Monday, March 10, 2014

QB Corner - Matthew Stafford (DET @ PIT)

My goal for QB Corner is to survey the league's young starting quarterbacks, see how they're developing, and try to determine if they're on the right trajectory to becoming elite signal callers. How does Matthew Stafford fit in that mix? Isn't he a 5th year vet? I thought the following was kind of interesting - see if you can match the QB with his age. I'll wait:

The first thing that struck me was how similar those ages were: a difference of only 2 years from youngest to oldest. Here are the actual ages:

Stafford's one of the older ones, but not older than Colin Kaepernick and Andy Dalton. Russell Wilson and Nick Foles aren't spring chickens either. This is the complete list of young signal callers that "won" starting jobs over the last season, sorted in descending order of age:

So Stafford is the oldest after Weeden. That's not surprising. But look at that second column: this details how many years of starting experience each QB has (Stafford has been in the league for 5 years but injuries wiped out most of the 2nd year). Stafford (and Freeman) have the most starts. I wonder how old the other guys will be after their 4th seasons starting (assuming no injuries)?

First: Holy Cannoli, Cleveland! By Brandon Weeden's 5th year, he will be 32 and on the decline... and that's the best case scenario!!! The worst case is that he shows zero competence and is benched for a crap bag of Jason Campbell and Brian Hoyer. Wait a second...

As for the teams that didn't draft QBs already in their late 20's: Colin Kaepernick hasa ton of youthful exuberance, but after red-shirting his first year, he'll be 28 in his 5th year. Russell Wilson will be 27, his career held back by baseball. Even a guy that was just drafted, Mike Glennon, will be older in Year 5 than Stafford is now. On the other end of the spectrum: the young guys are mostly guys drafted out of their junior year and started from day 1. For some, it's worked out (Luck, Newton). Not so for others (Gabbert, Freeman), and the rest are question marks.

My point is, a lot of the so-called "young" QBs will be Stafford's age in just a season or two so he's really in the same age ball-park. The other reason I wanted to look at Stafford is that he shares one trait with the others: it is highly uncertain how good they will be. Stafford's 5 years in the league have given us more questions than answers. For example:

  1. He's a prolific passer (over 5,000 yards in 2011) but is plays in a pass-happy system. What would he be like playing for Seattle or San Francisco?
  2. During that magical 2011, his yards/attempt (7.6) and completion % (63.5%) were elite. Why has he declined drastically since then?
  3. He has played with some abysmal offensive lines and before Reggie Bush, some garbage running backs. He also plays with the best receiver in the league - how much of his production is Calvin Johnson?
  4. He made the playoffs in his 2nd year as starter. Why hasn't he been back?
  5. He played for a bad coach. Why doesn't anyone describe him as a leader, as someone who's in charge of his offense?
We could go on. Overall, Stafford has been a very boom/bust QB: winning some huge games while losing others. I still remember the uproar around the pass he threw with a separated shoulder and no time left to beat the Browns in Week 11 of his rookie year. At the time, I thought: "great pass, but really, he's annointed after one throw?" Then after a bunch of injuries, he won Comeback Player of the Year in 2011...and has failed to reach those heights again. Just look at the numbers:

This is the ultimate mystery. 2011 Stafford was better in almost every way that last year's version. This despite having Reggie Bush and one of the bets offensive lines Detroit's had in years. It's baffling. How does someone lose 5 points off his completion %? And 2011 Stafford's 6.98 mark in ANY/A would be one of the best among last year's young QBs:

Stafford had an all-right year when compared to the others. His interception rate is dangerously high (needs to be below 2.0%) but he doesn't take many sacks (below 5.0% is elite). Problem is, his ANY/A figure is right around average, but everyone else is getting better while he is declining.

Let's turn to the tape to see what is going on. I chose the game against Pittsburgh for a reason: it seemed to encapsulate everything we think we know about Stafford. If you'll remember, this was the game Detroit scored 27 points in one quarter...and then failed to score again, ultimately losing by 10. My job: find out which is the real Matthew Stafford, the guy that helped score all those points, or the guy that fell apart in the second half.

