Matthew Stafford has never been accused of being conservative. From high school to college through the combine to the NFL, he's always put his cannon arm to good use. However, for the first time as a pro, Stafford appears gun-shy.
Against Minnesota's beleaguered secondary, Stafford seemed content to take what the defense gave him throughout the second half—even as his Lions watched their lead dwindle. Is Stafford becoming a risk-averse dink-and-dunker? I looked at stats from Pro-Football-Reference.com to find out:
The top (blue) line is Stafford's game-by-game average yards per completion. The bottom (black) line is average yards per attempt. The chart at the bottom has the values for each data point.
This chart tells the story of the Stafford's aggressiveness and effectiveness throughout the year. Look at the difference between the Cowboys game and the first Bears game, Week 4 and Week 5. Stafford's average yards per completion is practically identical: 11.43 versus 11.53. However, his yards per attempt were wildly different: 5.58 versus 8.42.
The difference between those figures is incompletions. Every incomplete pass is a zero-yard attempt, which drags down the YpA. In the games against Dallas, San Francisco, Chicago and Atlanta, the yards per completion was nearly flat at around 12; he was going deep in all four games. But his YpA was below six—extremely low—against Dallas, San Francisco and Atlanta.
Stafford was throwing deep whether or not it was working. At the time, I wrote that he needed to step up, to be confident in the pocket and execute the offense. To find his second and third options instead of bombing it downfield to Calvin Johnson every time he's under pressure.
Since then, Stafford's risk/reward balance has been wildly inconsistent. Against the Broncos, Panthers and Saints, Stafford was both aggressive and effective. His completions averaged 12.63 yards across those three games, and his attempts averaged an outstanding 9.18.
At Soldier Field, and on Thanksgiving, Stafford was extremely conservative and much less effective. His average completion gained just 9.31 yards, and his average attempt netted just 5.6. Calvin Johnson was used heavily in the slot and on short crossing routes; the Lions used him like a Keyshawn Johnson-style possession receiver.
I expected to see Stafford and the Lions take advantage of the depleted Vikings secondary—but their game plan seemed very risk-averse, especially once they established an early lead. In the third quarter, I saw Stafford pass up a wide-open touchdown. The television broadcast cut the dramatic proof off, but this is the play:
Let's examine this a little more closely.
Pre-snap, Calvin Johnson is at the top of the screen, to Matthew Stafford's right. At the bottom (Stafford's left) is Nate Burleson. The Lions have two tight ends to the strong (right) side, and Maurice Morris in at tailback.
At the beginning of the clip, just before the snap, Stafford's eyes are right on Vikings strong safety Jamarca Sanford, showing blitz. Cornerback Asher Allen is lined up perpendicular to the line of scrimmage, trying to deny Calvin Johnson the outside. The read should be single coverage; Stafford should be looking for Johnson deep.
At the snap, there is play action to the weak side, then Stafford bootlegs back to the strong side. Both tight ends go out: Tony Scheffler down the seam and Brandon Pettigrew on a short out route.
Sanford, the blitzing strong safety, flies towards the run action but wisely picks up on the play fake. He hits the brakes, and turns to chase Pettigrew to the sideline.
Here's where you're going to have to trust me. Calvin Johnson, just off-frame, breaks inside, then quickly towards the sideline. Allen bites on the first move and Johnson gets WIDE DIRTY OPEN on the second. Watch the clip again: you can see Stafford look downfield and pat the ball once, twice, looking at Johnson the whole way. Stafford then gives up and fires it to Pettigrew for an easy four-yard gain.
Maybe Stafford was spooked by the approaching presence of Jared Allen. Maybe Johnson waited too long to make his move. Maybe Stafford just wanted the sure thing. But on 1st-and-10 from the 40-yardline? Up 31-14? That's the perfect time to take a shot deep.
Johnson was left all alone, two steps behind his only defender—in an offense where single coverage is supposed to equate an automatic ball his way.
The Lions didn't know it then, but after scoring 31 points in the first quarter, they would only muster one field goal in the whole second half. Stafford passed up a golden opportunity to put the Vikings away here, and that lack of killer instinct nearly cost them the game.
If the Lions are going to beat the Oakland Raiders in the Black Hole in December, Stafford must do a better job of balancing risk and reward.