Lions' Stafford struggling to get deep passing success

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News
Last season, Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford was second in the NFL in passer rating on deep throws.

Allen Park — Arm strength has never been an issue for Matthew Stafford. Everyone who has ever watched the Lions quarterback knows he’s capable of making all the throws.

But touch, that's been an issue at times. 

Early in his career, Stafford was aided by Calvin Johnson, an All-Pro wide receiver with a two-car garage catch radius. When Stafford’s pocket collapsed, he could heave up a prayer into double-, sometimes triple-coverage, and more often than maybe any receiver in NFL history, Johnson would bail his quarterback out.

Once Johnson retired after the 2015 season, Stafford was forced to refine his game. And under the tutelage and scheme of offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter, the quarterback tightened up his mechanics, decision-making and accuracy.

Stafford’s passer rating has topped 90 each of the past three seasons, and his completion percentage has been north of 65 percent during the same stretch, but it wasn’t until last season that Stafford found his groove with the deep pass for the first time since Johnson departure.

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The tandem of Marvin Jones and rookie Kenny Golladay certainly aided in the improvement. Jones has a rare talent for tracking the long ball and using his frame to get late separation from a defender. Golladay offers the big-bodied athlete the Lions lacked following Johnson’s retirement.

According to PFF, Stafford attempted 70 deep passes last season, completing 30. That's a healthy percentage for a play with a naturally lower success rate. Among qualifying passers, his 111.6 passer rating on deep throws was second to only Kansas City’s Alex Smith.

But as the Lions players have been coached to say, last year was last year, and Stafford’s above-average accuracy on deep throws in 2017 has been a thing of the past through two games this season.

In Sunday’s loss to the 49ers, Stafford sailed five downfield throws beyond the reach of his receivers, and almost every time, the target had a step on coverage. Stafford posted a pretty-looking final line, completing 64 percent of his 53 throws form 347 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions, but his inability to connect deep played a critical role in the loss.

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"Huge, right?" Stafford said after the game. "Not taking a lot of opportunities against a team like that. They want to keep everything in front of them. Two for sure to Marv that I thought I had chances at that I just overthrew. But I don't know, I'll have to look at the film. I can hit those, and we've got to find a way to connect on them."

Jones had little to say about the situational struggles, simply pledging to work harder. Coach Matt Patricia and Cooter also offered little insight into the breakdowns.

"I would say, you know, last game may have been a little bit of an outlier based on what I've seen over the last couple years," Cooter said. "We missed a few, we had a good shot at a couple, had a couple good whirls at it. You're not going to hit 'em all in this league. You'd love to hit 100 percent of every pass you throw, but that's not realistic. I don't think it's a trend. I think it's a little more of a weekly outlier, and I look forward to sort of getting right back to where we were with those things."

Like Stafford’s deep ball, Cooter’s accuracy is a little bit off. Stafford’s struggles were a recurring theme throughout training camp this offseason, especially in the joint practices with the Raiders and Giants. Almost all of those throws, similar to the misfires against the 49ers, were too long.

On film, it appears there could be a mechanical flaw with the quarterback’s weight distribution impacting his follow through. That would explain the inconsistent trajectory. It’s also possible, the receivers aren’t getting the same, clean releases off the line they did last season, screwing with the timing of the throws.

Cooter didn’t deny issues with the operation, but declined to publicly address the specifics.  

“"Nothing I really want to get to deep into with the media here," Cooter said. "Like everything in this offense, whenever stuff doesn't go right on game day, or whatever that story is, we're going to come out and work on it. We'll put some work in, we'll make sure we're getting better at things. Stafford's a really hard-working guy, our receivers are hard-working guys, they'll put the work in and we'll get better at everything we're doing.”

The sample size is small, 11 throws, so it’s too early to sound any alarms. And in the opener, there were three, including two to Jones, which while lacking pristine accuracy,  were balls the receivers managed to catch more often than not last season.

Regardless of the fault, getting the vertical component to the passing attack back on track will play a significant role in the offense’s weekly production.

“We obviously have to go out and execute them better than we’re doing right now, try to get the guys in good position to take advantage of some of those deep balls,” Patricia said. “We’re still working on it. It’s obviously part of the offense and that’s never going to change.”

Twitter: @justin_rogers