1. Good placement on the pass to Brandon Pettigrew over the middle. Feet are aligned in the right direction, but I don't like the big stride he takes as he throws. Great quarterbacks economize movement and know that too big a stride can throw both balance and timing off. Still, the throw nicely beats zone coverage.

2. Pseudo-screen to Reggie Bush. Notice how his footwork is crisp, he steps into the throw, and his release point is high: this is textbook quarterbacking, despite pressure from the bull rush on his right side. The pass goes right between the safety Polamalu and the cornerback.

3. The Lions fake an end around to the left and throw a RB screen to the right. He sidearms the pass; sometimes a sidearm delivery is required on screens to throw around rushers, but that's not the case here. Detroit has 3 blockers on three defenders in the area of the catch, and still two defenders manage to tackle Mikel Leshoure around the line of scrimmage.

4. Classic levels concept where a short receiver runs a dig and the intermediate receiver runs an out as the X receiver runs a go to clear the safety. Perfect footwork and placement of the pass to beat solid coverage. Again, notice how he steps into the pass, weight transitions to the front foot, and the release is high.

5. I'm mystified how he can throw great passes like the one above and follow it with this. Reggie Bush comes totally open in the flat on 3rd and 3. Inexplicably, with plenty of room in the pocket, Stafford opens his hips and throws high, incomplete. A completion here and Bush likely gets to the 20 and the Lions get at least 3 points.

6. Instead, they go for it on 4th down (the right choice, by the way). The pass is no-target and Calvin Johnson gets inside leverage, but Ike Taylor bothers him just enough to make it incomplete. The Lions walk away empty-handed.

7. Remember Stafford's good footwork and high release? Say goodbye - this is a Tebowian effort. First, the ball starts low for no good reason. He has plenty of room to step forward in the pocket and transfer weight into the throw, but instead, is leaning away from the throw in frame 4. Frame 5 shows a sidearm release...WTF!? The pass is thrown over the head of the deep receiver and Matthew is lucky it's not picked off. His high pick rate is starting to make sense...

8. Starts off good and oh, there goes that ball dropping below his shoulders again. Seriously, did Tim Tebow switch bodies with Matthew? The result is a pass that's 5 yards above his receiver's head. His open receiver that was behind both the corner and the safety. I understand that this pass travels more than 60 yards in the air: it's a tough throw. But this is a throw that elite, top-10 QBs have to make. This should have been 7 points. Combined with the 3 points missing earlier, and the Lions might have tied this game.

9. Good job reading right-to-left with his footwork following his eyes. I can forgive throwing off the left foot as a rusher is in his face, and the throw squeezes between two zone defenders. I have no idea what three Lions receivers are doing within 5 yards of each other in frame 3.

10. Nicely thrown curl to the right: good timing with the receiver.

11. A pump fake gets Calvin Johnson open and the pass is delivered beautifully with great footwork and form. Only a great defensive play by the corner to hit Calvin's hand prevents this TD.

12. Matthew has room in the middle of the pocket but panics (ball security is an issue) and throws off his back foot. The result is a high pass that was tipped and almost intercepted. Again. The inconsistency is infuriating. The Lions settle for a field goal. Given how open the receiver is, a well thrown ball is probably a TD and at least a 1st down. Another 4 points off the board.

13. A nice play-fake sucks the defense in on frame 1. Gets his feet set in frame 2 and delivers with excellent form in frame 3 despite the rusher. Frame 4 shows a safety that is not doubling Calvin Johnson. Note to league: double Calvin Johnson or he will make you look silly in frame 5 and spin out of a tackle for a TD in frame 6. You have been warned.

14. Footwork could have been better, but the pass is easy to the RB on a screen. Horrendous blocking ends the threat and the Detroit offense looks stalled: it's 3rd down with 5 minutes left in the 2nd quarter.

15. How does Calvin Johnson get wide open past the 1st down marker on 3rd and 11? How!?!? Stafford's hips are slightly open but I could complete this pass. He also does a good job manipulating the safety with his eyes: it looks like the defense thinks he wants the out route on the left sideline.

16. Off play/action, Stafford steps up into the pocket and delivers a strike for 25 yards in the middle of the field (didn't get the catch, sorry). Good things happen when Matthew steps into throws.

