and an arrest for possession of marijuana say the same thing about the team.

And on the field? Announcers don’t care about the truth. They care about what keeps you entertained and what keeps you gossiping about the game around the water cooler some Tuesday morning. They wouldn’t care if I told them the Lions tied the Packers for 2nd in the league in offensive first downs gained by way of penalty. They wouldn’t care that the Lions gave up just 1 more first down by penalty than the Saints and the Lions mark of 39 comes nowhere near the league leading Raiders at 58. Penalties always hurt you, and the Lions haven’t done well on penalties lately, but the assertion that penalties will keep you out of the playoffs isn’t true (the 2011 Lions did it and so did the 2011 Saints).

So the next time you hear an “expert” picking on the Lions for the above reasons, just send them this way and I’ll sort them out.

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One thought on “Where the Lions Stand in the Arms Race

  1. Excellent read. Great analysis. The math doesn’t lie. And neither does it pick sides as many of the so called “experts” do.

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