Why the Lions Lost: Week 2

In week 2, the Lions suffered a bitter loss to the Arizona Cardinals. It wasn’t horrible in the sense that the Lions got destroyed or that the game came down to the last play that they didn’t make. Rather, it was horrible because they missed out on a win by kind of a normal margin. They didn’t get completely outclassed by the Cardinals, but there’s also not one singular play at the end that you can point to as the reason they lost. It seems that in the aftermath of this game, there are quite a few complaints about the team from some very angry and very vocal fans. Most of the arguments I’ve seen have fallen under the category of symptoms rather than true ailments, so I’ll be trying to diagnose the problems and paint an overall picture of what happened on Sunday.

Many of the offensive complaints have centered around Burleson failing to get a first down on the last play of the game, Linehan’s playcalling (both specifically on that play and throughout the game), the lack of secondary offensive weapons behind Calvin Johnson and Reggie Bush, the copious amounts of drops, and the kicking of David Akers.

Let’s start with the last play of the game, in which Burleson ran a quick slant (or tried to) and was dropped for a 3 yard gain on 4th and 4. Sure, it’s counter-intuitive to run a route short of the first down marker on 4th down. Certainly, you don’t draw up the play to net 3 yards. But here’s why it makes sense. Burleson had run 4 quick slant routes on the day, picking up gains of 4, 7, 8, and 12 yards. In fact, the only throws to Burleson for less than 4 yards were his drop in the first quarter and the last play of the game. Of the options on the field, CJ was matched up on Patrick Peterson, one of the best cornerbacks in football and Joique Bell, Brandon Pettigrew, and Kris Durham were much less reliable receiving options. The difference with this route that Burleson ran was that Tyrann Mathieu was lined up in press coverage and jammed Burleson so hard that it jolted him back at the beginning of the play. This set back the timing of the play so that when Stafford delivered the ball, Burleson wasn’t in position to get the first down. Perhaps if he was stronger or if Stafford had waited an extra half second, the jam wouldn’t have been enough to stop Burleson from reaching the sticks. Still, Burleson was a reliable option all day long and continues to prove he still has something to offer this team.

As for why Linehan was right to call a play where Burleson ran such a short route, that falls to the entire design of the Lions’ 2013 offense. So far in 2013, Matthew Stafford has taken the least time to throw the ball of anyone in football at an average of 2.26 seconds per pass attempt. On plays where he gets rid of the ball in 2.5 seconds or less, he has a 73.8% completion percentage and a QB Rating of 122.8. On plays where he holds onto the ball for longer than 2.5 seconds, his completion percentage drops to 38.9% and his QB Rating drops to 31.7. This quick passing game also happens to be a short passing game. Pro Football Focus tracks percentage yards in the air, which calculates the percentage of passing yardage gained before the catch. Stafford is last in the league in that statistic with 31.7%. In this case, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The idea of the offense is that teams play so deep to guard against Calvin Johnson that there’s tons of room to exploit underneath. So what do the Lions do? Exploit it. This offensive approach of getting the ball out quickly and letting their players make a play has been successful to the tune of 8.04 yards per attempt, good for 10th in the league. Compare this to 2012 statistics, when the Lions ranked 20th in the league with 6.83 yards per attempt or even the successful 2011 season with 7.62 yards per attempt.

However, this approach obviously broke down in the second half of this game. With both Reggie Bush and Patrick Edwards out for the remainder of the game, the Lions’ offensive arsenal became much more limited. Reggie is almost without question the Lions’ most dangerous player with the ball in his hands and being able to match him up with linebackers makes his athleticism advantage almost unfair. Patrick Edwards hasn’t made a big imprint on the Lions offense yet, but he is a sure-handed pass-catcher that has deep speed. Without these two, Joique Bell and Kris Durham had to fill their respective positions in the lineup. Joique did an admirable job, gaining plenty of YAC (36 of his 41 yards came after the catch), but also contributed his fair share to stalling drives with 3 drops on the day. Kris Durham proved to not be a viable target at all, with 0 catches on 2 targets, one of which he fell down on. This forced Stafford to use Brandon Pettigrew a lot more. And while Pro Football Focus only charges him with 1 drop on the day (hahahahaha), he only caught 3 of the 6 passes thrown his way (hint: the other 3 were drops).