17. Good job reading right to left. Matthew quickly identifies three defensive backs on the right side of mid-field (frame 5) with a deep safety and single coverage on Calvin Johnson on the left. Calvin runs a double move - he basically has Ike Taylor beat off the line (frame 5) and maintains that distance the whole route. The throw is actually not very good: it's behind and low as Matthew opened his hips a little, not allowing him to put all of his weight behind the pass. Good thing the Pittsburgh defense is worse: they have 6 guys defending three routes (frame 5) and yet they leave Calvin Johnson in single coverage? WHAT THE HEY!? The safety is so horribly out of position that Calvin goes to one knee to catch the ball and still makes it into the end zone. Note to safeties: if you have to choose between covering anyone and Calvin Johnson, cover Calvin.

18. So now the Lions have 17 points with 2:30~ish left. Matthew ignores a wide open Reggie Bush on the left side to force a throw right. He's unable to step into the throw and the pass hits the Pittsburgh CB right in the hands...and he drops it. This is the third closely-averted disaster of the game for Matthew, all three coming on throws where his fundamentals were thrown off. Normally I wouldn't say that 3 throws is a viable sample, but I've seen this time after time after time after time...

19. Back shoulder throw to Calvin. He is right to open his hips to the left sideline as he wants the ball to drift away form the coverage.

20. The Lions finally break open a screen pass for 45 yards after catch. Decent footwork on the throw, too. Two linebackers collide on the 35 yard line in frame 2 leaving the field wide open.

21. Great footwork to open his hips quickly to the right (again, more difficult to throw right than left). The jump ball to Calvin is well thrown but just out of bounds. A run on the next play scores the TD though.

22. Two offensive holding penalties on the ensuing Steelers drive give Detroit great field position and they wisely call timeout to allow them to take advantage. Matthew works left to middle on this throw but throws off his back foot and it's batted.

23. Looks off coverage to the right and throws a nice pass deep left to Kris Durham, but it's tipped away.

24. 3rd and 15. Matthew wisely avoids the check down in frame 2 revealing good situation awareness. How does Calvin Johnson get wide open on 3rd and 15 and makes the catch for 20 yards...wait WHAT!?

25. Good check down to the RB to get within FG range.

26. Works left, then right, then middle. Great footwork: again, notice how high his release is in frame 3 and how he's stepping forward. The result is a fantastic completion to Calvin Johnson, who somehow gets open against double coverage.

27. They fake an inside zone and throw a fade to Calvin. It's well-covered and incomplete.

28. Play/action again, this time going to Brandon Pettigrew. Matthew expected the fake to draw the middle linebacker in and just doesn't see him. Another dangerous pass.

29. Slant to Calvin - Polomalu lays him out (may have been a penalty?) and the pass is incomplete (was also tipped by the CB, I believe).

30. I don't like how wide his stance is in frame 1. There are whole host of defenders in the middle of the field and two Lions on the left side. Matthew chooses to throw it off his back foot towards the middle. Another dangerous pass is batted away and Detroit escapes with 3 points.

So about that 27-point 2nd quarter. Two factors stand out: the Pittsburgh defense was horrendous, miscommunicating and at times seeming completely disinterested in covering the best receiver alive. And about that receiver: Calvin Johnson scored 14 points and was directly responsible for at least 3 more on that last drive. Some of those scores came while he was wide open and the throws were nothing special. The Lions just got lucky as their best player happened to get open several times and not remarkable offensive mastery, as the rest of the game will show. Quarters have completely arbitrary endpoints anyway: from minute 0 to minute 15, they scored 0 points; from minute 3 to 18, 10; and from minute 20 to 35, another 10. And would we think of this offense differently if the 27 points had come over the entire first half, or over 4 quarters? I think it's more accurate to say that the Lions scored 27 points in this game and they just happened to come in the one quarter.

31. Miscommunication with the WR - he runs a curl while Stafford throws a dig. More on this later.

32. Pressure up the middle, looks like he wants to sling it to the flat, batted ball.

33. Looks the safety to the right and throws an out to the left. He again throws off his back foot and is leaning away from the receiver but the ball placement is excellent and his man just drops it.

