Trends In the Trenches: Breaking Down the Lions by the Numbers

Trends In the Trenches: Breaking Down the Lions by the Numbers

Credit: Getty Images

Calvin Johnson #81 of the Detroit Lions is unable to catch a pass in the endzone during the frst half against the Washington Redskins at FedExField on September 22, 2013 in Landover, Maryland. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)



WFAA Sports

Posted on October 23, 2013 at 10:00 AM

Updated Wednesday, Oct 30 at 12:23 PM

Numbers never lie.

No really, despite what you might hear, they don’t. Math, as a flawless abstract concept, is pretty cool like that. The numbers, by their very nature, are perfect.

But people lie all the time. And so I can twist and frame numbers in pretty much any way that I want to get my point across. If I were born 20 years earlier and had an unusual fixation with “establishing the run,” I might point out teams are (insert awesome record here) when they run the ball (insert high number here) times, so you need to run the ball.

The numbers didn’t lie and they aren’t “wrong” in any sense, but I manipulated them in such a way that I could back my preconceived notions. I established a correlation but proposed a causal relationship that doesn’t exist. There’s nothing wrong with the math, just my interpretation of it.

Sorry, but Stuart Scott was wrong. Don’t hate the game, hate the player.

But I’m not in the business of using numbers to deceive people. Instead of framing math around my arguments, I want my opinions to be a reflection of the math. I want to properly interpret all of the data that’s so readily available these days to provide a deeper understanding of the Cowboys and the NFL.

One way that’s possible is by identifying predictive ability. The fake “establish the run” stat I gave you isn’t very useful—it’s misleading, in fact—because it’s not predictive of what wins. That’s why we see teams that pass the ball a lot early generally have a lot more success than the running teams (with the overall run-pass balance evening out as teams that are already winning run the ball and teams that are already losing pass it).

By establishing a stat’s predictive ability, we’re basically measuring how much it “lies.” That allows us to sort through the noise, like time-of-possession (also a result of winning), in favor of the signal.

Detroit Lions By the Numbers

I hear the Cowboys have a game against the Lions this week, so I guess I should stop ranting on the philosophy of math and take a look at that, huh? Okay, fine.

51.9: Lions’ first down run rate

You might have noticed that I tend to analyze first down stats quite a bit and third down stats very little. The reason is that, for the most part, first down is standardized. Whereas third down plays can be of any distance, around 95 percent of first down plays are the same: first-and-10, typically near the middle of the field.

As a quick side note (I promise I’ll talk about the game soon), that’s one reason that third down conversion rates are useless stats. Yes, you want a high conversion rate. Yes, third downs are really important in each game. But the goal for many teams is putting themselves in “manageable third downs” when it should be maximizing offensive efficiency.

Running the ball on first and second down to set up a bunch of third-and-three situations might lead to a high third down conversion rate, but it’s not beneficial to the offense. You know what’s better than converting a high percentage of third downs? Not facing third down at all because you didn’t run the ball on first and second down.

Anyway, despite being a pass-happy team, the Lions actually run the ball quite a bit on first down. Reggie Bush & Co. have gained 3.78 YPC on those first down runs. Even if we take out the fourth quarter, the Lions’ first down run rate is still an even 50 percent. The Cowboys will need to look out for first down play-action, but it’s not like Detroit is calling passes on 90 percent of their first downs (as they probably should).

48: Number of passes Matthew Stafford has thrown to the left side of the field in 2013 (per PFF)

In throwing 48 passes outside to the left side of the field (anything outside the left tackle), Stafford has thrown only 16.6 percent of his passes to that area.

More important, Stafford has been really poor when throwing to the left, completing 28 of the 48 passes (58.3 percent) for 229 yards (4.77 YPA). He’s 150-for-242 (62.0 percent) for 1,900 yards (7.85 YPA) when throwing over the middle or to the right. Quite a difference.

Thus, it’s probably in the Cowboys’ best interest to run coverages and blitzes that either force Stafford to move to his left or dictate that he go there with the football.

29.1: Calvin Johnson’s Career Red Zone Touchdown Rate

We don’t need any numbers to know that Calvin Johnson is the game’s best wide receiver, but his career red zone touchdown rate isn’t elite.

Which one of those doesn’t belong? Megatron has converted 29.1 percent of his career red zone targets into scores—well below Dez Bryant’s ridiculous 41.3 percent career mark.

That’s not really a knock on Johnson, though, since we’d expect his numbers to be worse in Detroit. As the Lions’ only worthwhile receiver for years, Johnson has seen a lot of low-quality targets against double-teams. Because the Lions don’t have an abundance of quality red zone options and they rarely utilize tight end Brandon Pettigrew inside the 20, the ‘Boys should really double Johnson on every (and I mean every) red zone play.

See, the numbers just lied again.