Matthew Stafford takes some shots but learns a lot as Lions’ rust wears off

Detroit News

Matthew Stafford’s first pass in nearly 11 months won’t make any highlight reels.

Falling backward to avoid the pressure of the pass rush — the result of one of his blockers losing his footing — the Detroit Lions quarterback still managed to fire a reasonably accurate dart to Quintez Cephus, running a shallow crossing pattern on third down. 

But the rookie receiver wasn’t ready, a quick reminder of the connection’s underdeveloped chemistry, resulting in an incompletion and a punt. 

Stafford would have two more incompletions against Chicago before finally connecting on a similar crossing pattern with Cephus for 20 yards into the red zone. Stafford would go on to finish the first half a respectable 11-19 for 166 yards, but acknowledged it took him a minute to get back into the flow of things after spending the second half of last season on injured reserve and not having the preseason to re-calibrate ahead of the opener. 

“Each game’s kind of different, but I felt like it took a little too long for me to settle into this one,” Stafford said earlier this week. “I wasn’t efficient enough early, and I don’t know whether that’s because I hadn’t played in a game (in a while), or just didn’t get into the flow. Either way, just trying to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Just trying to get going as fast as we possibly can, and we’re not going three-and-out early and keeping our defense off the field.”

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Quarterback coach coach Sean Ryan saw the same thing, and noted Stafford told him at halftime that it took him a minute to get comfortable again, but Ryan was pleased with the overall performance.

“I thought he did some very, very good things in that game, some things that we’re going to build on, that we have built on this week,” Ryan said Friday. “And like I said, no one is going to work harder than that dude. Nobody. That’s just the way it is. I think as we move on, as it should be, comfort level will be better this week at the beginning of the game than it was last week.”

What troubled Ryan the most were the glaring mistakes in crunch time. Stafford made a pair of critical errors that ended up playing a significant role in the outcome, a 27-23 loss. He took a sack outside the pocket when he could have thrown the ball away, temporarily driving the Lions out of field-goal range and leaving them to settle for a 55-yard attempt they ultimately missed.

Then, on the ensuing possession, Stafford forced a throw into traffic that was intercepted. Shortly after, the Bears scored the winning touchdown, capping a 17-point, fourth-quarter comeback. 

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Ryan, who is in his second year with the Lions, said reviewing mistakes with Stafford is a seamless process because of the quarterback’s self-awareness. 

“We watch the tape from a football standpoint,” Ryan said. “He knows right away that you can’t take that sack in that situation. The throw, he’s trying to get it in there versus a coverage that’s going to be a very, very tight throw at that point in the game. Probably not a good decision. You’re just honest about it. You just go after it with him. You don’t do it at him, you do it with him. He’s a guy that’s played long enough, he knows the mistake he made, he knows at what juncture of the game that it was. You talk about it and the goal is we try not to repeat mistakes in our room.”

The other big concern with Stafford was how he’d hold up physically. And while he was only sacked once, he did absorb a few big hits on scrambles, as well as the decision to keep it on a read-option play. 

And while many observers might have winced empathetically after each blow, Ryan never worried. 

“I don’t worry about him in that way because I know he’s going to do smart things to protect himself and put the team in the best position to win,” Ryan said. “As it went on, nobody wants to see a quarterback that they coach take shots. But I feed off of him, to be honest with you. I don’t focus on it because he doesn’t focus on it. He’s going to make smart football decisions. But it’s not something he’s constantly thinking about, ‘Do I feel this way? Do I feel that way?’ He’s going out, he’s competing, he’s trying to win and I feed off of that.”

For what it’s worth, Stafford emphatically declared his back was “good” this week. 

As for the miscommunication with Cephus, both on that first throw and later in the game, as well as a few other breakdowns, Ryan is confident those will work themselves out too, offering an inside look on how the team builds chemistry. 

“I think anytime you’re introducing somebody into the lineup that hasn’t played — doesn’t matter if they’re a free agent, rookie — there’s always going to be some adjustment to those guys getting on the same page,” Ryan said. “That’s why we practice. It’s constant dialogue between those guys.

“Constant dialogue, whether it’s on the field right after a play, in between the series of the plays where we go up to the video boards and we’re watching it, constant dialogue, player to player, coach to player, coach to coach,” Ryan continued. “Then it carries over into the meeting room and it’s off the film, it’s reiteration and you may say thing again tomorrow and the day after and that’s how you grow chemistry. There’s no way around it and you hope it comes quickly, but it’s work and it’s communication and that’s really what we focus on with those guys. We give the players a lot of chances to talk to each other, talk things out. And those are the best meetings, when everybody is communicating, coaches and players, that’s when stuff gets done.”

Stafford will look to get his and Detroit’s season on track this Sunday when the team travels to Green Bay to play the Packers. 

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