Inconsistent Matthew Stafford Must Answer the Bell Against Cowboys

Matt Bowen @MattBowen41NFL National Lead WriterJanuary 2, 2015

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Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford will have plenty of opportunities to make plays this Sunday in the NFC Wild Card matchup versus the Dallas Cowboys defense.

Think of the Cover 2 beaters, the inside breaking routes versus single-high safety looks and the play-action passes that open up throwing windows in the middle of the field. With Calvin Johnson, Golden Tate and the threat of seam routes from the tight ends, Stafford will be in a position to produce down in Dallas.

Yes, the Lions need to create some balance on the ground with Joique Bell and Reggie Bush, but the Detroit coaching staff should have a nice game plan put together for Stafford to attack the Cowboys’ core coverages.

However, after watching some tape on Stafford, can we count on the Lions quarterback to play at a consistent level versus Rod Marinelli’s unit?

DETROIT, MI - OCTOBER 19: Matthew Stafford #9 of the Detroit Lions throws a fourth-quarter pass against the New Orleans Saints at Ford Field on October 19, 2014 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Greg Shamus/Getty Images)
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There are throws from Stafford that absolutely jump off the tape. I’m talking about the quarterback setting his feet and delivering the ball to the proper shoulder of the receiver. That’s when we see the velocity and placement from Stafford to light up zone coverages or go to work with one-on-one matchups.

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Stafford can fit the ball into tight windows because of his arm strength, and there is no question about his ability to target the vertical route tree. Plus, he can throw the ball from multiple platforms (or release points) to create an angle to the receiver.

Take this example from Week 17 versus the Packers on Stafford’s touchdown pass to Johnson.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

In this situation, the Lions are in a 3x1 formation with Johnson aligned as the No. 3 receiver (count outside-in) versus Cover 4. That immediately puts stress on the strong safety (aligns between No. 2 and No. 3 in Quarters technique) to play the inside vertical seam from Johnson.

Stafford does an excellent job holding the free safety to the open (weak) side of the formation, but I’m more focused on the throw/mechanics from the Lions quarterback as he sets his feet and puts this ball on a rope (away from the leverage of the strong safety).

This is highlight stuff from Stafford given the eyes/shoulders to hold the free safety, the ball placement and the pro-level mechanics on the release.

Here’s another one from the Thanksgiving matchup versus the Bears, with Johnson again taking an inside alignment (that’s where the ball is going) out of a 2x2 formation.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

With the Bears playing Cover 3, the Lions run an outside smash route (occupy the cornerback) and send Johnson down the seam. This creates a throwing window over the top of the nickelback and in front of the free safety.

The Bears free safety takes a flat angle to the ball, and the cornerback overlaps on the seam route from the outside third. But look at the throw as Stafford exposes the zone defense to deliver the ball to his top wideout for six points.

These are just a couple of examples, but I think they both show the ability of Stafford to sling the football into tight windows. And you will find a lot of these positive plays on the tape.

But it’s the negative throws that are concerning with Stafford. This is when the technique breaks down, the footwork gets sloppy and the quarterback struggles with accuracy as the ball starts to sail on him. Plus, Stafford’s decision-making can be suspect at times when he takes unnecessary risks and forces the ball into coverage instead of checking it down or targeting an underneath option within the progression.

Look at this example from the Lions’ second matchup with the Bears on a deep dig route (square-in) versus Cover 2 in the red zone.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

Check out the mechanics at the release point. Stafford’s shoulders are open (instead of closed to the target) and his feet are almost parallel on the throw. That forces the ball to hang in the air and allows the deep-half safety to drive top-down to make a play on the ball.

Here's one more from that same matchup, with Stafford making a really questionable decision to throw the ball up in the middle of the field versus Cover 2.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

Again, look at the shoulders (open to the target) with Stafford throwing back across his body. Given the field position and the coverage look in the secondary, this is a throw Stafford can’t make. That’s an automatic pick for the defense, with the safety simply sliding over to track the ball in the end zone.

Both of these throws took points off the board in the red zone. And, really, this allowed Chicago to hang around in that Week 16 game.

Looking specifically at the matchup on Sunday versus the Cowboys, there will be throwing windows given the coverage schemes Dallas has shown on tape, along with the technique outside the numbers against the cornerbacks.

Johnson can win on the releases and run the slant, skinny post or dig. In the red zone, look for the tight ends (or Johnson, if he aligns inside) to run the seam versus Cover 2. Three-deep? That’s going to be four verticals. And we will see some 7 (corner) routes to hit the deep hole between the cornerback and safety.

But that’s just chalkboard talk.

If the Lions want to get the win in Dallas and advance to the divisional playoffs, Stafford has to play with some consistency. That means utilizing technique, controlling footwork and making smart decisions to keep his team out of adverse situations.

The opportunities will be there for Stafford, and I want to see if the Lions quarterback can answer the bell on the postseason stage.  

Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.