Breaking Down Matthew Stafford's Up-and-Down Start to 2012 Season

Dean HoldenAnalyst IOctober 23, 2012

CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 22:  Matthew Stafford #9 of the Detroit Lions passes against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field on October 22, 2012 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Simple question: Will the real Matthew Stafford please start throwing passes?

Through six games in 2011, Stafford had thrown nine touchdown passes to Calvin Johnson.

Through six games in 2012, Stafford has thrown five touchdown passes, period.

Stafford has generally played decent football this year, at least in that he's completing passes for a lot of yards and not turning the ball over too much.

Still, the Lions offense is not producing points at even an average level, and Stafford's inconsistency is a big reason why. 

So what's wrong with Stafford this season?

For starters, it is becoming clear just how much Stafford may have relied on Calvin Johnson last year. Johnson's absurd size, speed and reach means he can catch a lot of passes in a very large radius. 

It also means it's very difficult to overthrow him.

After Johnson burned up the league in 2011, teams started playing him like they did in 2008: put either two or three guys on him at all times and force someone else to catch passes.

To this point, it seems like Stafford looks to Johnson first on just about every route, then he runs through the rest of his progression. The result is either that he checks down, or this:

Blame the pass protection if you want. Stafford has been flushed out of the pocket on an alarmingly high number of passing attempts, and most of the time that results in an incompletion or worse.

Stafford's pass protection hasn't been fantastic, but more often than not, he has time to throw the ball. The problem is he doesn't have anyone to throw to.

Lions receivers routinely fail to win their one-on-one matchups, and Stafford doesn't seem willing to force balls into coverage after his disastrous first week. That shows up in a big way considering he has thrown the same amount of interceptions (three) in his last five games as he did in his first (three).

It's good that Stafford isn't turning the ball over, but it also means he isn't getting completions in through tight coverage, which was a very big part of his effectiveness last year. It's possible that his three-interception performance against the Rams shook his confidence.

But perhaps the biggest problem we've seen from Stafford is much simpler.

Even if he was trying to make those pinpoint throws, his accuracy just isn't there. Considering Stafford has been playing through a hamstring/hip injury, it's hard not to wonder if his accuracy isn't suffering because of that injury.

Stafford has sailed a number of passes this year that looked easy for him last year, regardless of whether that pass was a 50-yard bomb or a two-yard screen.

But perhaps more importantly, Stafford doesn't appear to placing his throws very well, even the completed ones. Even when he hits his players in a catchable range, those passes are often high or behind his receivers.

That makes it harder for receivers, easier for defenders and much more difficult to generate yards after the catch.

This showed up in a big way against Chicago. Stafford launched a number of overthrows, but I'm particularly interested in this play.

Full credit to Charles Tillman for this play, but the whole thing about throwing passes to Calvin Johnson is that he can catch higher passes than anyone else can.

Stafford didn't let Johnson high-point this ball.

He jumped for it and it hit him basically at the shoulder level. That made it possible for Tillman to get his hand in there and knock the ball away. That's a touchdown off the board because of ball placement, and it wasn't the only one in that game.

The maddening thing about Stafford's struggles this year is that none of these things were issues in 2011, which means we're looking at a flaw of mentality or preparation, not a physical one (unless he is being affected by injury).

That would seem to suggest that Stafford's struggles are correctable, but we can only sit and wait to see if they actually will be corrected.