Any Given Sunday
The weekend's biggest upset goes under the Football Outsiders lens.

Any Given Sunday: Lions Over Saints

Any Given Sunday: Lions Over Saints
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Rivers McCown

A lot of the analysis of Detroit this year seems to boil down to Matt Stafford's MVP candidacy, and to be fair, the quarterback has not made a ton of mistakes in Jim Bob Cooter's offense. He's also played well in the clutch.

But football is a sport of runs driven by attrition. A unit is good or bad, until it's not. In that spirit, I think you'll find the reason for the Detroit Lions coming to New Orleans and holding the Saints to 13 points.

On a seasonal level, the Lions had been the second-worst defense in the NFL through Week 12, at 18.4% DVOA. However, if we split the numbers like so, you'll see that there are really two different Lions defenses this year:

2016 Detroit Defensive DVOA by Week

Pass D Run D Total D
Weeks 1-6 54.4% -0.3% 32.1%
Weeks 7-12 9.4% -4.3% 2.8%

So let's look at that a little more deeply. What changed from the Lions in Week 6 to Week 7? Kyle Van Noy went from starter to platoon player to being traded to the Patriots. Another big difference has been the absence of star edge-rusher Ezekiel Ansah, who left Week 2 against the Titans with a high ankle sprain and didn't return until Week 6. Ansah has zero sacks this year, and had to be eased back into the rotation in his return against the Rams. However, he did have 11 hurries through Week 12, the most on Detroit despite missing time.

The Lions have gradually ramped up Ansah's playing time, and having him on the edge allows them to have a nice passing down rush unit between Ansah, SACKSEER favorite Devin Taylor, and FO midseason top prospect Kerry Hyder.

But a lot of the improvement has come against poor offensive teams, which is why the Lions defense hadn't gotten much attention for it. Shutting down Brock Osweiler, Blake Bortles, and Sam Bradford behind a terrible line twice is not the sort of thing for which they build statues.

And thus, why the Lions and Saints had the highest projected scoring total this week. What happened? The Detroit defensive improvement was a little more real than we had given it credit for. The run defense, which has been decent all year, held New Orleans' fifth-ranked DVOA rushing offense to 50 yards on 12 carries. Drew Brees ran into a secondary with a true star in cornerback Darius Slay. And while the Detroit pass defense didn't rush him into many throws, they did find three interceptions.

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That, mixed with the same ol', same ol' bad Saints defense that has been around forever, was enough to open up a whopping lead for the Lions despite the fact they could notch just one touchdown all day. The Saints had only one drive start beyond their own 25, and while they were able to generate plenty of yardage, those interceptions had a pesky habit of ending drives against a slow-down Detroit offense aiming to drain clock.

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By the VOA

DET 6.1% -10.8% 3.3% 20.2%
NO -15.4% 20.3% 2.7% -33.0%
DET 12.6% 10.8% 3.3% 5.1%
NO 1.8% 23.3% 2.7% -18.9%

Based on DVOA, this was the Lions' best game since their Week 1 win over Indianapolis. (It was the top game until Indy's Monday night blowout moved the opponent adjustments.) Winning close and ugly just doesn't excite the DVOA system.

New Orleans and the Four-Point Plays

As we often do in games that look like they could be somewhat close, let's look at where New Orleans petered out and had to settle for field goals.

After a huge 22-yard gain by Mark Ingram when he hit the edge, the Saints set themselves up at the 20, but quickly were called for offensive holding. (Boy, does this seem to occur a lot in these pieces.) On first-and-20, Brees had to dump off to Tim Hightower after his first few reads were covered. On second-and-16, he threw a pass to Ingram breaking towards the sideline from the start, picking up 3 more yards. Then, third down:

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Wide receiver screen, and A'Shawn Robinson reads it from the end, and is able to hook around to stop it early. I suppose if any team can get away with a screen in this situation, it's New Orleans. But that's still kind of a wimpy play call.

Later in the second quarter, the Saints got the ball on their own 11 with 50 seconds to play. A pressure was negated after Hyder was called for roughing Drew Brees due to contact to the helmet. On the next play, another screen was wiped out. On third-and-6, Brees found Brandin Cooks downfield for 39 yards, dropping it right over a safety. But time was running out, and while New Orleans found their way inside, the 20, the only play they ran was this:

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Decent pass, arguably tipped a little bit by Rafael Bush. And ... Coby Fleener dropped it. Ask any Colts fan you know if they have a favorite Coby Fleener dropped pass and you'll have a top-10 list. So, not ultimately surprising, but the Saints also couldn't find a way to make his tools play up to their potential.

Unfortunately, the Saints made it inside the Detroit 20 four times in 23:08 of possession time, and came away with a touchdown, two field goals, and a pressured Hail Mary interception. That's the recipe for an upset of a great offense if I've ever heard one.


5 comments, Last at 06 Dec 2016, 6:24pm

1 Re: Any Given Sunday: Lions Over Saints

I'm glad to see that DVOA confirms what my eyes have been telling me: that the Detroit defense has played much better since getting lit up by the immortal Case Keenum in week 6. Perhaps it has been out of out of sheer embarrassment? I guess sometimes you have to hit rock bottom before you realize you have a problem.

4 Re: Any Given Sunday: Lions Over Saints


On the 3d and 13 play featured in the video above, the defensive line consists of DT Haloti Ngata [No. 92] and 3 DEs--Kerry Hyder [No. 61], Armonty Bryant [No. 97], and Ziggy Ansah [No. 94]. DT A'Shawn Robinson [No. 91] isn't on the field for that particular play).

Hyder is rushing from an interior line position and sniffing out the screen to RB Mark Ingram, while Ansah cleans up after Hyder initial slows him down.

5 Re: Any Given Sunday: Lions Over Saints

Bringing back linebacker Josh Bynes at week 8 for Van Noy really helped elevate the Lions defense BUT another major reason for the big improvement has come from the Lions new "3rd down defensive package" that they supposedly installed during their bye week as they put rookie Miles Killebrew in the role of a 'hybrid safety-linebacker' that many teams are going to nowadays.

Since making that move the Lions defense has went from being ranked in the bottom two teams in the NFL on highest percentage of opponent's 3rd downs converted to being in the top 5 lowest percentage.