Detroit Lions film review: Inside Matthew Stafford’s game-winning drive vs. Washington

Detroit Free Press

Dave Birkett
| Detroit Free Press

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Matthew Stafford has a long track record of leading miracle comebacks and game-winning drives, but few have resembled the one he directed Sunday: Tie game, 16 seconds on the clock, three timeouts and needing 35 yards or so to have a chance at a winning field goal.

Given the time left, the Detroit Lions had enough for three or four plays, depending on how they approached the drive.

Stafford said he and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell talked about how to approach the drive on the sideline before the series, when Washington was driving for its tying field goal.

Playing a good defense with a fierce pass rush, Stafford said Monday on the Mitch Albom Show on WJR-AM (760) that his first goal was “make sure we don’t make a catastrophic mistake.”

“They’ve got great pass rushers,” Stafford said. “So the thought was to try to just get the drive started and see what could happen, not hold the ball and hope for a 50-yard completion there on the first play and have them sack and who knows, maybe it’s a fumble and then they’re taking a field goal to win the game. So for sure end with the football.”

The Lions’ biggest play on the drive turned out to be a penalty, after it looked for a second like they might win on a walk-off bomb of a touchdown pass, only to have that throw fall incomplete.

In this week’s Lions film review, I put the three-play, 34-yard possession under the microscope to see how Stafford led the 37th winning drive of his career, tied with Eli Manning for the 10th most in NFL history.

First-and-10 at the Lions 25

The Lions started their drive with three wide receivers — Marvin Jones, Marvin Hall and Quintez Cephus — plus tight end T.J. Hockenson and running back D’Andre Swift, lined up in an empty backfield set with Swift and Cephus to the left of the formation.

With Washington dropping seven defenders into a deep zone coverage, the Lions gave Stafford five options to get the ball out quickly. Stafford shuffled backward a step after taking the snap and zipped a pass to Cephus, who probably should have saved time by diving to the ground.

Instead, Cephus tried to stutter-step past two Washington defenders, and was fortunate officials put 3 seconds back on the game clock after blowing the play dead. Those 3 seconds would be crucial to keeping a field goal in play later in the drive.

“That was a unique (drive) because we were tied,” Stafford said in his regular Monday appearance on WJBK-Fox 2. “It was one of those where, early in that drive, I didn’t want to hold the ball cause they’ve got a great front and if we sack-fumble right there and they kick a game-winning field goal, we’re all down in the dumps. So it’s trying to be aggressive when we could, but be smart as well, and I thought Bev did a great job of giving me some plays.”

First-and-10 at the Lions 35

With a little more room to operate and 12 seconds on the clock — looking at replays of when the previous play was blown dead, there should have been 10 or 11 seconds to play — Bevell dialed up a deep shot knowing he likely had two plays and would be hard-pressed to gain the 25 or so yards the Lions needed over the middle.

This time, the Lions lined up with three receivers bunched to the left of the formation, Hockenson inline to the right at tight end and Swift in the backfield for pass protection to afford Stafford the time he needed to sling the ball downfield.

Hall, who’s normally the Lions’ deep threat, and Jones ran layered routes toward the Lions sideline about 5 and 18 yards downfield, respectively. Cephus appeared to angle his route toward the sideline some 30 yards downfield, near the Lions’ 35-yard line, but should have adjusted to a go route on the play.

Washington dropped three defensive backs into deep zone coverage, but cornerback Kendall Fuller, the deepest man on the far left of the field, stayed over top of Jones to take away a play that would have put the Lions in field goal range. Safety Troy Apke, Washington’s deep middle defender, turned his back on Cephus as Cephus veered toward a corner route, leaving him vulnerable to the deep pass.

Cephus could not track the ball in the air. If he had, the Lions would have won the game on a 65-yard touchdown pass.

“Obviously, anytime you put the ball up 60, 65 yards down the field, the probability of hitting it isn’t always 100%,” Stafford said on The Mitch Albom Show. “But I threw it at probably just a different angle than he took coming out of his break. He tried to adjust late and couldn’t get there, but yeah, I think with more experience, have more years under his belt and our collective belt together just to go out there and play and get that would have been a huge play for us. But either way got the win and that’s what’s important.”

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Moments after Stafford unleashed his pass to Cephus, rookie defensive end Chase Young shoved Stafford to the ground. Officials flagged Young for roughing the passer, and with a free 15 yards, the Lions were suddenly on the brink of field goal range.

“I for sure was not expecting to get hit,” Stafford said on WJR. “I threw it, was watching the ball and was just kind of standing there and got hit pretty good there late. I thought it was an appropriate call. It was definitely late and I was not expecting it. So it was nice for us.”

First-and-10 at the 50

With the ball at midfield and 6 seconds on the clock, the Lions no longer had to play for a Hail Mary.

In the huddle before the play, Stafford said he told his teammates, “Whoever I get this ball (to), we’re trying to get it around the 40 and get down.”

Ideally, Matt Prater likes the ball on the left hash mark, but the Lions lined up in an empty backfield with three receivers to the right — Hockenson, Jones and Swift — and with no defender over top of Jones, and safety Kamren Curl blitzing from just inside the hashmark near Hockenson, Stafford made the easy read to Jones, who caught the ball and dove forward for a 9-yard gain.

“When you have a timeout, you get something quick,” Jones said after the game. “We know we have Prater to boot that thing, so we just needed some yards so I just made myself available and got down. That’s a part of the deal where we practice and that was greatly executed right there.”

Lions coach Matt Patricia signaled timeout as soon as Jones hit the ground, and the Lions sent Prater on for the winning kick with 3 seconds on the clock.

“We got it close enough for the most clutch kicker in football to come out there and do his thing,” Stafford said. “I was extremely happy for Matt Prater and that operation to get it up and through the uprights. I mean, 59-yarder to win it, that’s what that guy loves to do and that’s what we love having him for. He’s a special guy in those moments and I was really proud of him (Sunday) for that.”

Contact Dave Birkett at Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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