And with all of this drive stalling going on, the Lions needed some crisp special teams to still put points on the board. That didn’t happen. Many are criticizing David Akers for missing both (or all 3) of his field goal attempts, but they’re all excusable. His first attempt of the day was a 52 yard attempt. NFL kickers converted 50+ yard field goals at a rate of about 61% last season, hardly a sure thing. Sure, I would have loved it if he made it, but 50+ yard field goals are always a dicey proposition. On that play, Akers was run into (should have been called roughing the kicker, which is an automatic 1st down) and shaken up. Asking an injured kicker to boot a 47 yard field goal is asking a lot, so I don’t blame him for that whatsoever. Finally, his 3rd attempt was blocked. I don’t think there’s any way you can blame this one on Akers. Rather, the protection from Idonije was horrible (judging by his pass rushing snaps, Idonije should’ve been pretty good at keeping his guy directly in front of him and not doing anything).

On defense, the primary complaint that I’ve seen was the inability of the defensive line to get pressure. First of all, Ndamukong Suh was 2nd in the league among DTs in week 2 with 5 QB hurries and Willie Young was tied for 1st in the league in week 2 regardless of position with 6 QB hurries. So they actually did get pressure. However, the Cardinals offense is somewhat similar to the Lions offense in that they like to get the ball out quick. Through 2 weeks, Carson Palmer has taken the 3rd least amount of time to throw in the league with 2.35 seconds per pass attempt. However, unlike the Lions, the Cardinals’ quick passing game doesn’t equate to a short passing game. Carson Palmer leads the league with 72% yard in air (compared to Stafford’s 31.7%). While just 5 of Stafford’s 35 passes on the day traveled 10 yards or further in the air, 20 of Palmer’s 37 passes traveled farther than 10 yards. While he only completed 7 of those throws for 136 yards and a touchdown, he also drew 2 defensive pass interference flags from Bill Bentley for a total of 59 yards, both on eventual scoring drives.

So while the Lions short passing game was hampered by injuries to their most reliable and explosive options, the Cardinals’ intermediate and deep passing game took advantage of one of the biggest weaknesses of the Detroit Lions defense, ultimately proving to be the difference in the game.

Depth Utilization Ratio

Here at Holy Schwartz, I like to bring you data analysis that no one else has ever done before. Whether it’s studying arm length data (which I recently updated for PFF) to see if Riley Reiff can cut it in the NFL or comparing Reggie Bush to Jahvid Best on a carry-by-carry basis, having my own blog without deadlines affords me the opportunity to spend more time than I should compiling these unique data sets and searching for some meaning within the numbers. This type of work is simultaneously the most rewarding and the most criticized type of work because it doesn’t always lead to familiar quantities or hard-and-fast conclusions, so please bear with me.

Over the past month or two, I’ve been working on a project to interpret snap count data in unique ways. In August 2012, the NFL announced that it would begin including individual snap count data in its official play-by-play gamebooks. Football Outsiders compiles this data for each team, week, and position and has made it publicly available. The most obvious use for this data would be to provide rate stats (targets per snap for wide receivers, pressures/sacks per snap for defensive linemen). While those quantities are useful, they don’t really tell a drastically different story than what’s already out there – just maybe a more accurate one. My idea is to use the snap counts themselves to provide a completely different type of analysis.

The first thing I can do is make a de facto depth chart for the year. It’s not necessarily who starts all the games or who is first choice when everyone is healthy. Instead, you’re simply sorting by number of snaps at each position. It’s presumably the best, healthiest, most willing to line up in the correct spot (ahem, Titus) guys on average throughout the year. It’s a depth chart that accounts for health.

Offense_Depth Defense_Depth

There’s nothing truly groundbreaking here. It’s all more or less how you’d expect it to shake out if you paid attention to the team last year. The interesting things to note here are the percentages of snaps each guy gets. With some positions (like WR, DB, and DL), there more of a gradual decline in snaps as you go down the depth chart rather than a sharp cutoff, while positions like OL and LB are pretty much just comprised of starters and there aren’t many backup snaps to go around. Using this data, I can also total up snap counts by position. This gives us an idea of formations (or at least personnel-based formations). As you can see from the above tables, on average, the Lions played with 1 QB, 2.45 WR, 0.96 RB, 5.16 OL, 1.42 TE, and 0.01 FB. Similarly on defense, the Lions used 4 DL, 2.6 LB, and 4.39 DB.

Since all of this is done by sorting and a little bit of math, I don’t need to know anything about the Lions roster to put any of these numbers together. More importantly, I don’t need to know anything about any of the other teams in the league to put theirs together. So in doing that, I can see how the Lions stack up formation/personnel-wise with everyone else.

