From 2011-13, Matthew Stafford ranked in the top five quarterbacks in terms of attempts 20 yards or longer from the line of scrimmage with between 73 and 86 in each of the three seasons, according to Pro Football Focus. Last year, Stafford threw just 63 deep passes and ranked 11th in such attempts.
So far this season, the Lions rank 31st in passes 20 yards downfield and are ahead of only the Dallas Cowboys, who lost starting quarterback Tony Romo in the third quarter of a Week 2 game in which they led 13-0 at the time.
The site has charted Stafford with just three deep passes so far this season, none of which were completed. Denver's Peyton Manning (eight attempts), Tennessee's Marcus Mariota (seven) and Philadelphia's Sam Bradford (five) are the only other quarterbacks to start both games without a completion 20 yards down the field. The Titans dropped one of Mariota's attempts, and the Eagles dropped two from Bradford, per the site.
Whether the conservative passing game the Lions currently employ is a result of play calling, Stafford's decision-making, offensive line play or exemplary defense by the San Diego Chargers and Minnesota Vikings is unclear, but two weeks into a 16-game season, it's fair to call this a trend.
Of course, Pro Football Focus grades and signature statistics should not be taken as gospel. Their three deep passes from Stafford all came in Week 1, but he also had another on a broken play to wide receiver Golden Tate late in the fourth quarter of Week 2, a pass that traveled 21 yards from the line of scrimmage.
The NFL considers a 15-yard pass a deep one, and the Lions have officially tried just nine of those so far.
Of the four passes that have traveled 20-plus yards from the line of scrimmage this season, none have been thrown to Johnson, the Lions' speedy and physical deep threat who had 83 yards on 10 catches in Week 2. The Lions targeted him once on a 26-yard pass in the fourth quarter against the Vikings, but the play was nullified by pass interference on cornerback Xavier Rhodes, a penalty that erased an interception by safety Harrison Smith.
"The fact of the matter is Calvin got the ball," coach Jim Caldwell said Monday. "He didn't break one long, but he got a touchdown for us. He had certainly an impact on the game, and we've just got to do a better job overall just in terms of executing. It doesn't just fall on him or it doesn't fall on Matthew getting the ball down the field to him. We've got to run the ball better; we've got to do a lot of things better."
In Week 1 against the Chargers, Stafford's first deep pass came on the opening drive to receiver Lance Moore, but the ball went well over his head and appeared to be a throwaway.
The next 20-yard pass didn't happen until the 8-minute mark third quarter when Stafford threw to Tate 33 yards from the line of scrimmage, but cornerback Jason Verrett had perfect coverage on the play and batted it away.
On the next play, Stafford took a hard hit to his throwing arm from linebacker Melvin Ingram, and the Lions didn't attempt another long pass until their final drive. The last one came with 1:17 left in the game, and Stafford's throw from the San Diego 21 to the end zone was nearly intercepted by safety Eric Weddle.
The broken play to Tate with 3:19 left in the fourth quarter was the only deep pass in Week 2. Considering Caldwell said after the game Sunday that the Lions wouldn't have played Stafford if his right arm injury limited him, it's clear something else is leading to the conservative passing game.
"The great majority of (our pass plays), have a deep component, an intermediate component and a dump-off," Caldwell said Monday. "And what we do is try to work through the progression, and whatever they give us, we take."