Detroit Lions


Detroit for me is a puzzling team, I suspect in part it is because casual fans watching football in Georgia expected Matthew Stafford to mature into a leading NFL quarterback. That he’s become a good quarterback is given, but I guess the hope he would be a modern day Bobby Layne hasn’t left those of us living in the Southeast.

Detroit Lions 2005-2013
Year Team W L T SRS OSRS DSRS MOV SOS
2005 DET 5 11 0 -6.70 -5.75 -0.95 -5.69 -1.01
2006 DET 3 13 0 -6.35 -1.82 -4.53 -5.81 -0.54
2007 DET 7 9 0 -3.55 1.14 -4.69 -6.12 2.57
2008 DET 0 16 0 -13.11 -2.81 -10.30 -15.56 2.45
2009 DET 2 14 0 -14.38 -4.97 -9.41 -14.50 0.12
2010 DET 6 10 0 1.91 0.72 1.19 -0.44 2.35
2011 DET 10 6 0 6.07 8.07 -2.01 5.44 0.63
2012 DET 4 12 0 -2.31 0.59 -2.89 -4.06 1.76
2013 DET 4 3 0 0.75 3.54 -2.79 2.71 -1.96

 

Detroit hosts Dallas this weekend and not at all surprisingly, for two teams fairly closely matched, the three predictive systems yield three different results. Pythagoreans have Dallas and Detroit as essentially even. Simple rankings would suggest that Dallas has a slight edge. Medians suggest the opposite, that Detroit will win by about 5 points.

Odds of Detroit Winning and Predicted Point Spread.
Pythagorean Expectation Simple Ranking System Median Analysis
Pct Points Pct Points Pct Points
0.49 -0.3 0.40 -3.0 0.66 5

 

I’ve spoken a lot about Dana Bible’s 1947 text called Championship Football. It was my Dad’s old book, from his days as a high school player in 1940s Texas. Because football was a lingua franca in middle and high school, once I found it alone on the shelf I devoured it. And I find it surprises me when the average sports writer, or even a coach, doesn’t know what that book knew about formations before the T (1). So we’re going to summarize.

I’ll note that Hickock Sports has a nice summary of these old formations, but be warned, their history of the old defenses is quite broken. The best summary text for pro football defense from 1930 to about 1950 is Steve Owen’s small readable text, My Kind of Football. Paul Zimmerman, the former New York Post and Sports Illustrated writer, is also quite accurate in his accounting of NFL defense history.

Strengths and weaknesses below are taken from Bible’s summary of the formations.

1. Single Wing.

Single wing,  based on diagrams in Dana Bible's book. 6-2 set up as best I can with only diagrams and without video.

Single wing, based on diagrams in Dana Bible’s book. 6-2 set up as best I can with only diagrams and without video.

Notre Dame box, based on diagrams in Dana Bible's book.

Y formation, unbalanced line, based on diagrams in Dana Bible’s book. By mistake I originally called this a Notre Dame box.

This is a power formation, usually with an unbalanced line, and always with an unbalanced backfield. Everyone is on one side of the tailback. This leads to issues in pass protection, and therefore, the single wing was not considered a good downfield passing formation.

Strengths: power running, end runs, short passes, plays to the spinning fullback (spinner series), quick kicks.

Weaknesses: weak side running, unbalanced pass protection, lacks deception.

2. Double Wing.

There were many double wings back in the day. This is one with an unbalanced line, obtained by moving a single wing blocking back to the left wingback position.

There were many double wings back in the day. This is one with an unbalanced line, obtained by moving a single wing blocking back to the left wingback position.

These are formations, balanced or unbalanced, that have two wingbacks, sometimes three. The two inside men can be arrayed as a tailback and fullback, or a tailback and blocking back. Dutch Meyer had one formation where there were twin tailbacks at equal depth to the other.

Strengths: excellent passing formation, attack is balanced, deceptive, can easily quick kick.