Formation_Ranks

To me, the interesting things on the offensive side are that the Lions aren’t all that heavy on wide receivers when compared to league average, but are very heavy on OL and TE. This doesn’t really fit the narrative of what we expect from the Lions offense – spread the formation, put 5 WRs on the field, and throw the ball down the field. This probably has something to do with Reiff being listed as an offensive lineman and Scheffler being listed as a TE, when in reality, Scheffler played a lot more slot wide receiver and Reiff played a lot more of that 6th O-Lineman/Tight End role. What’s really interesting is on the defensive side of the ball, where the Lions are last in the league in DB usage. There doesn’t seem to be any unusual cross-position confusion that would skew things. The best explanation I can give for this is that the Lions put a premium on getting after the QB (hence the 5th most DL usage in the league), but can’t sacrifice linebackers to get more linemen on the field because their scheme leaves them vulnerable against the run. Couple that with the massive amounts of injuries in the secondary and the Lions might have felt more comfortable with linebackers covering tight ends than guys way down the DB depth chart.

The next thing I can do with these numbers is combine the depth chart and the formation analysis to say something about depth at each position. The idea is that if the Lions use 2.45 wide receivers per play, then in an ideal world, you would have the top 2 guys play 100% of the snaps and the 3rd guy play 45% of the snaps. As soon as you start using your 4th wide receiver (or use your 3rd wide receiver more than 45% of the time), you’re starting to utilize your depth. So I can then figure out the proportion of snaps taken by non-starters, or what I’ll call Depth Utilization Ratio (DUR). And as I said above, I don’t need to know anything about the rosters of other teams to do this, so here’s a chart that lists the DUR for every team at every position and how the Lions rank.

DUR

The individual positions have DUR listed as a ratio of non-starter snaps per total snaps for that position. The total offense, total defense, and overall are listed as non-starters per snap (so out of 11 players on the field).

What we see here is very interesting. First of all, the numbers all seem to make sense, which is a good check that it’s describing what I want it to describe. Second of all, it gives you an idea of how the Lions compared to the league averages and just how those averages shake out. You can see the average DUR for RBs are huge compared to all the others, while WR and DL are also pretty high and fullbacks are wayyy low. The fullback one is easy to explain. If you even have a fullback, you pretty much just have the one fullback. Not much rotation going on there. As for running backs, it seems like running back by committee is even more popular than I would have thought. What this is saying is that starting running backs only take about 58% of the snaps on average. Wide receivers and defensive lineman make sense in that they’re constantly moving, so they need to be swapped in and out a lot. Also, formations often range from 1 to 5 wide receivers, the biggest variation of just about any position, while defensive lineman are swapped in and out depending on the situation (running or passing down).

Looking specifically at the Lions, the most shocking thing is their DB depth utilization. It’s the highest in the league (by a huge margin) and over double the league average. Almost 40% of the Lions DB usage was from non-starters. It just really goes to show how much of a revolving door that position was throughout the year. The other top 10 positions are defensive line, running back, and wide receiver. Those were all pretty bad units last year, so it would stand to reason that was either causing or caused by having to go way down the depth chart. The positions that were rock solid were offensive line and linebacker. Both were among the lowest DUR in the league at their positions, which is no surprise because of the health and lack of depth at both positions.

All in all, this seems like a useful indicator of depth usage and a good way to compare across the league. Hopefully, I’ll be able to look into this more in the future to see how this changes with Lions roster changes. It would also be nice to combine this with PFF data and standard team statistics like yards and points to see how DUR correlates with success. Feel free to leave comments on ways to improve this. It should only get better with discussion and tweaking.

What’s Your Team’s Dedicated Camera?

This week, while watching Monday Night Football and following along on twitter, someone tweeted a picture of an instruction sheet for a camera operator on what was apparently a dedicated RG3 injury cam.

rg3-espn-injury-camera-full

This got me thinking. What would the dedicated camera be for every NFL team?

AFC East

New England Patriots

Camera 1: Bill Belichick Looks Awful Cam – This camera is dedicated to getting real-time images of Bill Belichick wearing sleeveless sweatshirts not really doing anything, having an expressionless face, and basically being the complete opposite of entertaining.

Camera 2: Tom Brady Yelling At His Wide Receivers Cam – Because he did this even when he did have awesome wide receivers.

Miami Dolphins

Camera 1: Empty Seats Cam – Because I’m pretty sure no sporting event in Florida has ever sold out.

New York Jets

Camera 1: Butt Cam – This camera is trained on all the butts, just in case one of them forces a turnover.

Camera 2: Are We There Yet? Cam – This camera watches Rex Ryan all game long, mostly to capture the exact moment he gets fired, but also because there’s nothing interesting to watch on the field.

Buffalo Bills

Camera 1: The Not Kyle Williams Cam – Because by 2012 PFF grades, Kyle D. Williams was the 3rd best DT in football last year and no one knows anything about him. This camera is dedicated to keeping it that way.