34. A horrible play. Obvious passing situation on 3rd and 9 sets the rushers free. Stafford tries to retreat backwards and is lucky to avoid a strip or a safety before he's sacked. Do you ever see Peyton try something like this? I realize that Peyton is going on 38 but a man that averages 1.9 yards per rush like Matthew shouldn't try this either.

35. Play/action naked boot to the right: I like moving the pocket after a sack. Sidearm delivery is accurate, but why does he change his arm angle? Criticize Colin Kaepernick's arm slot and mechanics all you want, but he's consistent from throw to throw. Stafford makes it appear as if he's improvising every time.

36. Works middle, then left, back to the middle with good footwork. Strong form yields a completion.

37. Has a lot of time in the pocket, works left to right before checking down to Bush. Good mechanics on the check-down - this is usually when Matthew's mechanics get wild as he adjusts to throw to a secondary target. This ball is delivered high and gives Bush good forward momentum. Key on 1st down is to gain positive yardage, which they do, and Bush is always apt to take it all the way.

38. Matthew realizes that there are only 3 rushers and he has only ~2.5 yards for a first down. As the edge rushers fly upfield, he makes a smart decision to rush forward and gets the first.

39. 3rd down in Steelers territory, the Lions throw another fade to Calvin Johnson. The ball is placed well but he's double covered and the cornerback interferes with the catch. The Lions' red-zone offense in this game relied a too heavily on ISOs to Johnson. That doesn't excuse the next play: a fake field goal that is predictably thwarted. I think Schwartz saw on film that the Steelers like to overload one side on FG tries and thought that he could get 3 yards running the other way. I don't know what the right answer is, but I'm curious that he pulled his high-priced offense off the field to run the ball with a rookie punter.

40. Stafford is hit while throwing and the shallow cross is high and incomplete.

41. Flushed to his right (a little happy feet), Stafford throws a strike to Bush that's dropped. This was a perfectly placed ball thrown on the run.

42. The Lions move the pocket on purpose this time. Stafford sets to go to the other side of the field. Coaches generally tell QBs not to do this (unless it's a designed fake) as the pass travels a long way and it's too easy to overlook lurking defenders. Stafford lets it go anyway off his back foot - notice he's leaning backwards in frame 2. Calvin Johnson is double covered and moving away from the ball, which is easily intercepted.

43. Heavy pressure causes Matthew to bounce this throw.

44. Makes a good read to go to the open receiver in the middle of the field. The ball is batted by the linemen though and drops incomplete.

45. Stafford escapes to the left and somehow gets his feet set to throw deep. Another pass back across the field to the opposite side, but he has Kevin Ogletree in single coverage. Great throwing motion leads to a picture perfect pass that Ogletree can't haul in.

46. Down 10 with 2 minutes and change, the Lions have to go for it on 4th down. Stafford correctly senses pressure on his right side and takes off for a big first down completion. I don't think he had time to look for a target downfield as getting to the sticks was his first priority.

47. Great form, throw, and placement on a 15 yard out but Kris Durham can't hold on. The Detroit secondary receivers really let Stafford down in this game and it's easy to see why Calvin Johnson gets the lions share of targets. Problem is, the Steelers defense has adjusted and is taking #81 away.

48. Matthew never steps into this throw and is leaning away by the time the ball is out. It looks like another miscommunication where he expected Durham to run an out and Durham ran a comeback instead.

49. Matthew somehow escapes pressure to the left - the Lions have 7 to block 4 and somehow the pocket collapses. 7 blockers mean 3 receivers against 7 men in coverage - everyone is double teamed and the pass is deflected by a Steelers corner.

50. The last play of the game. Not much doing on 4th and 15 and Matthew takes a game-ending sack.


First, as always, some context:

  1. Steelers defense: Pittsburgh rank 20th in Football Outsiders Weighted DVOA and 19th in passing defense. They looked lost in coverage in the first half before bouncing back in the second.
  2. Receiver drops. I counted 4 balls that should have been catches. Not all of them were egregious drops like pass 33 - some were difficult catches, but ones that should have been made.