Weaknesses: susceptible to crashing defensive ends, running plays are slow to the point of attack, weak as an inside running formation, difficult to master.

3. Short Punt.

Bears shift into a short  punt formation, 3rd quarter, 1956 NFL championship.

Bears shift into a short punt formation, 3rd quarter, 1956 NFL championship. Note they didn’t shift into a single wing.

Short punt, often described as the shotgun of its day. This formation was favored by NFL star Benny Friedman.

Short punt, often described as the shotgun of its day. This formation was favored by NFL star Benny Friedman. Recognition points for coaches: balanced line, backs on both sides of the tailback.

This is a balanced formation with backs on both sides of the tailback. As in the single wing, as many as three backs can take the pass from center.

Strengths: balanced formation, deceptive ball handling, good lateral passing attack, excellent passing formation, ideal for the quick kick.

Weaknesses: lack of flankers make it hard to run off tackle, not strong weak side outside, far better passing formation than running.

4. Long Punt.

Long Punt formation. Similar but not identical to short punt. Backs are tighter to the line to black, ends are more spread, tailback is 10 yards behind line. Based, as all diagrams here are, on Dana Bible's book.

Long Punt formation. Similar but not identical to short punt. Backs are tighter to the line to black, ends are more spread, tailback is 10 yards behind line. Based, as all diagrams here are, on Dana Bible’s book.

Largely when you’re in this formation you are punting. Occasionally, the center might hike it to the fullback and the punt is faked.

A short summary of the history of NFL defenses to 1960.

Before 1933, it’s the seven box and seven diamond that predominate. 1933 leads to a slimmer football and liberalized passing rules. This brings us the 6-2 as the primary defense, and the 5-3 as a passing defense/anti-T defense. In 1940, the success of Clark Shaughnessy inspired Ts brings more and more use of five man lines. The 5-3 is considered the best defense against the T by the middle 1940s. Later 1940s gives us Greasy Neale’s 5-2. Five man lines are the base defense of the NFL by 1950. 5-3 can easily been seen played in video of the 1950 NFL Championship, as Cleveland has been using it as their base defense.

Early fifties tend to 5-2s. NFL championship games featuring Detroit show good examples of 5-2 defenses. In 1956, New York uses the 4-3 throughout the NFL championship. The Chicago Bears show no sign of a 4 man line, and plenty of examples of middle guard play (that ends any claim of Bill George only playing MLB from 1954 on). By 1957, almost everyone plays the 4-3. I don’t recall Cleveland playing it, but I saw Detroit play it plenty in video of the 1957 Championship. At this point, Paul Zimmerman’s recounting of the history appears to be dead on.

Notes.

1. The T formation is actually quite old, so we’re using this statement to mean before the Clark Shaughnessy inspired T formations that began to take over football in 1940.

Bibliography.

Bible, Dana X., Championship Football, Prentice-Hall, New York, 1947.

Lamb, Keith, The Evolution of Strategy, in Total Football II: The Official Encyclopedia of the National Football League, Carroll, Bob, Gershman, Michael, Neft, David, and Thorn, John, editors, Total Sports Inc, 1999.

Owen, Steve, My kind of football;, David McKay, 1952.

Zimmerman, Paul, New Thinking Man’s Guide to Professional Football, Harper Collins, 1984.

An early 4-3 from the 1956 game between the Rams and the Bears. The Bears tie the game at 7-7 on this play.

LA Rams in an early 4-3. Note the flexed defensive tackles.

LA Rams in an early 4-3. Note the flexed defensive tackles.

Though Zimmerman suggests extensive widespread adoption of the 4-3 in 1957 after the Giants championship, perhaps some clubs were jumping on the bandwagon a little earlier than that. The flexing of tackles, similar to Tom’s Landry’s 4-3 inside, may have been borrowing via film study. Sid Gillman was a well known film junkie during his days with the Rams (1).

