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Lions' Stafford has 'played better' than stats might show

Josh Katzenstein
The Detroit News
Matthew Stafford

Allen Park — Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford is averaging just 6.2 yards per passing attempt this season, the lowest mark of his career (he ranks 33rd in the NFL) in a season in which he's played at least four games.

He has thrown just five touchdowns, putting him on pace to tie his lowest mark in a full season (20), and only three quarterbacks — Andrew Luck (Colts), Ryan Fitzpatrick (Jets) and Jameis Winston (Buccaneers) — have thrown more than Stafford's five interceptions.

Yet, as Stafford leads the NFL's 29th-ranked offense — one with a struggling offensive line — and 16th-ranked passing attack, his coaches have the utmost confidence that he can help dig the Lions out of their 0-4 hole.

"I think Matt Stafford is a very good quarterback that we're happy to have," offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi said. "Of all my concerns, Matt's not the biggest one, so we've got to protect him, we've got to run the ball better and he's going to take care of his side of it."

When the Lions hired their current coaching staff in 2014, they did so with an eye toward maximizing Stafford's immense potential. After a stellar 2011 season, Stafford's completion percentage decreased while his interceptions increased each of the next two seasons, so they targeted a head coach with experience coaching quarterbacks, eventually adding Jim Caldwell.

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At the Senior Bowl in January 2014, the Lions hired Lombardi, and shortly after the move, he told Yahoo! Sports that, "He's not broken," when discussing Stafford. After noting the headline might have been sensationalizing the conversation, Lombardi stood by that opinion on Thursday.

"I still don't think he's broken," he said of Stafford. "I think he's a good player. My biggest concerns are getting the run game going and getting some bigger chunks in the passing game and eliminating ... some things on (Monday) that were well within our control that killed drives, whether it was a third-and-1 mental error or the penalties in the second half that knocked us off. So, there's things that are in our control."

Despite Stafford's six turnovers, including one fumble, Lombardi said he's done better at protecting the football, which might be true considering how frequently he's under pressure. Plus, the Lions' last two opponents — Denver and Seattle — rank in the top four defensively.

Lombardi and Caldwell both pointed to Stafford's improved completion percentage of 65 percent as a reason to be confident in his play. Stafford's completion percentage is currently the highest of his career, but still ranks 16th in the league.

"He's played probably better than he's given credit for," Lombardi said. "His completion percentage is up, and the thing that we're missing in the passing game is the big play. A key to scoring is getting chunks, and so we've got to get more chucks and I think that will come."

Although he's been accurate on short passes, Stafford is just 2-for-9 on passes of 20-plus yards downfield, according to Pro Football Focus, and his 22.2 percent completions on deep passes is tied for 32nd with Colts backup Matt Hasselbeck.

Stafford misfired on a couple deep shots to wide receiver Calvin Johnson Monday against Seattle and took the blame Wednesday for missing his target. As to why he's not playing as well as he's capable, Stafford pointed to the turnovers in the first three games. He didn't have any against the Seahawks.

Still, despite a more efficient game, Stafford didn't throw a touchdown Monday, and his passer rating is now 79.7, ranked 27th in the league and his lowest since his rookie season.

"The season's not over yet," Caldwell said when asked about Stafford's poor efficiency numbers.