The Detroit Lions started out slowly in Week 1, a continuation of the slow starts that seemed to plague the team all preseason.
With some issues at running back,—injuries and suspensions—we knew that the bulk of the work would end up on QB Matt Stafford's shoulders.
So when he struggled,—and he did—they struggled. However, he got back on track and led them to victory.
Today we'll look at his three interceptions, what went wrong—as well as a series of plays preceding a game-tying touchdown by Kevin Smith in the fourth—and what went right.
I'll be using NFL.com's "Game Rewind" and "Coaches Film" to break this down for you.
1-3-SL 3 (7:54) M.Stafford pass short right intended for T.Scheffler INTERCEPTED by J.Jenkins at SL 0. J.Jenkins to SL 34 for 34 yards (K.Smith).
This took place in the first quarter, and Stafford actually had been doing alright. He was throwing a lot of short passes, getting the ball out quickly before the defense had a chance to react.
The interception happens in the red zone, at the goal line as a matter of fact—the last place you ever want to turn the ball over.
There is a common theme in Stafford's interceptions on Sunday: Each time he misses seeing a defender—safety or corner—who is haunting his receiver.
In this particular case, the play is clearly all about timing. Tight end Tony Scheffler is the only target Stafford appears interested in. With rookie corner Janoris Jenkins lined up against the veteran, Stafford must have assumed he could take advantage of the matchup.
The receivers on the left side of the Lions' formation are both in good position to make plays as well, and if Stafford had waited for a second or two to make his decision, he would have seen a better option on a drag route across the middle.
However, the play is a bang-bang play, and Stafford clearly had made his decision before the snap.
While Scheffler heads right for the goal line, Jenkins only takes a few steps back—and, more critically, gets inside Scheffler.
In just a second, the ball is out of Stafford's hand and in the air—with Jenkins directly in its path. It's easy enough for him to pick the ball off and head the other direction.
Scheffler might have been able to make a play on the ball and at least keep it out of Jenkins' hands, but didn't.
Stafford may have assumed Scheffler would fight for the inside position, and Scheffler might have assumed Stafford would loft the ball to the back corner of the end zone.
Whatever the miscommunication, it results in a turnover.
1-10-SL 16 (7:17) (Shotgun) M.Stafford pass short left intended for B.Pettigrew INTERCEPTED by J.Dunbar at SL 14. J.Dunbar to DET 44 for 42 yards (K.Smith).
Again, this is a mistake in the red zone.
The play is designed for tight end Brandon Pettigrew to run an out-and-up, with Calvin Johnson (bottom left) pulling the coverage with him as he runs upfield. He either doesn't see linebacker Jo-lonn Dunbar, or assumes he will move at the snap, likely to the middle of the field or running up to pressure the quarterback.
Dunbar moves toward Pettigrew as the tight end makes his cut toward the sideline. Instead of being behind Pettigrew and away from the play, Dunbar is suddenly trailing him a bit and is between Stafford and Pettigrew.
Stafford either doesn't see him or thinks he can throw the ball by him.
Dunbar, like Jenkins, gets inside position on Pettigrew and easily intercepts Stafford's pass.
It's a bad decision all around, and it's hard to fathom why Stafford didn't try to loft the ball a bit and take advantage of Pettigrew's six-inch height advantage over Dunbar.
1-10-DET 23 (1:36) (No Huddle, Shotgun) M.Stafford pass short right intended for C.Johnson INTERCEPTED by C.Finnegan at DET 31. C.Finnegan for 31 yards, TOUCHDOWN.
This one is a killer for a number of reasons.
The play is a pass meant for Johnson along the right sideline, and it looks as though the intent is for the slot to pull the coverage with him.
The dotted red line is where the Lions and Stafford must have assumed the coverage (Cortland Finnegan) would go. Unfortunately, the solid red arrow shows you where he does go.
The play starts, and you can tell there is trouble already. Finnegan moves toward the sideline and not the slot receiver, who is picked up instead by a linebacker.
Instead of single coverage on Johnson, you have him double covered. Not a big deal, it happens frequently.
