DETROIT – The Detroit Lions are now 3-5, and one of the many questions facing the team is the performance of the offense and play of quarterback Matthew Stafford.
Stafford couldn’t practice last week because he had to isolate from his teammates all the way up to pregame warmups due to COVID-19 exposure. Stafford started the game well, but faded in the second half, throwing two interceptions as the Lions tried to come back against the Minnesota Vikings.
Stafford -- and the Lions' offense as a whole -- has been inconsistent all year. Over the last two games, he has four turnovers, including a pick-six. The two interceptions against Minnesota came at the worst time as the Lions were in the red zone.
Let’s look at those plays and see what the Lions can do to try and eliminate those turnovers.
Here, it’s first and 10 on the 20-yard line. It’s 27-10 Minnesota in the third quarter.
Stafford has time. He has four receivers going out on the play, which looks built for Danny Amendola and T.J. Hockenson. Stafford looks left, then to Amendola, who’s on a crossing route. He sees a Minnesota linebacker initially go with Amendola and decides to throw to Hockenson.
Unfortunately for Stafford, the linebacker who first went with Amendola stopped and sat underneath Hockenson’s route to pick off the pass.
After the game, Stafford called the interception a bad decision, saying, “I didn’t see (the linebacker), otherwise I wouldn’t have thrown it. But (I) can’t just trust that he’s not there.”
Here, it’s a bit later in the third quarter, with the score still 27-10 Minnesota. It’s third and goal at the 5-yard line. Stafford is going to look for Hockenson, who breaks out before breaking towards the post.
Stafford trusts that Hockenson will get open, but also makes a bad throw off his back foot. There’s not enough zip on the ball and the linebacker does a good job in coverage, effectively running Hockenson’s route and being right there to pick it off.
“I just gotta throw the ball higher," Stafford said. “When I cut it loose, he wasn’t looking at me and I thought I could sneak it by him, and obviously he turned around and made a good play.”
It looked like Stafford forced that ball. He knows he didn’t place the ball well when he says he should’ve thrown it higher.
How do the Lions fix it?
Isn’t that the million-dollar question? Earlier in the game, Stafford had a streak of 16 straight completions. Looking back, Stafford took what the defense gave him. He told reporters the Vikings were playing lots of deeper coverage, which left space open underneath.
The Lions were also running the ball better than in prior weeks. The offensive line was able to get a push. Adrian Peterson had some nice runs, as did D’Andre Swift.
But the Lions continue to struggle in high-leverage situations on both sides of the ball, and they’re too inconsistent.
On a third down play in the first quarter, no one could get open and Stafford was sacked for a loss of 9 yards. Matt Prater then missed a field goal. The Vikings would score on their next possession to go ahead 13-0.
In the second quarter, the Lions drove to the red zone. On second and goal, Swift and Marvin Jones ran routes to the same area, and Stafford threw to Swift, who couldn’t cross the plane, going out at the 1-yard line. On third and goal, the Lions lined up in a heavy set and predictably handed it off to Peterson. The offensive line got pushed back and Peterson was stuffed, forcing a field goal attempt.
A Lions touchdown late in the first half made it 13-10 Vikings, but the Lions’ defense gave up a touchdown on the next possession just before the half to make it 20-10.
The Lions have seen that back-and-forth, incomplete type of game too many times this year, and over the past few years. It could be a reason Stafford seems to be forcing, which too often this year has resulted in negative plays.