A shortened version of this article was published by the Detroit Free Press. To view the article in its original format on the Free Press website, click here.
Matthew Stafford’s performance this year has resembled that of a choppy wave and some fans are growing weary of the constant inconsistency of their franchise quarterback. However, Detroit is atop the NFC North heading into their bye week, 3-0 without Calvin Johnson while having burned through four tight ends and three kickers. The NFL is a quarterback league and the position is scrutinized arguably more than any other in professional sports. The quarterback gets too much credit in wins and shoulders too much blame in losses. Ultimately, it’s the wins and losses that matter and this season, Stafford is 6-2. Individually, he’s hasn’t had the season some were hoping for. Among 33 qualifiers, he’s 23rd in the NFL in passer rating and 23rd in completion percentage. He’s thrown 11 touchdowns against seven interceptions, far from his spectacular 41 touchdown, 16 interception showing in 2011. His inconsistency has been maddening at times, yet he’s been able to overcome injures to his top playmakers to lead the Lions to victory. Sunday’s performance was no different.
Despite his accuracy issues throughout the game, Stafford played an integral role in helping the Lions overcome a double-digit fourth quarter deficit for the second straight week. Let’s examine the good and bad from Stafford in Sunday’s exhilarating comeback victory over the Falcons using the All-22 (coaches tape) film.
Trailing 14-0 early in the second quarter, the Lions come out in their standard 11 personnel set (one back, one tight end and three receivers) with newly acquired veteran tight end Kellen Davis lined up on the line of scrimmage. Davis runs a seam route against Atlanta’s zone coverage while Golden Tate, lined up in the slot, is on a post route to occupy the safety to his side.
The Lions use a play-fake to Joique Bell, bating the Falcons middle linebacker to take a step towards the line of scrimmage, He takes the bate and bites on the play-fake, allowing Davis to slip behind the linebacker down the middle of the field.
The defender gets turned around and can’t recover, as Davis runs wide open with plenty of space in front of him for Stafford to fit the ball in.
Stafford has a clean pocket and immediately spots Davis streaking down the seam. However, it looks like Stafford doesn’t fully drive his hips on the throw and the pass ends up behind Davis, who is forced to turn his body to adjust.
If thrown to Davis’ up-field shoulder, this could have been a 20-yard pickup. Instead, the pass falls incomplete and the Lions go three-and-out.
On the next series, the Lions moved the ball to the Falcons 35-yard line with under two minutes remaining in the first half. Needing points after falling behind by 21, offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi calls for a post-route from Corey Fuller, who is isolated to the left.
The Falcons are running zone against the left side of the Lions formation while playing man coverage to the other side. Fuller gets behind the linebackers and splits the safeties, breaking open down the middle.
Stafford has plenty of space to operate in the pocket but this time, his throw falls at Fuller’s shoelaces. The pass hits the ground resulting in another missed opportunity for a ‘chunk play.’
This throw sparked former NFL quarterback and Fox analyst Troy Aikman to remark about Stafford’s mechanics: “It’s hard to be accurate when you’re continually changing the launch angle of how you’re throwing the football.” During his career, Stafford has had the tendency to alter his arm angle, which can get him into trouble. Yet the handful of misses in this game seems to have had more to do with Stafford’s inconsistent footwork.
Here’s a third poor throw from Stafford. Down 21-10 at the start of the fourth quarter, the Lions faced third and goal with a chance to score a touchdown. Tate is isolated one-on-one against Robert Alford and runs a quick slant.
Alford knows he can’t let Tate beat him to the inside because the Falcons bring a blitz, leaving no help in the middle of the field. But Tate sells an outside route by giving Alford a hard jab to the left, before quickly cutting across the corner’s face to the inside.
Tate is wide open for the easy touchdown but Stafford opens up his front side, doesn’t step into the throw and his pass sails ten feet high, wasting an opportunity to score six.
The Lions settled for a field goal cutting the margin to 21-13. In his news conference after the game Stafford said of the miss, “I thought that was it, we can’t miss an opportunity like that. It was the worst throw I’ve ever had I feel like.”
However, the Lions signal caller had a chance to redeem himself thanks to a few Atlanta blunders. Down 21-19, Detroit received the ball back with 1:38 remaining starting from its own 7-yard line. This set up Stafford’s best throw of the day and there was no coincidence that it came with the game on the line.
The key play of the game-winning drive is the first play. The Lions come out in 10 personnel (one back and four receivers) with Tate in the slot at the top of the screen, running a go-route inside the numbers. Jeremy Ross is lined up in the slot on the right side also running a seam route as the Lions try to stretch Atlanta’s Cover 3 defense. This puts the one deep safety in a bind; if he cheats towards Tate, Stafford can throw to Ross and vice versa. It’s the perfect play call by Lombardi.
The quarterback must lay the ball over the linebackers but in front of the deep safety. The picture below illustrates Stafford’s trust in his new favorite target as he begins his throwing motion before Tate has even cleared the underneath defender.
Stafford does an excellent job of sliding to his left to avoid pressure up the gut, sets his feet and drops the ball in the bucket.
The football (circled in blue) is perfectly placed by Stafford, clearing the linebacker but falling in front of the corner and safety.
Tate, who took two hard shots to his lower back earlier in the game, shows his fearlessness by high-pointing the ball while knowing he’s exposed to another possible bone-crushing hit.
This completion is good for 32 yards to the 39-yard line, giving the Lions plenty of breathing room. After starting 0 for 5 on throws of at least 15 yards downfield in the first half, Stafford was 3 for 5 during the second-half comeback with all three completions going to Tate.
Stafford shook off an inconsistent performance and ended up driving the Lions 63 yards in 11 plays to set up the game-winning field goal.
Clearly Stafford struggled to make some relatively easy throws, but he also converted a handful of great plays and was an integral part of the Lions come-from-behind victory. It was Stafford’s 14th career game-winning drive in the fourth quarter or overtime and his 10th career game-winning drive with less than two minutes to play in the game.
If Stafford can regain consistency in his footwork, this offense could be lethal down the stretch. The return of Calvin Johnson might not hurt either.
Credit to NFL Game Rewind for the game film. All Illustrations were created by Marlowe Alter for the purpose of reporting, commenting and critiquing.
Contact Marlowe Alter via email: firstname.lastname@example.org