However, being a smart veteran, Finnegan doesn't try to run with Johnson—he moves to cut off the ball.
As with the other two interceptions, Stafford just doesn't see him or thinks he can hurl the ball past him.
Finnegan makes a nice catch of the pass, which he then returns for a touchdown.
All three passes are ones where Stafford's decision-making is unsound or hurried. All three seem to feature Stafford completely misreading coverage or forcing the ball.
It's not a pretty performance.
Luckily for the Lions and their fans, he bounced back.
I chose this series of passes to showcase what worked for Stafford and why, because it has three plays that are completely counter to what we just saw.
What didn't work earlier does, and there are some very specific reasons why.
1-10-DET 20 (9:45) M.Stafford pass short right to B.Pettigrew to DET 40 for 20 yards (J.Laurinaitis; B.Fletcher)
On this play, Stafford fakes a handoff to the running back and immediately rolls to his right. This is vital given the problems he had on his three picks where he seemingly rushed the ball out of his hand.
Rolling out gives him a chance to survey the field, to make sure things are working to his advantage and to make sure his choices all are open.
Pettigrew is the target here, and we'll get to him in a moment.
Unlike the previous plays where the receiver at the bottom of the screen starts his route, the defenders key on him.
This is achieved because Pettigrew, instead of immediately running a route, momentarily blocks and then releases a pass-rusher.
The linebacker and cornerbacks have moved to the receiver, and Pettigrew finds himself in a wide-open space.
Look at how much room Pettigrew has to make his catch and how much room he has to run after the reception. The pass is uncontested.
1-10-DET 40 (9:05) (Shotgun) M.Stafford pass short right to B.Pettigrew pushed ob at SL 42 for 18 yards (Q.Mikell; J.Dunbar).
That reception is followed up by another pass to Pettigrew, who is lined up in the slot.
This time, when the flanker takes off down the field, he splits the zone between the cornerback and the linebacker. Both men choose to move with the receiver, as Pettigrew plants himself at the 46 and makes a nice catch.
It's a quick play and works because the coverage decided to follow one receiver, leaving Pettigrew open.
After the Lions run the ball once, the offense decides that, after three shorter plays, it's time to air the ball out.
1-10-SL 29 (7:57) (Shotgun) M.Stafford pass deep middle to B.Pettigrew to SL 5 for 24 yards (Q.Mikell) [R.Quinn].
That's right, Pettigrew again. If it ain't broke, don't fix it, and this sure ain't broke.
On this play, Pettigrew is lined up on the offensive line. Smith will come out of the backfield, and I marked in red where the linebacker will come up to meet him.
Again, Pettigrew briefly will engage the defender in front of him, and then head downfield.
If you look to the right side of the line, I've marked the defensive drift in red. The Lions had been beating the Rams short and on the side of the field with two receivers. Obviously, to me, they have adjusted and cheated over toward that side of the field.
All three defenders marked drift toward the right sideline just before the snap.
As the play takes off, Pettigrew gets past the first linebacker, who realizes Smith isn't coming out of the backfield and starts to backpedal. The other linebacker and the safety backpedal, and the corner closest to the left sideline stays with his receiver.
Stafford throws a nice pass at Pettigrew. As you can see by this last screen cap, he has four defenders around him, but not close enough to do anything.
This play worked in part because the previous three plays were set up in such a way as to get the defense to do certain things and make particular assumptions. Once baited, the Lions and Stafford were able to have enough time to hit a big play.
It also worked because Stafford just did a better job of reading the defense both pre-snap and post-snap.
Early on, Stafford struggled with picking up defenders and figuring out what they were doing. His interceptions weren't the only examples of this, just the most damaging.
Once the Lions started to roll him out and give him more time to make a play, he was able to make better reads and take advantage of some tendencies on the Rams' part.
Against the 49ers, Stafford cannot afford to make the mistakes he did early on in this game. Unlike the Rams, the 49ers will take advantage of his errors and score points.
Unlike the Rams, the 49ers won't let the Lions hang around until Stafford gets his act together.
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