We’ll continue with three interesting quotes from Paul Brown’s 1979 autobiography (2).

The first quote covers the 5-2 Eagle..

Neale had built a fine, wing T running attack around Van Buren, the NFL’s rushing champion, who had gained nearly 3,000 yards in three seasons. He had also designed the Eagle Defense, a concept that had become very popular in the NFL. It was built with a tight five man line, two linebackers to jam the ends as they tried to release downfield, and four defensive backs, which was innovative in pro football at the time.

The thing to note is the role of the two linebackers. So, in comparison to Eagle defenses today, very often you’re going to find linebackers in Earle Neale’s defense playing a 6 or 7 technique, instead of a 50 (See the image in my previous 1950s article).

Next, Steve Owen’s 6-1.

…we noticed that if we kept our two setbacks in to block when their ends came on a pass rush, their only linebacker, Jack Cannady, could not effectively cover the short passes. Conversely, if their ends did not come in on a pass rush, we could release our two backs into the short areas away from their coverage. The key in either case was to throw short and not to try and challenge them with our deep passes.

And of Tom Landry’s defenses circa 1958.

New York, under its defense coach, Tom Landry, had built its great defense utilizing the same “flex” concept Landry still uses with the Dallas Cowboys. Its key is the great discipline it exacts from each lineman and outside linebacker. They must control and stay with a defined area – whether or not the play comes to them – long enough for the middle linebacker and defensive backs to give support making the tackles

I’ll note that Paul Brown is assuming that the “flex” concept is identical to gap control, a common element in all the major Landry defenses. We discuss the differences between Tom’s New York defenses, the 4-3 inside/outside, and his later 4-3 flex, here.

I’ve read big chunks of the two Sam Huff autobiographies out there. The later book, “Controlled Violence”, affirms that the 4-3 inside and 4-3 outside were in place by 1956, though in this book Sam suggests that he convinced Landry to have the defensive tackles make sure he was protected (3).

At first, he wanted me to play off the center and then pursue, but that caused me to get caught up in traffic, and wouldn’t allow me to make the tackle. I came up with an idea, and asked Landry to try it out.
“Why don’t you let Mo and Rosey Grier take care of the middle and let me go with the flow of the backfield?”
Tom liked the idea and put them both in a four-point stance. Neither one of them was happy about the move, but it worked.

He also suggests that Tom was in on the ground floor of the keying defense.

In the old days, a team would line up in the 4-3 and focus solely on the ball. The genius of Tom Landry changed that. He told us to watch the way the backs lined up and to watch which side of the field the tight end and flanker were lined up. These became the keys to what the offense would do once the ball was snapped.

I’m not certain how quickly knowledge of Tom’s keying practices became widespread. But even in 1964, Huff’s understanding of the 4-3 inside and 4-3 outside made him valuable when traded to the Redskins, and his coach was having him teach the defense to his peers.

Detroit and their adoption of the 4-3.

Detroit in a 4-3,  1957 Championship game. Note DTs in a 3 technique, unlike the New York Giant's 2 technique.

Detroit in a 4-3, 1957 Championship game.

Joe Schmidt says (4)

The New York Giants were the first ones to play the 4-3 defense.

The Lions are supposed to have taken up the 4-3 in 1955 (5), and the best description of why comes from Rand

Though coaches realized the 5-2 left a hole in the middle, that posed no problem as long as the strong-side linebacker jammed the tight end.

“Then they started pulling the tight end off the line of scrimmage and using a slot situation,” Schmidt recalled. “I’d just pound the tight end — then you were allowed to do that. As a result, they pulled him off the line to give him more freedom so he could escape and get into the pattern more.  What happened then is they started pulling me back once in a while and we’d go into a 4-3. It evolved from necessity.”

So how could the Lions have  followed the Giants if they adopted the 4-3 in 1955? The forward to Sam Huff’s first biography, written by one Tom Landry, provides clues (6).

