The Minnesota Vikings have a history of battering Matthew Stafford.
Whether it’s been sacking him five times in three straight games between the 2011-12 seasons, dumping him seven times in 2015 or taking him down a career-worst 10 times in Week 9 last season, the Vikings have left Stafford with some bruises — and most recently, three straight losses in the teams’ division rivalry.
But the Lions quarterback appears rejuvenated in 2019 as the Lions have surprised pundits with a competitive 2-2-1 start to the season. Stafford had a down year by his standards in 2018 as the Lions went 6-10, particularly when it came to throwing the ball downfield after the team traded top weapon Golden Tate.
Stafford ranked 20th in aggressive-throw percentage (15.9%) and 34th in average intended air yards (7) last year, per NFL Next Gen Stats. But suddenly, under new offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, who spent 2006-10 with the Vikings, Stafford is back to being one of the most aggressive passers in the NFL.
“It’s a lot different than it was last year,” defensive coordinator George Edwards said of the Lions offense. “He’s very tough, very competitive, has the arm to make all the throws. He’s competitive in the pocket, can stay alive to get the ball downfield. They’re exceptional outside to the receivers, guys are competing up at the top, making big plays for him down the field.”
The change is eye-catching. Take a look at Stafford’s passing chart against the same Arizona Cardinals defense Week 14 of last season versus Week 1 at Arizona this season. Under playcaller Jim Bob Cooter in 2018, Stafford attempted two passes over 15 yards downfield. Under Bevell, he attempted 14.
WEEK 14 @ ARIZONA, 2018
WEEK 1 @ ARIZONA, 2019
This year Stafford is second in average intended air yards at 10.9 — a measure of how far a quarterback is throwing downfield — only trailing part-time starter Ryan Fitzpatrick. He’s third in aggressive throw percentage at 23.7%, trailing only Fitzpatrick and rookie Daniel Jones, which seems to jibe with information Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer shared on Wednesday.
“I’ll give you a little stat since you like the stats,” Zimmer told a reporter. “He’s number one in the league in throwing attempted contested passes.”
Yes, Stafford is slinging it in 2019, but not always successfully.
His adjusted completion percentage on deep balls is 38.9%, 21st in the league according to Pro Football Focus, which defines deep passes at 20 or more yards downfield. Overall, his 67.7% adjusted completion percentage ranks 33rd amongst NFL QBs.
Stafford, though, has enjoyed enough success in the intermediate-to-deep passing game that he’s sitting on the best yards per attempt of his career (8.0) along with nine touchdowns against two interceptions. Kenny Golladay tops the receiving corps with 364 yards, one of six pass catchers who have 100 or more yards on the season.
“With those receivers, they can get down the field,” Zimmer said. “[T.J.] Hockenson has added another dimension to them as well, and I think they’re doing a nice job with their play actions.”
Hockenson, the first-round tight end selection out of Iowa, had six receptions for 131 yards in the season opener but has been quiet since. The Lions as a team, however, could make a case for being 5-0 after holding healthy leads in every game. Detroit blew a 24-9 lead at Arizona before settling for a tie, allowed a last-minute touchdown to lose to Kansas City in Week 4 and lost a 22-13 fourth-quarter lead before losing on a last-second field goal last Monday at Green Bay. Each of their games has been decided by four points or less.
Stafford’s resurgence may be correlated in part to a resurgence on the offensive line, though they’ve given up seven sacks in their last two games, both losses. That said, former first-round pick Frank Ragnow’s move from left guard to center has paid off. He’s the highest-ranked center on Pro Football Focus. Former center Graham Glasgow shifted to right guard, and he’s ranked sixth by the analytics website. Stafford has only been sacked 5.5% of the time, his lowest sack percentage since 2013.
“He’s getting sacked less, let’s just say that,” Zimmer said abruptly before going on to praise Stafford.
“He’s just sharp with the ball,” Zimmer said. “He’s getting the ball out. He’s throwing into tight windows. Even when he gets hit, he comes back the next play and he’s going. He’s scrambling well. All the things good quarterbacks do, he’s doing. … He’s throwing the deep ball well. He’s throwing the intermediate deep ball well, getting the ball out quick on the no-back stuff. He just looks good to me.”
Stafford did not look good against the Vikings last year, throwing zero touchdown passes in two lopsided defeats.
But 2019 seems to have provided a newfound assertiveness for the Lions quarterback.
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