Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Stafford Infection: Saints Game

I've decided to change the format of this column for the rest of the season. Instead of breaking down a specific part of Matthew Stafford's game, I have decided to analyze and grade the three most important aspects of quarterbacking: Accuracy, Pocket Presence and Vision/Decision Making. This was a great week to start, as Stafford tossed for the most yards in his career since his unforgettable Browns game in 2009. His final stat-line was 31-44 for 408 yards 1 TD and 1 INT. But was his performance actually as good as his numbers?

Grade: B+

It may seem a little cruel to mark Stafford below an A on a day where he completed 70.5% of his passes (well above his career completion percentage of 63.0). However, many of his completions were short, simple passes and many of his incompletions were big missed opportunities. Let me go to the tape:

I'm actually going to start with a Stafford completion, for 49 yards no less. It was Stafford's pass to Titus Young with seconds left to go in the first half. It was a great read, and a great play, but it should've gone for 76 yards and a touchdown. Just look at how open Young is when the ball is in the air:
There is nobody behind him. If that ball hits him in stride, its an easy six and the Lions go into halftime down only 10 with the ball coming their way. Instead, the ball is underthrown and directed towards Young's back shoulder. This forces Young to turn his body, slowing him down and allowing a Saints defender to catch him.

Stafford had a chance to redeem himself on the very next play, but again missed his target. The play was to Brandon Pettigrew and he was open. Before I openly criticize Stafford for this pass, it must be said that this completion has a high degree of difficulty. Stafford is most comfortable throwing the ball when he's slinging lasers. However, that pass would not have succeeded on this play.
Through all the blur its pretty easy to see that a line-drive throw would've been batted down by either the linebacker or the covering safety. This throw required impressive touch and accuracy. 
Stafford had the proper touch, but missed badly on the accuracy. In his defense, however, an overthrow is a better play than an underthrow. The Lions were in field goal range at the time and the last thing they could afford was a turnover. Stafford's mindset was likely to put the ball where there is zero chance of an interception. Unfortunately, there was also zero chance of a completion, and then the Lions had the field goal blocked. 

Pocket Presence
Grade: A-

The only reason this isn't a straight-up A is because Stafford took three sacks, two of which he had plenty of time to get rid of the ball. But Stafford really impressed me this week, improving upon what I believed to be his biggest weakness. Let's take a look at what I mean:

The situation: down 24-7 early in the third quarter, the Lions were 2nd and 5 at the Saints' 37 yard line. Quickly after the snap, things aren't looking good:
Both defensive ends are barreling down on Stafford. Earlier in the season, Stafford would have dropped even further back and likely would thrown an inaccurate pass off of his back foot. Not this time:
Stafford steps up, allowing the ends to overrun him. He steps into his pass, completing a 10 yard pass to Will Heller for a first down and into field goal range. It was a great display of awareness and a great checkdown to an open receiver. I want more of this.

Decision Making/Vision:
Grade: A

It always cracks me up when the announcer praises the opposing defense for stopping Calvin Johnson by double teaming him. In fact, while some ESPN analyst was praising the Saints for doing so, they showed the play where Johnson was double teamed on a goal-to-go situation. On that play, the Lions ran the ball.....for a touchdown. Johnson won that battle because his presence took a man out of the box and opened up space for Kevin Smith to run to. 

People will praise the Saints for shutting down Johnson again this week. Johnson only managed six catches for 69 yards and no touchdowns, a pedestrian day for the Pro Bowler. But the Saints defense doesn't deserve credit for this accomplishment. Sure, they were great in coverage against Johnson, but nine other receivers caught passes that day for over 300 yards combined. Stafford showed maturity. He didn't panic when his first few reads were covered and he didn't force a pass to Johnson in coverage when his other options were gone. A lot of credit goes to offensive coordinator Scott Linehan for his gameplan. Looking through the tape, Stafford did not have to go through his progressions very often, and his first option was typically where the ball went. 

Stafford's one interception was a fourth down play in which his options were limited. He threw the ball in a place where Nate Burleson had a chance to make a play, but had it ripped from him by the defender. Stafford was put in a tough situation and did everything he could to give his team a chance on that play.

If the Lions hadn't been struck with so many offensive penalties, Stafford might have thrown for 500 yards on Sunday night. He was absolutely on his A-game against the Saints and if he can repeat that performance in three of the next four games, we will be watching Lions post-season football for the first time in over a decade. 

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