Daily duels in practice help Stafford, Quin, Lions

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News
Matthew Stafford has six touchdown passes.

Allen Park — For the second consecutive season, Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford is being mentioned as a potential MVP candidate. The sample size is ridiculously small, two games, but he’s currently considered a favorite for the award, along with New England’s Tom Brady and Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers.

The NFL’s highest-paid man is currently living up to his new contract, completing 71.0 percent of his passes with six touchdowns and one interception, thrown on his first pass of the year. Most importantly, the Lions are 2-0, jumping out to an early lead in the NFC North, a division the team has never won.

Stafford’s improvement is part of a continued arc, and one that goes well beyond the box score. He’s better, in almost every facet, than he was two seasons ago. He’s more mobile, in and out of the pocket, making plays with his feet he couldn’t earlier in his career. He’s making far fewer mistakes. Then there’s the subtle things, observable only on film.

Take for example his 45-yard touchdown pass to rookie Kenny Golladay in the season opener. The trajectory and accuracy of the deep ball is something we’ve grown to expect, but it was how Stafford created the favorable matchup that’s the cherry on top.

More: Lions’ Zenner stands ready for next opportunity

Unlike his early years, when Calvin Johnson made it easy for Stafford to stare down his top target, he’s become far more proficient using his eyes to lure defenders away from where he wants to go with the ball. If you watch his head on the throw to Golladay, Stafford uses his head to hold the safety in the middle of the field, leaving his receiver with a one-on-one matchup to exploit.

That’s a nuanced play from a quarterback who still hasn’t peaked, and it’s a skill he’s had the perfect partner to help develop.

No, we’re not talking about coach Jim Caldwell, offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter, or even position coach Brian Callahan, who all have played a role in Stafford reaching the next level. But the ability to bait a safety, that’s been fine-tuned practicing offseason after offseason against one of the best ball-hawking center fielders in the league, Glover Quin.

Glover Quin

Quin, in his fifth season with the Lions, has a knack for forcing turnovers. He’s intercepted 17 passes during the stretch, including one this season. He’s nearly had two others the first two weeks, including one he tipped to teammate Tahir Whitehead Monday night. Quin just seems to constantly be around the ball.

Detroit’s safety-quarterback matchup is a classic case of iron sharpening iron. Stafford’s arm strength and accuracy force Quin to be on top of his game and Quin’s veteran savvy and instincts makes him a worthy foe.

“We have a pretty good cat-and-mouse game going,” Quin said. “The older you get at the quarterback, or at any position, the smarter you become. It’s very true at quarterback because you know how to manipulate better, you know how to manipulate, you know what you’re looking at. You’re the one in control.

“As a safety, you may be smart, you’re not in control. They’re in control.”

Stafford values the dynamic the two share, one that’s limited to the practice field or film study. The pair regularly converse to get a better grasp on the other’s mindset, to understand why something does or doesn’t work.

“He’ll bat one down or get into a good spot during practice and I want to know what he was thinking,” Stafford said. “I’ll ask him, ‘What did you see me do?’ Then I’ll get him on one and he’ll say, ‘Man, this is really helping me.’

More: Lions took weight-and-see approach with George Johnson

“It’s great to have a guy to be able to bounce ideas off of, who is smart and can articulate football,” Stafford said. “He can really understand where I’m coming from and I can always bounce ideas off of him and off each other.”

Stafford wasn’t the only one to sign a new contract this offseason. The Lions also locked up Quin, 31, for another two years. In a radio interview shortly after that extension was announced, general manager Bob Quinn said Quin represents everything he wants in a Lions player, on and off the field. But his impact clearly isn’t limited to the defensive side of the ball. He’s quietly making Stafford and the offense better, too.

Falcons at Lions

Kickoff: 1 p.m., Sunday, Ford Field, Detroit

TV/radio: FOX/760

Records: Falcons 2-0, Lions 2-0

Line: Atlanta by 3