Allen Park — Matthew Stafford has long possessed one of the strongest arms in football, but that talent was wasted in 2018.
Whether it was due to injuries, to himself or his weapons, or former coordinator Jim Bob Cooter's offensive scheme, Stafford's average pass attempt traveled a paltry 6.81 yards beyond the line of scrimmage last season. Among qualifying passers, it ranked 31st. Only Oakland's David Carr threw the ball shorter, on average.
This year, the Lions have retooled the offense under new coordinator Darrell Bevell. And even though the team is running a West Coast offense variant — a system predicated on short throws and yards after the catch — he's managed to utilize Stafford's arm like never before in his career.
Well, at least through four games.
"It's important to push the ball down the field, no question," Bevell said. "It's really hard in this league to get 5 yards, 5 yards, 5 yards, 5 yards, put that many plays together and finish with a touchdown. I mean, your percentages go way up to score with an explosive play in the drive. "
As the team enters the bye, Stafford is averaging 10.84 yards per pass attempt. That's the most in the NFL this season and by far the best mark of his 11-year career. It's nearly a 25% improvement from his previous high, set in 2012.
"Every quarterback loves the opportunity, to use your word, uncork it, throw the ball down the field and stretch defenses vertically," quarterbacks coach Sean Ryan said. "I think the thing you love about a guy like Matthew, he knows there's a time for that and when there's not, being a smart football player. That's what you appreciate about him, we're always talking our shots and when we take them and when they're good to take and I think he understands that part of the game."
So far this season, Stafford has attempted 31 deep throws, 20 or more yards downfield. That's five more than reigning MVP Patrick Mahomes, who is on pace to top his league-high 92 from a season ago.
It's a trend Bevell would like to see continue with the offense.
"I like our group of skill players that we have and trying to find different ways to get them the ball, really all over the field," Bevell said. "When you have a running game the way that we are hoping to have, and like we had last week, then it lends itself to have opportunities down the field. That’s what we’re trying to do. I think I talked about it one of the first weeks — we’re trying to be explosive in our pass game and that’s the way to do it."
With T.J. Hockenson recovering from a concussion during the bye week, Detroit’s depth at tight end could be tested going forward.
Just Jesse James and Logan Thomas are also on the active roster, and Thomas could be featured more prominently after 54 snaps through four games.
“We really like what Logan is doing,” tight ends coach Chris White said. “He’s running really fast, crisp routes. We always talk about being quarterback-friendly. When he’s running, he speaks to the quarterbacks. They know when he’s breaking, they know all that stuff.”
Thomas, a former quarterback at Virginia Tech, has caught all five of his targets this year, in part because of his QB-friendly, 6-foot-6 frame.
“His catch radius, it’s real,” White said of Thomas, who caught three passes for 25 yards Sunday against Kansas City, the second-best game of his 30-game career. Thomas attempted a leap over a defender unsuccessfully after one of his catches, perhaps foretelling Hockenson’s attempted leap that ended in his head hitting the Ford Field turf.
Thomas’ one catch against Philadelphia was a twisting in-air adjustment to a pass that brought the ball inside the 5-yard line.
“Ball skills, hand-eye coordination, all that stuff, he’s doing a nice job blocking,” White said. “He deserves to play.”
Offensive line coach Jeff Davidson said Graham Glasgow and Joe Dahl earned the starting guards spots during the preseason. But Kenny Wiggins deserved some snaps too, he said.
Thus, the guard rotation was born.
“I’m sitting here trying to agonize over who is winning the starting jobs,” Davidson said. “To me, it was clear who owned the starting jobs, but I also believe that Kenny Wiggins earned the right to be on the field.
“It’s a way to be able to get that done also. And as a bonus, it’s also helped pull of the legs of those guys a little bit too, to hopefully create a little longevity for the rest of the season, the next game, the end of the game, all those things as well.”
Wiggins has played 92 snaps this season, and although Dahl (238) and Glasgow (234) have played more, Davidson said the rotation should continue.
Davidson tells Wiggins the series before he’ll go in to get loose, usually in the second and third quarters.
“I feel comfortable with him going into the game just as much as the other guys,” Davidson said.
The coach said simplifying communication has been a key to continuity alongside tackles Taylor Decker and Rick Wagner and center Frank Ragnow.
“There are one-word calls. That call doesn’t change based on who is in the game. It’s one thing that they say,” Davidson said. “It’s the same calls and they’re supposed to do it exactly the same way. Except for one play so far this year, that has occurred.”