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Film breakdown: How much is Matthew Stafford to blame for 10 sacks vs. Vikings?

Was Stafford holding onto the ball too long?

NFL: Detroit Lions at Minnesota Vikings Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

The Detroit Lions gave up 10 sacks against the Minnesota Vikings and fans want blood. They want a scapegoat so that the problem is easily solvable. Fix the one thing, and Matthew Stafford doesn’t spend the entire afternoon picking tire bits out of his eye socket.

However, it’s never as simple as that and head coach Matt Patricia said as much on Monday.

“You know what’s amazing about all those plays and really all the plays in the game, it’s really, it was a team thing,” Patricia said. “So, there’s not one glaring thing that happened for all of those to occur.”

While that’s certainly true, many fans had their own theories. Was it because Golden Tate was gone? Can we all just blame everything on Kenny Wiggins?

One of the most prevailing thoughts was that Matthew Stafford brought much of what happened on Sunday upon himself. While the offensive line certainly played horribly and didn’t give him enough time often, some believed that Stafford held onto the ball too long or panicked too quickly, running himself into a sack. Today, we’re going to explore that theory and that theory alone. We already know the offensive line was bad, but how much was Stafford to blame?

Note, if you want to watch video of these sacks, you can follow along here. I will reference the timestamps to help you watch:

The ones that were definitely not his fault

Out of the 10 sacks, I counted five that it was hard to put any blame on Stafford. Many, Stafford just had nowhere to go. Pressure often came up the middle and that’s the toughest for an quarterback to escape. Take this example—the very first sack of the day (0:14 in the video):

At this point, we already see Stafford tucking the ball to protect it because of the pressure up the middle. There’s no escape route to the edges. He’s closed in on all sides.

Now, look at the circled receivers. Many of these routes have yet to break at this point, and none of them have turned to look for the ball yet. Stafford does not have an option, and he has no space to even throw it away.

Add in a busted screen play in which no receiver actually ran a route (0:50), an unblocked blitzer (1:26) and a couple of other quick rushes (2:44; 2:53), and you can already throw out half of the Vikings’ sacks.

The ones Stafford could’ve done more on

There were some plays where Stafford could’ve done something different to save himself some turf-eating. It wouldn’t have necessarily made the play succeed, but he could’ve certainly mitigated the damage.

It’s first-and-10 as the Lions are trying to put up another score before the end of the first half. This is a key down, because Detroit is already nearing midfield. A score before halftime not only gets them closer to the Vikings (currently up just 14-6), but puts them in a good position to take the lead since Detroit would get the ball to start the second half. Here’s the play (0:58 in the video):

The primary read is to Theo Riddick in the slot to the offense’s left. Stafford is trusting Riddick to beat Vikings linebacker Eric Wilson.

He doesn’t.

Stafford stares down Riddick, pumps once in his direction, cocks his arm to throw it anyway, and before he’s able to, pressure comes from his left and Stafford eats it.

So what could Stafford had done to save the play? First and foremost, he needs to know when to give up on a route. He’s a talented quarterback, but that’s just not enough room to throw the ball there. He needs to go through his progressions, and buy himself some time. The opportunity was there:

With pressure right in his face, Stafford knows his time is short if he doesn’t. If he steps up to his right, there is plenty of space, and there just so happens to be Jones making his break in the middle of the Vikings’ zone coverage over the middle.

That could have been an easy 7 or 8-yard pickup on first down. Instead, Stafford tripped over the mess of bodies in front of him and put the Lions in a really tough second-and-18 position. Detroit would punt a couple plays later, and it was the Vikings who would score again before the half.


The Vikings are one of those teams you just can’t afford to get behind on down and distance. They are literally the best NFL defense on third down (by a large margin), and if you have to go 10 or more yards against them, you may as well forget it. So not taking losses on early downs is key against Minnesota.

Unfortunately, of the Lions’ 10 sacks allowed, six were on first or second down, and a couple of them were avoidable.

With the game still just 17-6 and plenty of time left in the third quarter, the Lions were backed up in their own zone. The play called for a pump fake that would ideally draw in two defenders on a short route, leaving an open receiver down the sideline. In a sense, it worked (1:15 in the video):

Stafford pumps the out-route to Luke Willson, which draws both defenders, leaving Marvin Jones Jr. open along the sidelines... sort of.

There’s a deep safety over the top, and I get the feeling Stafford saw him late on this play, he hesitated, didn’t trust his arm, then booked it.

Why did it take a second for Stafford to see the safety? Look at the presnap movement from the Vikings:

Pro Bowl safety Harrison Smith starts the play at the line of scrimmage, but books it into the secondary just before the snap, and is in pretty good position to potentially make a play. Stafford has a tough decision. Trust his arm and throw this:

Or throw it away and live to play another down. Stafford chooses neither, tries to do too much, and the Lions get behind the chains yet again.

Overall, I wouldn’t put too much blame on Stafford for the day. There were certainly a handful of plays he could have mitigated the damage on. However, one thing that very rarely came up was Stafford missing an open receiver.

For most of the day, the pressure was coming too fast, the plays were taking too long to develop or the coverage was just too good (1:04 in the video):

Still, Stafford could’ve—and should’ve—done more to help the Lions on this day. Tacking on so many negative plays is a sure fire way to go an entire game without a touchdown.

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