Matthew Stafford Must Learn to Balance Risk

>> 12.16.2011

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 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.


Brandon Pettigrew Interview, Courtesy of Legends Sports & Games

>> 12.14.2011

a Detroit Lions mini-helmet won by TLiW reader Chris, courtesy of Legends Sports & Games.

Congrats, @ttopherstevenn!

Last night, Brandon Pettigrew came to Legends Sports & Games, and a few faithful followers joined me going to see him. Courtesy of Legends, I was able to give @ttopherstevenn a Lions mini-helmet, and Pettigrew’s John Hancock upon it:

Detroit Lions tight end Brandon Pettigrew signs an autograph for TLiW reader Chris

Brandon was cool throughout the event, having a good time with just about everyone who came through the long autograph line. He seemed engaged and relaxed, very comfortable with his fans. I asked him why, unlike a lot of his teammates, he wasn’t active on social mediums like Facebook and Twitter.

“I used to be on Facebook a little bit. Never been on Twitter," he said. "My deal with that is just . . . it’s having to deal with what everybody has to say all the time, having to respond to it and put up with it.”

Case in point: @ndamukong_suh going almost completely silent from the Thanksgiving Day game to Suh’s reinstatement yesterday.  Those of you who remember the abuse Suh took on Twitter during his few-days-long holdout can up that by a couple orders of magnitude; it’s no wonder Pettigrew doesn’t want to deal with a distraction like that.

I’ll spare you folks the lecture this time, but it’s unfortunate that a cool player like Pettigrew doesn’t feel like the benefit of interacting with the cool fans is worth giving the boo birds a direct pipeline to his smartphone. Honestly, I can’t blame him.

Pettigrew and Matthew Stafford were drafted together; the “third season” is supposed to be the make-or-break for both quarterbacks and receivers. Pettigrew’s taken a big step forward in the role of the offense, especially on third downs and in pressure situations. He’s second on the team with 62 catches, and third with four touchdowns. I asked him if this was because he and Stafford were developing unique chemistry as they developed together.

“I think we've all got good chemistry, as we develop as a team and an offense,” he said. Sure, but is the offense designed to get him the ball when it counts? Or is Stafford favoring him, specifically? Pettigrew said it’s neither; just that Stafford is “going through his progressions, matchup-wise. Calvin's getting doubled, and [Stafford]'s got to find the guy who's getting open.”

With three games left to play, the Lions face two road games in notoriously tough environments. I asked Pettigrew how the Lions planned to handle the adversity. “We've been hurting ourselves with penalties. If we do away with that, I think we'll be fine. We just need to play mistake-free football, and play the way we're capable of playing.”

Once more, thanks go to Legends Sports & Games for putting this event together, and providing a TLiW reader with an awesome little piece of awesome.


Brandon Pettigrew Giveaway Update

>> 12.13.2011

For those of you who missed it, I’ll be in Grand Rapids tonight at Legends Sports & Games in the Westland Mall from 6:00 - 7:30 for a Brandon Pettigrew autograph signing. Those of you who entered  the contest for the DirecTV remote, I’m going to contact you later in the week; as of the Fireside Chat I didn’t feel like I had enough entries to make a “drawing” truly random.

As for the Mini-helmet, I have two confirmed online entrants: @jasontwilliams and @ttopherstevenn. Anyone else in GR is welcome to drop by; I will hold the drawing at 7:00. You do gotta be there.


Three Cups Deep: Detroit Lions vs. Minnesota Vikings

>> 12.12.2011


Eight wins.

The Lions have won eight games.

For the first time in eleven years, the Lions will not have a losing season.

Since Bobby Ross quit midseason, and former U-of-M head coach Gary Moeller took the reins. Since Charlie Batch was the starting quarterback. Since Desmond Howard was the star returner. Since Jason Hanson . . . okay, bad example.