AFC North

Cincinnati Bengals

Camera 1: Cops Cam – This is a camera guy watching Cops just in case a Bengal shows up.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Camera 1: Head and Shoulders Cam – This guy just watches Troy Polamalu’s hair. He’s not the only guy with long hair in the NFL, but he’s the best in the business at finding ways to run that make it flop around as much as possible.

Cleveland Browns

Camera 1: Brandon Weeden Calendar Cam – This camera splices together shots of Brandon Weeden’s wall calendar to see how long until his next birthday with CGI renderings of what he’ll look like when he has as much NFL experience as someone his age should have.

Baltimore Ravens

Camera 1: Ray Lewis Cam – ESPN doesn’t care that he’s retired. In all fairness, neither does he. He’s still out on the field yelling about God and stuff.

AFC South

Indianapolis Colts

Camera 1: 4th Quarter Cam – This camera is kept switched off until the 4th quarter…just like the Indianapolis Colts.

Camera 2: Andrew Luck Face Cam – This is the face of the guy you copied off of in math class. The camera is always on him for that “Revenge of the Nerds” effect, where the nerdiest viewers can live vicariously through him.

Houton Texans

Camera 1: The JJ Watt Hand Cam – So that Chris Collinsworth can talk about JJ Watt’s Mickey Mouse hands for the thousandth time during the broadcast. I can’t choose just 1 Seinfeld reference, so I’ll just put them all here.

Tennessee Titans

Camera 1: Off – Because there’s nothing to see here.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Camera 1: The Suck Cam – This is the All-22 view you get with the premium NFL Game Rewind subscription that shows every player on the field, because otherwise you can’t fit all the suck into frame.

AFC West

Kansas City Chiefs

Camera 1: Big Red Cam – Because Andy Reid’s nickname is Big Red! And he’s big! And he’s wearing red!

Denver Broncos

Camera 1: Directional Microphone – They swap out a camera for a directional microphone that’s always pointed at Peyton Manning so that you can hear him yell things like “Omaha! Whiskey Charlie! Beetle Bailey! ObamaCare!”. These are all things I could totally imagine Peyton Manning yelling as audibles at the line of scrimmage.

San Diego Chargers

Camera 1:  Panda Watch

Oakland Raiders

Camera 1: Al Davis Cam – This camera is still watching Al Davis. I know he’s dead. But I also thought that about 5 years before he was actually dead.

NFC East

Philadelphia Eagles

Camera 1: Chip Kelly Cam – Because what do his facial expressions even mean? Must mean he’s a genius.

Dallas Cowboys

Camera 1: Jerry Jones Cam – Because he would’ve sunk this franchise if it wasn’t for you meddling kids.

Camera 2: Tony Romo Cam – Because no one knows if he’s amazing or terrible, but either way, they’ll debate something about him on ESPN First Take.

Camera 3: Jason Garrett Cam – Because no one knows if he’s amazing or terrible, but either way, they’ll debate something about him on ESPN First Take.

Camera 4: Jumbotron Cam – This camera takes video of the Jumbotron and plays it on the Jumbotron so you get one of those infinite camera loop things. Also so they can have an infinite number of images of the Jumbotron because Cowboys.

Washington Redskins

Camera 1: RG3 Injury Cam – Because this one actually exists.

Camera 2: RG3 and Shanahan Kiss Cam – Because this is the most televised lovers’ spat in the DC area.

New York Giants

Camera 1: Peyton Manning Cam – So that they can continuously compare Eli to Peyton forever and ever.

Camera 2: Cooper Manning Cam – So that they can tell the story about Cooper Manning also playing football for the thousandth time.

Camera 3: Archie Manning Cam – I don’t even know why they have this one. But don’t pretend like you haven’t seen it.

NFC North

Detroit Lions

Camera 1: Dirty Suh Cam – Because I’m sure this one also actually exists.

Camera 2: Calvin Johnson Cam – Because this one absolutely should exist even if it doesn’t for entirely opposite reasons as the Dirty Suh Cam.

Camera 3: Sidearm Cam – This camera is tilted sideways so that even when Stafford throws over the top, it looks like it’s sidearmed so they can criticize him for it.

Chicago Bears

Camera 1: Smokin’ Jay Cutler Cam

Green Bay Packers

Camera 1: Discount Double Check Cam – This one is just always waiting for Rodgers to do his championship belt celebration. Because State Farm (I had to look up the company name for this, which means their ads are bad) probably pays for this camera.

Camera 2: Unusual Cheese Accessories Cam – Because those fans have every article of clothing in a faux cheese style.

