Is Matthew Stafford Establishing a New Baseline?

The Lions’ offense faced questions entering this season, and have quelled any doubts to this point. Matthew Stafford establishing himself as a premier quarterback might have even converted a lifelong Patriots fanDave Archibald breaks down the Lions’ signal caller most recent late-game heroics, something the veteran is making habitual.

The 2016 season marks Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford’s ninth year in the NFL. In a league where the average career length might be as short as 2.66 years, the 28-year-old should be a finished product, but his career is difficult to evaluate. The former #1 overall pick is clearly talented, but is he a great player held back by subpar supporting casts, or an inconsistent tease bolstered by playing much of his career with a generational receiving talent in Calvin Johnson? Twitter user Brickwallbritz sums up the rollercoaster ride of public perception:

Through seven games in 2016, with Johnson retired, Stafford is on pace to set career highs in completion percentage (68.0%), touchdown to interception rate (15 to 4), yards per attempt (7.9), and passer rating (105.7). The Lions stand at a surprising 4-3, and Stafford has led a game-winning fourth-quarter drive in all four Detroit victories. His late-game heroics in Sunday’s victory over Washington were perhaps his most impressive all season. After a 19-yard rush from Mark Schofield favorite Kirk Cousins put the Lions in a 17-13 hole with only 65 seconds left, Stafford went to work.

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]1:05 left, 1st-and-10 on Detroit 25

Stafford lines up in the shotgun with twin receivers to each side. They run a switching concept on the left side with outside receiver Marvin Jones (#11) running a dig route and slot receiver Anquan Boldin (#80) fading to the outside, creating a natural rub where the receivers cross. On the right side, slot receiver Andre Roberts (#12) runs a shallow cross while outside receiver Golden Tate (#15) runs an out route. Washington runs a Cover 3 shell, and as the play develops Jones gets open inside the outside corner and underneath the free safety. Stafford has to make some magic happen to get the ball to him, however:

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Rookie left guard Graham Glasgow (#60), in only his second NFL start, gets beaten inside almost immediately by veteran Ziggy Hood (#90). With Hood in his face, Stafford scrambles to his left. He sees Jones flash open and sidearms a perfect strike back against the momentum of his movement. He hits Jones in stride for a 23-yard gain. For many quarterbacks, this kind of throw would be an ill-advised decision, but Stafford has rare arm talent, and uses it to Detroit’s advantage.

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0:45 left, 1st-and-10 on Detroit 48

The Lions elect to keep all their timeouts and line up to snap the ball quickly on the next play, in the same formation as the first. But they now stress Washington’s defense in a different fashion:

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The Lions run two vertical routes on the left side and a smash concept on the right. Washington counters with a zone defense, but the defenders all “look for work,” pursuing the nearest receivers so they don’t cover empty space. Since there are no routes in the middle of the field, a massive hole is created between linebacker Will Compton (#51) and strong safety Donte Whitner (#39). Moreover, Washington runs a Tackle-End Exchange stunt up front, with defensive linemen Chris Baker (#92) and Hood crashing the B gaps while edge rusher Ryan Kerrigan (#91) loops from the edge to the middle of the line. That leaves the middle of the line initially undefended, and with an opening up front and no defenders in the middle of the field, Stafford bursts through the line and slides at the Washington 38 for a gain of 14 yards.

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0:38 left, 1st-and-10 on Washington 38

The Lions again use the double twins shotgun look, but have the receiver tandems switch sides. Jones and Boldin run a scissors concept on the right side, while Tate and Roberts both run in cuts on the left:

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It’s not clear whether Roberts has a defined route or if he’s running an option route based on the leverage of rookie nickelback Kendall Fuller (#38), but his cut catches Fuller flat-footed and the receiver breaks free. Washington is running a Tampa 2 coverage with middle linebacker Compton dropping very deep, leaving wide open space for Roberts in the intermediate middle. The space lets Roberts secure the catch despite having to leap and double-clutch for a high throw from Stafford. The receiver squirts 20 yards to the 18-yard line.

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0:22 left, 3rd-and-10 on Washington 18

Two incompletions – a shot to Tate that he caught out-of-bounds, and a pivot route that Stafford rushed while under duress, throwing low – left the Lions in a 3rd-and-10. Showing a different formation this time, Stafford has trips left and tight end Clay Harbor (#84) on the right side. Detroit runs a mesh concept, with Harbor running a shallow drag and inside slot receiver receiver Tate (#15) crossing behind him. Washington has a great playcall to disrupt this concept, dropping defensive lineman Ziggy Hood (#90) into a shallow zone that disrupts the pattern. Stafford has to look elsewhere:

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Boldin doesn’t have more than 60 receiving yards in a game this season, and at 36-years-old he’s lost some of his youthful speed… well, youthful less-slowness. He remains an effective contributor, however, catching a whopping 78% of his targets, and he is able to gain separation against young pup Fuller. Boldin, in the outside slot, leans out at the top of his stem, and then swims inside. With Hood dropping, Washington rushes only three and Stafford has time to wait for Boldin to work open. He fires a bullet just past Compton, trailing Harbor, and Boldin hauls the ball in at the four-yard-line with enough momentum to carry him over the goal line. Touchdown Lions. Five plays later the road victory was sealed.

Sunday was not a banner day for Stafford, as the Lions offense sputtered much of the day against Washington’s 18th-ranked scoring defense. While the quarterback did not throw an interception, he made a handful of dangerous throws that could have been picked and also fumbled once. Still, with the game on the line, Stafford demonstrated the playmaking talent that made him the #1 overall pick in 2009. Time will tell whether his late-game heroics were the latest step towards joining the ranks of the NFL’s elite quarterbacks, or a temporary upswing in a career full of ups and downs.

Follow @davearchie on Twitter. Check out his other work here, like his look at the QB class of 2014, his analysis of value plays at left tackle and a great performance from Case Keenum.

All video courtesy of NFL Game Day.

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