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Allen Park – Matthew Stafford went through a quarterbacking transformation last season.

His final numbers were stellar, and his second-half statistics were incredible, but his receivers and coordinator Jim Bob Cooter’s offensive scheme deserved a significant portion of the credit. That’s because Stafford and the Lions’ offense leaned heavily on the pass-catchers doing so much of the work after the catch.

Despite the reputation of possessing one of the NFL’s strongest arms, Stafford finished dead last in average distance his passes traveled through the air, 6.47 yards. He had never averaged below eight yards per throw any other year in his career.

It’s easy to understand why when you have weapons like Golden Tate and Theo Riddick, who operate best close to the line of scrimmage and have a knack for making tacklers miss. The figure was also anchored by opponents game-planning to take away Calvin Johnson as a deep threat.

Johnson had just 16 receptions of 20 or more yards last season. He had 40 such plays during his record-breaking 2012 campaign.

This year, through three games, Stafford’s yards through the air have rebounded back over eight per attempt. Riddick and Tate are still doing their thing close to the line, but new addition Marvin Jones’ downfield ability has Stafford airing it out more than he did last season.

Unlike Johnson, Jones doesn’t draw as many double teams, making him a more viable vertical threat. He’s already racked up a league-best nine gains of 20 or more yards.

“He’s got good speed, good body control and doing a good job of attacking the ball when it’s in the air,” Stafford said.

Additionally, the upgraded offensive line has provided Stafford better protection than he had last year. The quarterback can be less concerned with pass-rush pressure arriving too quickly, allowing the receivers enough time for their downfield routes to properly develop.

“I think guys have done a really good job when we’ve needed it, big time,” Stafford said. “We’ve hit some big plays, everything is tied into everything. You run the ball well? Yeah, you can play action, take shots down the field. You pass protect well? Yeah, the ball can go down the field a little bit longer. It’s all tied in.”

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/justin_rogers

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