Minnesota Vikings

Camera 1: 50 Yards Past the Line of Scrimmage – Because that’s where Adrian Peterson is about to be.

Camera 2: 50 Yards Behind the Line of Scrimmage – Because that’s where Christian Ponder’s passes are about to be.

NFC South

New Orleans Saints

Camera 1: Drew Brees/Sean Payton Cam – Because they’re like the quintessential duo in a buddy cop movie. One is the golden boy that lifted up a fallen city and the other is the bad boy that just got back from suspension. Hilarity ensues.

Camera 2: Missing – Because one of the camera operators went rouge and took the camera so he can live out some girls gone wild Mardi Gras fantasy.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Camera 1: NFL Films Cam – This one shows old highlights to remind the fans that the defense was actually good once.

Carolina Panthers

Camera 1: Cam’s Smile Cam – Because you can pretty much just accidentally catch this in every frame.

Atlanta Falcons

Camera 1: Looking in the Wrong Direction Cam – Because this is the most boring really good team in the league, so the camera operator fell asleep. Even when they try to give Matt Ryan a really badass sounding nickname like Matty Ice, he always just ends up with a boring old expression.

Matty Ice needs to work on looking more like Ice Man.

NFC West

St. Louis Rams

Camera 1: Sam Bradford Cam – Because, has he panned out yet?

San Francisco 49ers

Camera 1: Colin Kaepernick Cam – This one follows him on every read option because even if he hands it off, that’s boring and no one wants to see that.

Camera 2: Jim Harbaugh Cam – Because it’s incredibly difficult to keep him from melting out of the frame

Seattle Seahawks

Camera 1: Pete Carroll Cam – Because he’s almost as entertaining as Jim Harbaugh on the sidelines, except without the melting.

Arizona Cardinals

Camera 1: Larry Fitzgerald Cam – Because if the production booth doesn’t throw it to him every once in a while, no one will.

When a Dirty Play is Not a Dirty Play

Ndamukong Suh made a dirty play on Sunday. It’s the type of thing that can end a guy’s season (People keep saying career, but how many people actually have their careers ended by one-time injuries anymore unless they’re already really old?). It’s the type of thing I wouldn’t want my future children doing or the type of thing I would want done to them. It’s the type of thing that should be banned from the game. And it wasn’t a dirty play.

Am I sounding contradictory enough yet? That’s because the NFL is among the most contradictory things in America. It’s a league where you root for the big hits (even if you don’t admit it), praise guys for playing through injuries (or crucify them for not doing so), and constantly venerate the ideals of “smash-mouth football”. And then you get on talk radio and complain about guys getting injured.

In the context of modern society, what Suh did was morally reprehensible. If you saw one guy do this to another guy on the street, it would probably lead to you being a witness in a civil suit. In the context of modern society, what Suh did is wrong. In the context of football, there’s only one word that can describe it: Meh. What Ndamukong Suh did on the football field on Sunday is not morally reprehensible. It is not reason to yell, “My word! What has he done!?”

monacle

Ndamukong Suh’s hit is not a dirty play because in the context of American football, it’s not that big a deal. It’s hard-nosed and smash-mouth, and toughsoundingadjective-bodypart (stiff-arm? lock-jaw?). It’s the type of play where Suh would have been praised for his hustle if it hadn’t been flagged. And it happens all the time.

While the national media are up in arms over Suh putting a low block on John Sullivan (Mike & Mike have spent the past 4 days rehashing the incident), while Suh gets fined a record $100,000 for the hit, Clay Matthews still has not received a fine for his flying, super-late, superman hit on Colin Kaepernick out of bounds or the subsequent fisticuffs.

While Ndamukong Suh’s block is being called heinous and unconscionable, no one is bringing into the discussion that if an offensive player had done this to Suh in the pocket, it wouldn’t have even been a penalty, let alone a fine or the subject of national media scrutiny. Watch Suh on the following GIFs.

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The first one is from the infamous 2011 Thanksgiving Day game where Suh eventually lost his temper and stomped an offensive lineman’s arm. It was 1 of 3 times that the Packers went after Suh’s knees. The second GIF is from last year’s week 10 game against the Vikings. It was 1 of 2 times Suh was cut down at the knees. I didn’t have to search for these. I just picked 2 games I wanted to look at and found 5 examples. This happens all the time. While the media cries about Suh being dirty, they don’t notice the very same “dirty” plays from the opposition. It’s confirmation bias. It’s seeing what you want to see to tell the story you want to tell. It’s feigning moral outrage to show your audience that you can cheer on big hits and praise “pound the rock” football because you’re speaking from the moral high ground. It’s self-serving, self-righteousness in a game where no players and no plays are perfectly “clean”.