Middle linebacker was a new position in pro football in the 1950s. I had been developing the “4-3″ defense for the Giants in those couple of years before Sam’s arrival.

Sam Huff was drafted in 1956. A couple years before that would be 1953 or 1954. So, if Detroit saw film of the Giants in 1954 playing a 4-3, perhaps that spurred their adoption as well.

~~~

Notes and References

(1) Katzowitz, Chapter 8.

(2) The three Brown quotes are from Brown and Clary, Chapter 9 page 197, Chapter 10, p 218, and Chapter 11, p 253.

(3) both quotes from Huff, Clark and Gifford, Chapter 2.

(4) D’Annunzio, Chapter 15, page 152. I’d love to give more of this quote but it is relatively incoherent.  I think what Schmidt is trying to say is that Detroit was using a 6-1 from the day he arrived. Schmidt  then notes that he had played middle linebacker in high school and college. Further, the quote would suggest that the 6-1 experience made the switch to 4-3 middle linebacker relatively easy.

(5) D’Annunzio, Chapter 4, page 51 and Rand, Chapter 4, page 36. If Detroit thinks they adopted the 4-3 in 1955, what to make of the Brown’s claim that Detroit was playing a 4-3 in 1952? Perhaps the Lions thought they were playing a 6-1 at the time.

(6) Huff and Shapiro, page ii.

Bibliography

Brown, Paul and Clary, Andy, PB: The Paul Brown Story, Atheneum, New York, 1979.

D’Annunzio, John A When the Lions Roared: The Story of The Detroit Lions 1957 NFL Championship Season, CreateSpace Publishing, 2011.

Huff, Sam and Shapiro, Leonard, Tough Stuff, Saint Martin’s Press, New York, 1988.

Huff, Sam, Clark, Kristine Setting, and Gifford, Frank Controlled Violence: On the Field and In the Booth, Triumph Books, 2011 [ebook]

Katzowitz, Josh, Sid Gillman: Father of the Passing Game, Clerisy Press, 2012 [ebook]

Piascik, Andy, The Best Show in Football: The 1946-1955 Cleveland Browns – Pro Football’s Greatest Dynasty, Taylor Trade Publishing, 2006 [ebook]

Zimmerman, Paul, New Thinking Man’s Guide to Professional Football, Harper Collins, 1984.

Rand, Jonathan Riddell Presents: The Gridiron’s Greatest Linebackers, Sports Publishing, 2003.

In 1947, defensive theory in football had not yet advanced to the level of offensive theory. I’m saying this because the focus of defensive line play was gladitorial in nature: you would beat the man in front of you, pursue the ball carrier and tackle, preferably with the best form possible. Adjustments were rare. People had to accommodate man in motion but that was about it. The notion of a defensive key isn’t even talked about (1).

In the late 1940s to mid 1950s, defensive linemen were somewhat interchangable, and there were no specific guidelines for the sizes of defensive tackles, defensive ends, or middle guards. The roles of these linemen weren’t as detailed and specific as they are in modern days. There were big powerful immobile linemen, and smaller, faster, more nimble linemen. And though people like to think of linemen falling back into zones as a modern invention, the tactic was used in Steve Owen’s 6-1 Umbrella, and sees time in the pages of Dana Bible’s book:

Linemen falling back and into coverage was a common tactic in 1947.

Linemen falling back and into coverage was a common tactic in 1947.

The idea, therefore, of a middle guard falling back into coverage wouldn’t have caused anyone in 1947 to blink an eye. So when you have a middle guard with sprinter’s speed, a guy like Bill Willis,

Cleveland Browns all pro middle guard Bill Willis (1946-1952). As big as the centers of his time with sprinter's speed.

Cleveland Browns all pro middle guard Bill Willis (1946-1952). As big as the centers of his time with sprinter’s speed (2).

the idea that he should be a part of coverage would have been expected. Good linemen would fall back from the line and into coverage when the situation demanded. Linemen rushed yes, but behaved more like modern linebackers when they had to.

“He often played as a middle or noseguard on our five-man defensive line, but we began dropping him off the line of scrimmage a yard because his great speed and pursuit carried him to the point of attack before anyone would block him” (3)

So why is this important? It’s important because the dominant defensive front from 1950 or so through 1955 is a five man front, often a 5-2 Eagle. An example comes from this screen shot of video of the 1953 NFL championship

defensive_front_1953_NFL_championship