The Good
  1. Good understanding of defenses and reads. Matthew showed a good pre- and post-snap understanding of the Steelers defense, where he had room, and what coverages they played. He was quick and decisive with his reads and moved fluidly from one side of the field to the other, with his feet in sync.
  2. Looking off the safety. Doing this requires the ability to make the primary read very quickly. Stafford got receivers open on several plays with his eyes.
  3. Good form when given time. Stafford's natural throwing motion is an over-the-top motion, with the ball coming high over his shoulder. When executed properly, his accuracy is pretty good. Pass 45 was especially nice - rolling to his left, he sets his feet, steps into the throw, and brings the ball high. 
  4. Not afraid to challenge defense. Despite some lackluster receiver play, Stafford challenged the Steelers defense and wasn't afraid to attack one-on-one coverage deep down field even when it wasn't to Calvin Johnson. 

The Bad
  1. Inconsistency throwing form. Matthew's throwing motion deteriorates under perceived pressure. His footwork was sometimes loose even when he had room in the pocket. He sometimes brings the ball lower and throws sidearm, even when the defense does not force him to do so. Throwing this way saps his power and accuracy; it is one thing to always throw sidearm (like Philip Rivers), but Stafford does so on only a few throws. He also has a tendency to throw off his back foot, not driving the ball even when his feet are set and he has room to step into the throw. On longer throws, he has a tendency to get "loopy" with his motion by dropping the ball and bringing it back up, making it slower and more unpredictable. 
  2. Tunnel vision when improvising. Again, QBs are taught not to throw to the opposite side of the field when out of the pocket as it's too easy to loose defenders. Stafford made some dangerous passes as the pocket broke down.
  3. Pocket presence. This is a general term that encompasses the ability to sense pressure, make small movements to avoid it, and get the ball out quickly. Stafford sometimes retreats instead of stepping up and getting rid of ball (not a lot of checkdowns/throwaways). He wasn't sacked much this year, but he was pressured several times which contributed to the above problems.
  4. Leadership. The offense suffered from many misscommunications like this one, where Stafford thinks it's a run, the line looks like it's run blocking, but running back Mikel Leshoure pass blocks:

          On several plays, receivers ran what looked to be wrong routes, and the offense just seemed a bit    
          disjointed in general. It's Stafford's responsibility to make sure everyone knows what they're doing.
          That's a big ask, but Stafford is already in his second contract after getting a massive rookie deal: his
          new contract pays $17.67mm per year, or $1.10mm per game...almost two times more than 
          Russell Wilson made all year. That's why it's fair for fans, coaches, and owners to ask more of
          Detroit's 5th year QB.

This game revealed just how maddening Matthew can be as a QB. 27 points is respectable output in today's NFL, but even that figure is misleading. Stafford left ~10 points on the field on two bad passes. That's the good news: they could have scored more. The bad? The Steelers came close on three potential interceptions in addition to the pick they did get. On of those came on a bad read, but the other two happened after Stafford's poor throwing motion produced an inaccurate pass.

That incontinence kills me. Guys like Cam Newton and Colin Kaepernick have their flaws, but those flaws are easily identifiable and ultimately coachable. Matthew's perfect form on some throws shows he knows what he should be doing - he just doesn't. And that's probably his biggest weakness. It tells me that, after 5 years in the league, Matthew Stafford is who he is. I would give him one more year with Jim Caldwell coaching to see if he can recapture the 2011 glory. Other guys, like Drew Brees (the poster boy in the stats section), Peyton Manning, and Tom Brady reached an elite level by their 5th years. That's an arbitrary end point but this isn't: $17.67mm. Per year. Through 2017. Stafford is being paid right now like he is elite. If he's unable to reach that level, the Lions will consistently find themselves behind teams with someone at that level, or a team like Seattle, San Francisco, or Philadelphia who has a guy on the cheap. It would take a herculean effort on the part of his teammates to reach a Super Bowl. It's not impossible (Ravens, Giants), but in a league with so much parity, do you really want to start each season with the odds stacked against you?

You make the call.

#YMTC #YouMakeTheCalls #QBCorner

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