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Detroit Lions film breakdown: Matthew Stafford is not blameless

Possibly still knocking some rust off.

Detroit Lions v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

First in a series of film breakdowns on the state of the Lions passing offense.

The bye week has come and gone, and with it Lions fans had a chance to take stock of the season a quarter of the way in. Although the schedule going forward is favorable, there was little in the first four weeks to inspire confidence in the team’s chances of turning the season around. The defense has been awful by just about every measure possible, so I am thankful that our fearless leader Jeremy Reisman has already found something positive for folks to latch onto in his film review. In spite of the recent turnovers the defense has generated, it’s been... bad.

Instead of spending more time in the pit of despair with Mansur and Jeremy, let’s try something that offers at least some enjoyment. Lions Wire’s Max Gerber had this take, which I consider to be mild tomatillo at best:

Is it, though? It should not be controversial to say the run game is better with Adrian Peterson this year than it has been in a while. The team is averaging a little over four yards per carry and a hundred yards on the ground per game, which is not stellar but better than the absolute trash run game the Lions have had in the past. The question, then, is how the passing game looks. In this, we have a mixed bag. Our staff’s John Whiticar still has faith in Matthew Stafford, but the Lions starter has not been nearly the comeback kid we’d hoped for leading up to the season.

Jeremy Reisman and Chris Perfett both thought Stafford had a terrible game in Week 4 against New Orleans, and Mike Payton was left wondering what’s wrong with Stafford after that outing. Bad signs were already appearing after Week 2, and at this point it is worth wondering about the effects of so long a break between when he last played in 2019 and the COVID shortened offseason without preseason games.

Leaving points and yards on the field

Before we get into the rest of the film regarding specific things that are and are not working in the Lions’ passing offense, let’s get the fact that Stafford is not making plays like he used to out of the way first. Whether there is some rust that still needs to be knocked off, some changes to the playbook not clicking, or there’s something wrong with timing and new faces, there are clear problems in getting the ball to guys downfield.

Week 1 CHI, 1Q (8:53). Second-and-10 at the Detroit 35.

This is as base offense as it gets: play-action naked bootleg from a shotgun formation with three receivers to the right and 88 TE T.J. Hockenson aligned to the left next to 68 LT Taylor Decker. Frontside, the Lions have a smash route combination plus Hockenson coming across as a backside crosser. The read progression on this play is hitch to 87 WR Quintez Cephus on the outside, then the corner to 80 WR Danny Amendola, and finally come back to Hockenson if the smash combo is not available. The near inside slot receiver 11 WR Marvin Jones stays in to block.

The read is off 23 CB Kyle Fuller, who is in off-man coverage over Cephus. Smash is a Cover 2 beater, but the Bears are in man-to-man coverage. 24 CB Buster Skrine rides Amendola all the way, and Stafford is supposed to check off both smash pieces once he sees the Bears have them covered. Instead, we see Stafford rolling out naked and pumping but holding the ball because there is no throw at the perimeter.

Meanwhile, Hockenson is coming across the middle of the field completely undefended and wide open for a first down for nearly three seconds. This is the kind of free first down conversion we would expect a veteran quarterback like Stafford to gobble up immediately, but instead he takes so long to come back to Hockenson that the Lions tight end has already come across to where Fuller is defending Cephus. As the throw arrives, Fuller is able to switch off and hit Hockenson to break up the play. Only an unnecessary roughness penalty on Fuller bails out the Lions, who otherwise would have wasted a great call.

Week 3 at ARI, 3Q (5:40). Second-and-Goal at the Arizona 6.

Here are a pair of back-to-back plays from the third quarter of Detroit’s only win of the season. These plays are after the Okudah interception with the game still extremely close, and now the team has an opportunity to open up a nice lead. On second down, offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell calls a play that has a three route combination on the frontside that looks like what the Patriots call Cafe: 33 HB Kerryon Johnson goes to the flat, outside tight end Hockenson runs a curl, and inside tight end 83 TE Jesse James has to lose his man and get over the top of Hockenson on a flag route to the back pylon.

The Lions get exactly what they want in terms of matchups. The Cardinals send 43 LB Haason Reddick to the flat with Johnson while 22 SS Deionte Thompson sits down on Hockenson at the goal line. That leaves James one-on-one with leverage on 58 LB Jordan Hicks, and James’ route will run him away from the coverage.

98 NT Corey Peters manages to beat 77 C Frank Ragnow, but it looked like there was enough time for Stafford to set his feet and get a decent throw off. It simply sailed high instead of dropping into the back corner of the end zone.

Week 3 at ARI, 3Q (5:36). Third-and-Goal at the Arizona 6.

On the next play, the Lions send Kerryon and Golladay underneath to the left to drag linebackers away, and then have Hockenson cross the field a little behind them from left to right to draw the attention of the defense. It works: both 32 S Budda Baker and 21 CB Patrick Peterson jump Hockenson’s crossing route at the goal line since he is an obvious big target.

What that does is it clears the back of the end zone for 11 WR Marvin Jones and 80 WR Danny Amendola to sneak behind Baker. It looks like Hockenson is indeed the first read that Stafford makes, but he shifts targets after both Baker and Peterson are running with the tight end.

For this, the tackle box angle is actually the most useful. Amendola got a free release off the line unimpeded by 33 CB Byron Murphy. As Stafford is switching targets, we can see Amendola in fact has two or three steps on Murphy. Again, dropping the ball into a clear back part of the end zone is a throw we know Stafford ought to be able to make if he is not under pressure, but the ball sails. Instead of getting a touchdown for Okudah’s interception deep in the Arizona end of the field, Detroit settled for a disappointing field goal.

Week 4 NOR, 1Q (14:54). First-and-10 at the Detroit 23.

Some fans may protest the use of throwing too high in that last example since Amendola is not the tallest fellow on the roster. Well, how about 19 WR Kenny Golladay? This is the first offensive play from scrimmage in the game in Week 4, a fairly standard play-action over route by Golladay.

If Stafford hits Golladay in stride here with a good throw, that’s an easy 25-yard chunk play by the time a tackle is made.

These ought to be automatic

In Week 1, during the drive that resulted in the missed 55-yard field goal, Stafford had a great opportunity to keep the dagger pointed in the right direction. Once again setting up with minimal pressure, the Lions had Quintez Cephus one-on-one against Fuller with no deep safety help. That meant Fuller had to stay deeper than Cephus and could not afford to play aggressively. Cephus’ route, a comeback, was the perfect one to attack with.

Week 1 CHI, 4Q (7:08). First-and-10 at the Chicago 49.

Unfortunately, the throw was off target, and frittered away at least a 15-yard completion. While Adrian Peterson’s big 14-yard run on second down moved the ball anyway, the errant throw was symbolic of the team’s failure to press the advantage against opponents that are on their heels and Stafford knew it. Dagger time mentality means no mistakes and relentless consistency, completing these throws like clockwork.

The point is not to try and convince anyone that “Stafford sucks” or anything idiotic like that; it’s that there are definitely some opportunities where the play calls are fine and everyone has done their job, but the quarterback did not deliver. It especially hurts when the bad results are missed points, turnovers, or chunk plays. It’s not every play or even most plays where Stafford is off, but all of those mistakes count and it all adds up.

Over the next few days, Pride of Detroit will take a deeper look at the passing game to get a better understanding of what’s working and what’s not working. Along the way, we’ll get into some cool wrinkles to watch for over the next few weeks.

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