Finding a culprit for Matthew Stafford’s rough stretch with Detroit Lions

Detroit Free Press

Dave Birkett
| Detroit Free Press

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In the aftermath of last week’s loss to the New Orleans Saints, I thought Matthew Stafford played one of his worst games of the Matt Patricia era.

Stafford completed just 17 of 31 passes for 206 yards, threw one interception and had another nullified by penalty, and he seemed to miss several open receivers during the Detroit Lions’ desperate, and ultimately futile, comeback attempt.

[ Tracing the Lions’ mistakes that brought them to brink of another witching hour ]

Stafford has not played at the same level through the first four games of this season that he played at through eight games last year, before a back injury ended his season. That has caused some to wonder whether his back is still an issue — he has said it’s fine — and others to notice the frustration he seems to be playing with at times, and wonder whether the root of that will lead to another lost season in what has been the story of his career.

“It’s an emotional game, passionate game,” Stafford said Sunday. “I’m trying to make sure that I’m out there doing my best every single time and there’s times, probably if you see frustration, it’s probably for myself. Just wish I could’ve been better today to help us win.”

Stafford was not great Sunday, and he certainly contributed to the struggles that saw the Lions go 35 game minutes while barely threatening to score.

[ Lions safety defends coaches: ‘We’re the ones getting paid millions’ ]

But after rewatching every offensive snap on the all-22 film, Stafford’s struggles were a bit overblown, and the Lions’ offensive issues seem to be much more of a team-wide phenomenon.

Of Stafford’s 14 incompletions, I would classify two as drops (by Kenny Golladay and Adrian Peterson), two as good pass breakups by defensive players, two came when his receivers lost footing on their routes, one was a clear throwaway to the sideline, another came when his receiver failed to track the ball and one more came when the ball slipped out of his hand, though he would have been sacked had he held onto the ball.

Stafford missed several throws Sunday, both on his remaining five incompletions and on one ball that was caught. And a good deal of his passing yards — 81 of them — came on the Lions’ only two chunk plays of the game, neither of which had any business falling into that category.

[ NFL power rankings: Lions not as bad as these 7 teams ]

The good

As you’d expect from a 12-year veteran, Stafford did a good job with his reads Sunday and mostly avoided forcing throws into impossible coverage, like he did on the interception he threw in Week 1 against the Chicago Bears. The only forced throw I saw came late in the game, with the Lions down two scores and in desperation mode. 

On first-and-10 from the Saints 19, Stafford tried to squeeze a ball to Golladay that had little chance of being caught. Marcus Williams intercepted the pass, but the turnover was nullified by an illegal contact penalty on Alex Anzalone that had nothing to do with the play.

Stafford’s solid decision making showed up elsewhere, including in the running game, which the Lions struggled to get going against the Saints. He kept the ball on a zone-read play in the first quarter, and while the play netted just 1 yard, Stafford made the right read as Cameron Jordan bit hard on a play fake to running back D’Andre Swift.

Williams, who split wide to the left of the defense over top of two Lions receivers, ultimately foiled the play as he stayed inside a Marvin Jones block to play the run. Stafford, as he sprinted to his right, thought about flicking a quick bubble screen to Jamal Agnew, but rightly tucked the ball and ran as Patrick Robinson had outside leverage on Jones’ block and a pick-six on his mind.

One play later, on third-and-7, offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell dialed up the perfect play, with Danny Amendola and Golladay running layered out-routes to the wide side of the field. With no help on Golladay, Stafford recognized the mismatch and threw his second touchdown of the game.

Stafford has done a good job manipulating defenses with his eyes throughout his career, and I saw examples of that Sunday, even though his primary read often struggled to get open. Needing a conversion on fourth-and-11 with 5:06 left in the fourth quarter, Stafford looked hard to his right to hold safety D.J. Swearinger in the middle of the field, knowing he had Golladay one-on-one to his left on a 14-yard square-in.

Stafford completed the pass, and the Lions scored five plays later — after his near-pick — to cut their deficit to six points.

[ Matt Patricia offers puzzling explanation for ‘a lot of work to do’ comment ]

The bad

A couple missed throws stood out Sunday, and they simply are plays the Lions, with a subpar defense and inconsistent running game, cannot afford from Stafford.

In the second quarter, Stafford threw his third interception of the year when he underthrew tight end T.J. Hockenson in the front right corner of the end zone. The play, however, was designed to get Golladay in one-on-one coverage on the opposite side of the field. 

On first-and-10 from the New Orleans 11, Golladay lined up slot left in a stack with Amendola. The Saints cornerback covering Golladay took away Golladay’s preferred outside release, and with safety help inside of his No. 1 receiver, Stafford scrambled right and lofted the ball Hockenson’s way.

How did we get here? Tracing the mistakes that brought the Lions to brink of another witching hour

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Not only did Stafford make a bad pass on the play, not putting enough air under his throw, he also left the pocket prematurely, allowing Jordan to give chase. 

Three plays earlier, Stafford, known to have one of the strongest arms in the league, left another throw short while scrambling to his right. On first-and-10 from the 25, with the game tied at 14, Bevell called for a play-action bootleg.

The Lions flooded that side of the field with their only three receivers out on the play — Jones, Jesse James and Quintez Cephus; for some reason, Golladay was nowhere to be found — and the Saints, who showed little respect for the Lions’ play-action game, had five defensive backs in coverage.

Both Jones and James turned their routes upfield, and both had one or more steps on their defenders. Stafford has made this throw countless times in past seasons for big gains, and while James ultimately came down with a 31-yard catch, Stafford’s throw traveled just 33 yards in the air and James had to come back and climb over top of Malcolm Jenkins for the catch.

With a better throw on either of those two plays, the Lions take a 21-14 lead.

Stafford missed one other sure touchdown Sunday because of an underthrown pass. On the first play of the Lions’ fourth-quarter touchdown drive, Bevell called a shot at the end zone and the Lions got the coverage they were looking for.

Stafford play-faked a handoff to Peterson, Hockenson ran an intermediate crossing route to occupy Williams, and Jones and Marvin Hall ran complementary deep routes against three Saints defenders. Jenkins pinched down from the deep safety spot on Jones, and Hall had an easy 5 yards on cornerback P.J. Williams.

I’m not entirely sure whether Stafford was throwing to Jones or Hall, and it’s possible Hall could have ran a crisper route. But Hall was wide open for a touchdown, and if Stafford hits him with 8 minutes to play, the Lions’ comeback all of a sudden feels more real.

Final analysis

Stafford insisted after the game that he feels like himself, and said he just “missed some chances and wish I had them back, I guess.”

Those three throws in particular were killers, and ones Stafford usually makes. But there’s plenty of blame to go around, not just for Sunday’s loss but for the team’s 1-3 start.

The Lions struggled to get their receivers open a good deal of Sunday; twice receivers ran into each other, disrupting the timing of their routes. They got minimal contributions from their running game. And defensively, the Lions were a pushover for New Orleans’ high-powered offense, leaving Stafford and Co. playing from a sizable hole much of the game.

With a bye week ahead, both Stafford and the Lions have plenty to fix.

“Obviously, we haven’t hit some of the bigger plays down the field that we did last year,” Stafford said. “But by no means am I feeling any different than I was, I just got to go out there and hit them and we got to make them as a team and help us put points on the board.”

Contact Dave Birkett at Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett. 

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