Lost in the hubbub of a missed facemask call that may or may not have affected the outcome of the game, the mysterious failure of the offense to score more than 20 points when the defense handed them the ball four times, and the infuriating transformation of Joe Webb into Mike Vick, was the Lions shattering a seven-win glass ceiling that stymied each of their last three head coaches.

As I said on the Fireside Chat, this was a bizarre, disorienting game. The offense moved the ball effectively. Matthew Stafford’s stats looked great. The defense got six turnovers and converted two of them directly into 14 points. There are hints of the problem in the 269 rushing yards surrendered and 72 rushing yards gained, but even that doesn’t explain the bizarre inability the Lions had to put the Vikings away.

Throughout the game, folks watching at home hit me up on Twitter and via text to ask me what was wrong with the crowd. The “Lions Nation Army” of Ford Field was more like Bingo Night at the VFW Hall.

In the crowd’s defense, it was a hard game to get into. The lighting-fast run up to 28-7 made it feel like the rout was on. It felt like, just as with the preseason games and Kansas City and Denver, the switch had been flipped and the good-old-fashioned woodshedding everyone had hoped for (and was secretly expecting) was underway.

When that rout didn’t come, it took the crowd out of the game. When the Vikings started creeping back into it, it really made the crowd antsy. When time after time after time, the Lions found a way to fail to put a dagger in the Vikings’ hearts, the crowd grew restless. There were even boos audible on 4th down decisions to punt and/or kick field goals. Boos, mind you, when the Lions were still leading by multiple scores.

It was hard to get into it when the Lions couldn’t put the Vikings out of it. It was hard to get loud when we were trying to figure out what the heck was going on. It was hard to get amped for a defense that’s so convinced Joe Webb can’t possibly beat them throwing that Joe Webb was killing them on the ground.

None of this excuses the crowd, of course. I think we’ve already grown happy and fat on expectations. If we Lions fans want a reputation as a huge home field advantage, if we want to keep earning game balls, if we want to keep other teams practicing with fake noise set at 120 dB, we have to arrive loud and stay loud. We can’t just wait to see if it’ll be worth our effort and then buy in. The team needs our support for four quarters; let’s give it to them. Also, I saw some “fans” heading for the exits during Minnesota’s final drive. As I said on Twitter, I have some words for those folks: NEVER COME BACK.

Ultimately, the Lions got the ‘W’, and in terms of the season that’s all that counts. At 8-5 the Lions are a game up on the Bears, Cowboys, and Giants—all of whom can’t string two wins together to save their lives. With the division win over the Vikings, and the Bears’ common-opponent loss to Denver, the Lions now have the tiebreaker over the Bears, on top of the head-to-head tiebreaker against the Cowboys. With three games to play, the Lions have an effective two-game lead on both the Cowboys and the Bears, and a one-game lead on the Giants.

But of course, one of the Cowboys or Giants will win the NFC East, meaning the Lions and Falcons are essentially in a two-horse race for two spots. If the Lions take care of business in Oakland, they’ll earn their first out-and-out winning season since that fateful 2000 campaign. After that, the Lions could clinch a playoff berth at home against the Chargers, completing their first 10-win season since 1995—not coincidentally, the year Scott Mitchell set all the passing records Matthew Stafford is on track to break. That game falls on December 24th . . . and what a wonderful Christmas present that would be.


Fireside Chat: Detroit Lions vs. Minnesota Vikings

A minor technical snafu (I didn't press record right away) chopped off the intro and the first minute or so, but here's this week's Fireside Chat. A strange and bizarre-feeling win, but . . . yes, a win. Subscribe (and rate!) via iTunes if you are an iTunesy person like myself.


Lions-Vikings Must-win Gameday Notes

>> 12.11.2011

It's a must-win game today, playoffs aside. I explained why over at Bleacher Report.. The Fireside Chat will still be tonight around ten, but if more people don't enter the contest, I won't be giving away that remote!

As for me, I'll be at the game, likely for the last time this year. I'm going to make it count.

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