Matthew Stafford grading among top 10 NFL QBs this season
Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford is in complete control of his game.
The eight-year pro is in the midst of his best season to date, and heads into Week 14 as Pro Football Focus’ seventh-highest-graded QB, with an 86.4 mark. Stafford’s steady and clutch play in critical moments has seen the Lions rattle off wins in seven of their last eight games, putting Detroit in the driver’s seat for the NFC North race title, at 8-4. The gunslinger at heart has pulled the reigns back on his game in his past 13 months, with a more disciplined and structured approach.
Let’s make this clear from the start: Matthew Stafford is still Matthew Stafford. He’s still the ultimate feel-player at quarterback—he’s creative, athletic, and possesses one of the best overall arms in the NFL. We’ve all seen what he is capable of doing, but Detroit offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter has extracted the best out of the player Stafford is. Since Cooter took over in Week 8 of the 2015 season, it can be argued that Stafford has played as well as any quarterback in the NFL, posting a 41:9 touchdown-to-interception ratio in that span. He’s been disciplined and efficient, finding the perfect mixture of playing within the structure of the offense and cutting loose with what he does best outside of the scheme when needed.
No Calvin Johnson? No problem
Heading into the 2016 season, many observers—PFF analysts included—wondered what Stafford would look like without WR Calvin Johnson, who announced his retirement. Johnson’s absence has in fact changed Stafford’s approach—and arguably made him a better player. The current crop of Detroit pass catchers, with Golden Tate, Marvin Jones, Eric Ebron, Anquan Boldin, Andre Roberts, and Theo Riddick, have had their share of drops—third-most in the NFL, with 29—but is a well-crafted group of players, each of whom possesses his own unique traits to make this offense tick. Most importantly, they all have a good feel and understanding of the passing game.
The Lions run the most spread-type of offense you’ll see in the NFL, heavily reliant on 11-personnel (one running back, one tight end), running 70 percent of their snaps from this grouping (the league average this season is 59 percent). Detroit’s spread attack has seen 80 percent of offensive plays come from the shotgun this season, the third-highest rate in the NFL. While under center, the Lions average just 4.0 yards per play, the lowest average in the league. Simply put, they understand who they are offensively, and do it well.
Limited rushing attack bending offensive approach
A lack of a consistent running game has not made things easier for Stafford and the Lions’ offense, as they average just 81.2 yards per game on the ground, the 29th-best mark the league. The absence of a dependable rushing attack for quarterbacks typically means added pressure as they are forced to carry the load. For Detroit this season, however, Cooter has found ways to alleviate the pressure on Stafford with run-pass options (RPOs) and a very efficient screen game. Stafford has attempted the second-highest percentage of screen passes this season, with 13.9 percent of pass plays coming on WR/TE end and RB screens. Cooter will often take the pressure off of Stafford and the Lions’ offensive line in 3rd-and-long situations, as they have run screens on 3rd-and-7 or more 20.6 percent of the time—the highest rate in the NFL.
While Stafford is known for his gun for an arm and ability to stretch the field, he’s attempted just 10.2 percent of his passes 20 or more yards downfield, the 27th-highest rate out of 34 qualifying QBs this season. When he does take his shots downfield, however, he’s been effective, posting a 114.8 passer rating on such throws (ninth-best in the NFL). This offense has been built to be a precise, quick-timing passing attack. Stafford’s average depth of target of 7.5 is tied for the third-shortest mark in the NFL, just ahead of Kansas City’s Alex Smith and Minnesota’s Sam Bradford.
Success versus pressure
The Lions’ offensive line isn’t necessarily a stout pass-protecting group, but they are an improved unit over previous seasons, and are benefitting from the well-designed offensive scheme. Stafford has been under pressure 30.9 percent of the time, the 24th-highest rate in the league, and has played extremely well when under duress. He currently holds the sixth-best passer rating under pressure, with an 81.7 mark. Opponents often try to speed up Stafford’s clock with blitzes in the early parts of games, but his 102.8 mark is 12 points ahead of league average against the blitz. Just ask the Saints, who in Week 13 decided to blitz 61.7 percent of the time, and got burned doing so; Stafford completed 68 percent of his passes for 222 yards, two touchdowns, and a passer rating of 122.4 on such snaps. Most impressively, Stafford has yet to throw an interception versus the blitz this season.
Matthew Stafford versus pressure this season (through Week 13)
By far the most important aspect of Stafford’s success has been his play late in games and ability to take care of the ball. In the final drives of games this season—with his team either tied or within one score—Stafford is 27-for-38 on his passing attempts for 378 yards, including two game-winning touchdowns and one interception. His ability to take care of the ball this season has been a major positive, with has just one fumble lost in the pocket, and just five interceptions thrown.
The lack of a running game and a defense that ranks among the bottom 10 units in our NFL Power Rankings (entering Week 14) leaves this Detroit Lions team with little margin for error. Much rides on Matthew Stafford’s ability to play a disciplined and structured game, create within the passing offense, or pick up key yards with his legs when needed. Stafford must continue to play well in critical moments and take care of the football; doing so can help lead the Lions to an NFC North title.