when diagrammed, would look something like this:

Typical five man front from early 1950s NFL football.

Typical five man front from early 1950s NFL football.

And therefore, the appearance of 4-3 fronts, as a product of a middle guard digging into the “bag of tricks” a lineman was supposed to know, should have been expected. 4-3s would have appeared as a poor man’s prevent defense, or as a response to specific game events, like quarterbacks throwing the ball just over the head of Chicago’s middle guard, Bill George.

…in a game against the Philadelphia Eagles, George made a now historic move that permanently changed defensive strategy in the National Football League.

On passing plays, George’s job was to bump the center and then drop back. George, noting the Eagles success at completing short passes just over his head, decided to skip the center bump and drop back immediately. Two plays later he caught the first of his 18 pro interceptions. While no one can swear which middle guard in a five-man line first dropped back to play middle linebacker and create the classic 4-3 defense, George is the most popular choice.

This game dates to 1954. Andy Piascik’s book claims that in the regular season game between the Detroit Lions and Cleveland Browns in 1952, the Lions employed a 4-3 (4). I’d suggest though, in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, that these 4-3s fall into the form of an adjustment to the 5-2, as opposed to an integral coordinated defensive system.

The deal is, by 1956, Tom Landry, as the defensive coordinator of the New York Giants, has a 4-3 that isn’t anyone’s adjustment to something else. It’s a full blown base defense, a creation of his own hard work and imagination. It’s a largely 1 gap, keying defense, with distinct assignments to the linemen. Linemen have to fill gaps and keep the offensive line from getting to the middle linebacker. The middle linebacker roams, tackles, covers his two gaps. The initial Landry defenses have been lavishly detailed in the two volume text “Vince Lombardi on Football“, because these were the defenses Vince took with him to Green Bay.

And while what video I can watch in the period from 1948 to 1955 has yet to yield a single 4-3, the Giants live in it in the 1956 Championship game, and after some initial five man line in the 1957 Championship game, Detroit soon switches to a 4-3 and stays in it.

All this lends credence to the words of Paul Zimmerman (5)

Here and there the 4-3 popped up around the league. The Eagles got into a form of it when they had their middle guard, Bucko Kilroy, stand up, though at 258 pounds he hardly had true middle-linebacker responsibilities. The Redskins tried it, lifting middle guard Ron Marcinak and substituting a linebacker, Charley Drazenovich.

Landry graduated from player to player-coach to defensive coach under Jim Lee Howell. Vince Lombardi ran the offense. In 1956 the Giants drafted a tackle from West Virginia, Robert Lee Huff, nicknamed Sam, who had been born to play middle linebacker in the 4-3, and that became the Giant’s official standard defense. By 1957 everyone was in it.

So the real question is, how much of this 4-3 defensive system was prior art? Not the positions, mind you, but the components. The keys, the coordination, the pieces? I think the minimum you need to make such a defense are these three elements.

1. Film study. Without it you can’t really predict trends.
2. Two platoon football. Otherwise, you’re teaching one player offense 80% of the time.
3. A modern coaching staff, with full time assistants.

It’s very clear that Paul Brown’s staff with the Cleveland Browns has these three elements in the 1950s, but I don’t see signs that they were unusually innovative on defense. Instead, what you see are things like references to three man single safety backfields (6), and signs that they were working within the status quo of the times.

One resource I’d love to get my hands on is the writings of the former Cleveland Browns linebacker, Hal Herring (7). He played for the Browns for three years, starting in 1950. Later, he wrote a dissertation that was titled “Defensive Tactics and Techniques in Professional Football.” I’m not close enough to a research library to know if it can easily be obtained, but back in the day when I was writing my own dissertation, we had to make dissertations available to just about anyone who wanted a copy.

Update: correction on the Bill George date.

