Matthew Stafford grading among top 10 NFL QBs this season

PFF Analyst and former NFL QB Zac Robinson breaks down the factors behind Matthew Stafford's 2016 success.

| 6 months ago
Matthew Stafford

(Leon Halip/Getty Images)

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.

Matthew Stafford career grades

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)

Matthew Stafford vs pressure

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.

| Analyst

Zac Robinson is a former three-year starting QB for Oklahoma State. He was drafted by the New England Patriots in the seventh round in 2010, and spent time with the Seattle Seahawks and Detroit Lions before finishing his pro career with the Cincinnati Bengals.

  • Moe

    ” they average just 81.2 yards per game on the ground, the 29th-lowest mark in the league. ”

    You don’t mean 29th-lowest. that would be pretty good!

    • James Winslow

      Moe have you been drinking again?

      • Moe

        29th-lowest means 3rd highest, could have just said 29th

  • Nelson Cobb

    I’m curious what is gonna happen with Matt Stafford once Jim Bob Cooter is taken away from him this off-season, cause with what he’s done with Stafford and that offense, it’s hard to believe he won’t find a head coaching job somewhere. With what he’s done with Stafford, if I was somebody like the Rams with a fresh new young QB, the Cooter would be my top choice. If Detroit is smart, they’d realize most their success is due to that man, and should fire Caldwell and promote the Cooter.

    • TKIY

      JBC has a history including a DUI and a burglary charge. He might be black-listed from HC duties.

      • crosseyedlemon

        In Detroit they don’t want their head coaches to have a criminal record….just their politicians.

  • Vitor

    Great stuff. He should be a strong name for MVP (although I doubt he will). You trade Stafford for a mid-tier QB like Flacco or Dalton and Detroit barely has 2 wins this year.

    • crosseyedlemon

      Flacco is 82-52 which is a little bit better than mid tier. He’s still getting it done (game ball this week) despite having a farce of a receiving corp and being injured last season. Ravens would be idiots to trade him for Stafford.

      • Uncle_Gianci

        Correction: Lions would be idiots to trade Stafford for Flacco. Flacco is good and all, but Stafford has way more talent and is younger by 3 1/2 years.

        But either way, I don’t think that’s what Victor was talking about. I think he meant if Flacco or Dalton was QB-ing Lions this year instead of Stafford, they would barley have 2 wins.

        • Vitor

          That’s right, Uncle. Also, Flacco definitely is a mid tier. The positive record is a result of playing in great teams through the years. Just look at his grades by pff since his rookie year. He often shines in playoffs (that’s why I consider him a mid tier and not a very bad qb), but overall he’s pretty average if not surrounded by a great supporting cast (for instance, last season before the injury). And if you think he’s doing great this year, you aren’t watching Baltimore games.
          (Ravens fan here)

        • crosseyedlemon

          So Stafford 50-55 has more talent than Flacco? Then why is he accepting a lower average salary? Stafford couldn’t produce 6 more wins than Flacco even in the realm of Playstation or X-Box.

          • Vitor

            Sure, let’s start to evaluate players by their salary. That’s why Kaepernick, Cutler and Smith are way better than Brady.

  • James

    I absolutely HATE when people say this quarterback is good/bad because of how many wins the team had when they were QB. The quarterback could perform well, but if they have a shit defense, then they probably don’t have very many wins. You look at if the quarterback consistently performed his job well and held up his end of the bargain.

  • Phong Ta

    I always thought one of Stafford’s biggest weaknesses was simply an over reliance on Calvin Johnson that from Day 1 hamstrung his development

    From Day 1 Stafford always had him as a security blanket, knowing that even against double or triple teams, Megatron was going to make a play, and I think that led to him force feeding and locking onto Johnson far too often. He got too comfortable throwing it to him even when he was well covered, trusting in Johnson perhaps a bit too much

    Now Stafford is being forced to progress through his reads properly, rather than looking at 1 or 2 receivers and if neither is open automatically chuck it to Megatron, and it’s clearly helped him immensely