Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford has already proven he can put up eye-popping statistics. In former offensive coordinator Scott Linehan’s scheme, Stafford produced two of the top 10 individual passing yardage seasons in NFL history, per Pro Football Reference.
Yet he can do better. If the Lions are to take the proverbial next step and be a yearly contender, Stafford must do better. He finished 2013 poorly, and his bouts with inaccuracy and poor judgment gnaw at fans like mosquitos at a campfire.
New offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi could be just what the doctor ordered to help fix what ails Stafford and the Detroit offense.
|Drew Brees' Prolific Passing 2011-13|
|Comp/Att||Yards||TDs||All-time Yards Rank|
|Pro Football Reference|
He's bringing that record-setting offense with him to Detroit. As awesome as those numbers look, it's the more overarching success that the Saints found as a team that should get Lions fans excited. New Orleans won playoff games after the 2011 and '13 campaigns on the strength of that potent offense.
When looking at those gaudy Brees statistics, two things should stand out.
First is the completion percentages. Those three years produced completion rates of 71.2, 63.0 and 68.6 percent.
Secondly, look at the consistent touchdown production. It's one thing to spike with a season of more than 40 touchdowns in a season, something that has been accomplished just 10 times. Brees averaged over 42 per year in that three-season span.
Stafford holds one of those 10 seasons with 40-plus touchdowns, netting 41 in 2011. Unfortunately, his copious yardage totals have not always resulted in prodigious touchdown production.
|Matthew Stafford 2011-13|
|Pro Football Reference|
That's a lot of empty yardage. While those are still mighty impressive raw numbers, they ring hollow and inefficient.
A transition into the New Orleans passing scheme should help put more substance and effectiveness into Stafford's output.
One of the key differences is that the Saints style works on the premise of creating mismatches and allowing the quarterback to exploit the proper matchup. Zane Brown of Bleacher Report wrote an excellent breakdown of this advanced West Coast system and how New Orleans coach Sean Payton adapted it to Brees.
There are three main points from Brown's article that apply to Detroit.
The first one is a very natural fit for Stafford and his cannon of a right arm:
In the Saints offense, the familiar slants and short-out routes that helped turn the likes of Joe Montana and Steve Young into household names are still intact, but Payton has sprinkled some of his own personal tweaks into Walsh's original model. Chief among these additions is an aggressive, vertical passing game.
This effectually is inverted for Stafford, who has never been shy about attacking the defense vertically. It's the slants and short outs and ins that are added that should help bolster his completion numbers. Those are easier, shorter throws that allow for creativity after the catch.
A quick look at the discrepancy between yards per completion and yards per attempt illustrates where Stafford and the Lions can improve.
|Yards Per Attempt and Completion|
|Yards per Completion/Rank||Yards per Attempt/Rank|
Clearly the Lions had no problem attacking vertically, but it came at the expense of the chain-moving shorter passing game. When the Lions weren't hitting the big plays down the field—notably in the final few weeks of 2013—the offense sputtered and couldn't sustain drives.
By incorporating more of the shorter, safer routes, the Lions can get more efficient and less reliant on Stafford's awesome arm. It also eases the burden on Calvin Johnson and the dependence of the offense for Megatron to make the spectacular contested catch.
Another key point is how integral the running backs are in the passing game:
"What makes Payton's offense unique, though, is the fact that his running backs typically run many of the same routes as wide receivers and tight ends."
Detroit has two dynamic receivers out of the backfield in Reggie Bush and Joique Bell. Both netted over 500 yards receiving in 2013 and are reliable catchers of the pigskin.
In fact, Bush leapt to prominence in this very system during his early New Orleans days. He notched 88 and 72 receptions in his first two seasons. With all the space created by the downfield options and the carefully plotted underneath routes, he and Bell should get ample opportunities to attack opposing linebackers in space.
The final point is how the New Orleans offense focused on exploiting one facet of the defense in particular: the safeties.
Numerous modern offenses purport to utilize "every inch of the field," but Payton's offense comes closer than most to actually accomplishing this.
His steady exertion of pressure on opposing safeties gives Payton's version of the West Coast an even greater degree of balance than Walsh's original.
Lombardi would be wise to emulate his mentor here. Between Stafford's strong arm and the versatility of weapons like Johnson, Bush and rookie hybrid tight end/wideout Eric Ebron, the Lions can reap a cornucopia of positive plays by attacking the opposing safeties.
Here's a play the Saints used last season that the Lions can seamlessly incorporate with their own receiving talent. This comes from their game against the New York Jets:
The Saints line up with Graham wide, flanking speedy wideout Robert Meachem. Graham motions into the slot, which allows Brees to read the coverage by seeing how the defense reacts to the motion.
Several things are happening here. The tight end on the left (top) side of the formation chips on the pass-rusher and then quickly releases out. Combined with the excellent play-action fake by Brees and the running back, this holds the linebackers into the short area.
The fullback is in option mode. He doesn't have anyone to block, so he flares out to the bottom of the picture, taking away the shallow corner from downfield pursuit.
This frees Meachem and Graham to both get easy downfield releases and isolates two receivers on three defenders. The key now is the single safety, playing high center field at the top right of the picture.
Look at Brees in this picture; his focus is on that safety. If the safety floats to the outside, Brees knows his option is Meachem, who is about to break off into a post route inside. If the safety stays near the center of the field, Brees knows he has Graham wheeling outside in single coverage on a nickel corner.
The safety sticks to the inside, and Graham blows past the coverage down the sideline. This is absolutely a combo route that Eric Ebron and either Golden Tate or Calvin Johnson can work for Detroit.
Also note that the linebackers remain occupied with the underneath routes. If one of them breaks down the field with Graham or Meachem, that would leave an uncovered receiver with lots of running room for Brees to find in the intermediate range.
Brees delivers a strike over the top, and Graham drags the beaten defender into the end zone for a 51-yard touchdown. The safety never reacts to Graham even after the ball is in the air.
Of course, all the clever scheming in the football world doesn't mean anything if Stafford cannot make the correct decisions.
Hopefully, Stafford is spending his summer immersing himself in how Brees operated this offense. Being able to quickly decipher the mismatch and confidently deliver accurate strikes are imperatives. The scheme will create opportunities.
It's up to Stafford to take the next step and make the same sort of magic that Brees has done. He has the talent; Stafford was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 NFL draft for a reason. Even though this will be his sixth season, he's just 26 years old.
The precociousness should be gone. This is the time for Matthew Stafford to shine. He could blow away many clouds of doubt if he follows the example of Drew Brees in the new Detroit offense.