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Stafford thrives in Lions’ Calvin-less offense

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News
Matthew Stafford

Allen Park — As Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford has piled up franchise record after franchise record, there was always those who wanted to credit his success to Calvin Johnson.

In the seven years the duo played together, Johnson averaged 86 catches for 1,362 yards and 10 touchdowns, rarely against anything less than double coverage. Without question, Johnson was a physical marvel, one of the most talented receivers to ever step foot on the gridiron.

So when Johnson retired this offseason, many questioned what would happen to Stafford. No longer able to sling it to the league’s best receiver, would the Lions quarterback still be effective, would he still be able to put up monster numbers?

It hasn’t taken long for Stafford to quiet those concerns.

Through five games, his performance has shown no signs of dropping off. In fact, in many ways, it’s been better. He’s completing 68 percent of his passes and both his passer rating and QBR are on pace to be career highs.

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“I think he’s a growing and developing quarterback. Yeah, so I do think he’s better than he was the last year, two years ago, three years ago,” offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter said.  “I think he’s doing a really good job what we’re asking him to do and so are the receivers, tight ends and backs.”

No one is discounting Johnson’s accomplishments, but his absence has also freed Stafford up to approach games differently. There’s less pressure to force the ball to a specific target and the exotic coverage looks opposing defenses would utilize on game day – something they had never previously shown on film – are a thing of the past.

“Everybody has got a little wrinkle here and there they like to throw in on a Sunday as a defensive coordinator,” Stafford said. “But, for the most part, we’re not seeing as many crazy kick-to-Calvin coverages as we used to see.”

There are multiple factors at plays in Stafford’s continued success. Number one, he’s in an offensive scheme that is putting him in a position to succeed. In the final eight games of the 2015 season, Stafford completed 70 percent of his throws with 19 touchdowns and two interceptions. He hasn’t been able to maintain those gaudy numbers, but he’s still on pace for 32 touchdowns to 13 interceptions.

Stafford has also been given a lot of control, to read defenses and make the necessary adjustments.

“I think this offense fits him great, for what he wants to do and how he’s most comfortable,” wide receiver Golden Tate said. “This year, he doesn’t have to force anything. We’re OK with hitting check downs and backside throws and Matt is comfortable with that, too.

“I feel like his (football) IQ is way up and it’s been impressive.”

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Beyond the scheme, the Lions have done a good job giving Stafford a complete arsenal to work with following Johnson’s retirement. The team signed accomplished veterans Marvin Jones and Anquan Boldin, which has made it easy to spread the ball around.

Jones currently leads the NFL in receiving with 519 yards, while Boldin has been a reliable weapon in the slot -- something the Lions have lacked in recent years -- catching 21 balls on 28 targets for 184 yards.

Through five games, the Lions have five different receivers averaging at last five targets per game.

“He’s really just trying to throw it to the open guy,” Cooter said. “It’s as simple as that and it sounds overly simple, but it’s a really big deal. You know when you have Calvin Johnson out there, one of the all-time great receivers, going to the Hall of Fame as soon as you can get him in there, it makes a lot of sense to try and throw that guy the ball and sometimes you might override your read to do that.”