~~~

Notes and References

(1) Keys and tells are different beasts. A tell is Dan Fouts giving away run or pass in 1979 with his feet placement. An example of a key is a person whose actions tell you where to go and what role to play when you do. Tells have been part of football forever, akin to stealing signs. Keys are elements of the game that have to be built into the defense and coached.

(2) Image from Special Collections, Cleveland State University Library.

(3) Paul Brown, quoted by Goldstein.

(4) Piascik, Chapter 11. The exact quote is:

“I think the 4-3 defense originated with him [Parker] and his coaches,” Dub Jones said of the Detroit team that so stifled Cleveland in that first ever meeting between the two teams. “They threw that in our face in ’52 and it was tough for us to cope with, having not faced it.”

(5) Zimmerman, Chapter 6.

(6) Brown and Clary, p 220, has this interesting blurb regarding the 1951 NFL championship:

For several years, our secondary had never declared a strong side of our opponent’s offensive formation until it saw which direction the fullback was going, and though we had gotten by with this strategy, it put a great burden on Cliff Lewis, the middle safety in our three-man secondary.

(7) Piascik, Chapter 8.

Bibliography

Bible, Dana X, “Championship Football”, Prentice-Hall, New York, 1947.

Brown, Paul and Clary, Andy, PB: The Paul Brown Story, Atheneum, New York, 1979.

Goldstein, Richard, “Bill Willis, 86, Racial Pioneer in Pro Football, Dies”, New York Times, Nov. 29, 2007, accessed Jun 7, 2013.

Piascik, Andy, The Best Show in Football: The 1946-1955 Cleveland Browns – Pro Football’s Greatest Dynasty [ebook]

Zimmerman, Paul, New Thinking Man’s Guide to Professional Football, Harper Collins, 1984.

Much as in the previous series, we’re going to analyze the playoff prospects of New Orleans and Detroit. We’re also going to post the code (very hacky) that I’ve been using to study playoff teams. The code (2 pics required) is as follows:

Now one thing about this code, because it’s using Getopts::Long, numbers have to be positive or else this code will think that the number is an option. The simple fix is to find  the value of the most negative SOS and add a positive number equal in magnitude to both SOSs. As the only important  value is the difference, this is a valid form of data entry.

Ok, the significant factors, plus Pythagoreans:

Detroit: No playoff exp, Away, SOS = 0.63, Pythagorean 62.9%

New Orleans: Won Super Bowl 2 years ago, Home, SOS = -1.60, Pythagorean 77.7%

Because NO’s SOS is negative, just let it equal zero and add 1.60 to the SOS of Detroit, yielding 2.23. That’s the info you would pump into the calculator above. And it gives you the  following results:

New Orlean’s advantage due to playoff experience alone give NO a 68% chance of winning.

Adding in home field advantage give New Orleans a 76% chance of winning.

Adding in strength of schedule reduces New Orleans chances to 69%. New Orleans is heavily  favored.

By comparison, after all is said and done, had Atlanta been slotted into this game, the playoff calculator gives Atlanta a 51% chance of winning. Atlanta has a slightly better SOS than Detroit, and it also has recent playoff experience.

Given how powerful the New Orleans offense is, should Atlanta have sought out a team with a weaker offense, such as New York? That’s one of the counterintuitive points of my previous playoff analysis. Offensive metrics tend to yield a p of 0.15, not 0.05. They’re suggestive, not etched in stone advantages. New Orleans’ powerful offense may come into  play, but then again, it may not.

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