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Seahawks-Lions, NFL Wild Card weekend: How Matt Stafford is so clutch and what the Seahawks need to do to beat him

Detroit Lions v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

If the Seattle Seahawks are going to advance to the divisional round for the fifth straight year, they’re obviously going to need to get a lead vs the Detroit Lions, but perhaps more importantly when playing the Lions — they’re going to need to hold onto it.

That’s because quarterback Matt Stafford is clutch. So clutch in fact that he has completed eight fourth quarter comebacks this season, an NFL record. This surpassed the record Peyton Manning previously set with seven back in 2009, and added to his league-leading total of 25 since entering the NFL that year.

To illustrate this trait, I want to take you back to a few games this season, beginning in Week 7 when Detroit played the Washington Redskins. The Lions were trailing 17-13 with 1:05 left in the game and Stafford led them to one of those game-winning drives.

Even when the Redskins executed a perfect tackle-end stunt with (92) Chris Baker and (91) Ryan Kerrigan, Stafford eluded the sack and sprinted up the field for a 14-yard gain.

To finish the drive, he placed a perfect pass to (80) Anquan Boldin versus Washington’s Cover 3 defense. This scored the game-winning touchdown right over the outstretched fingertips of (51) Will Compton dropping in his zone responsibility.

Stafford’s first few seasons were marred by injuries. While he has size standing at 6’3” and 226 pounds, many analysts considered him fragile since his first two seasons ended with him being placed on injured reserve.

In his third season, he proved the doubters wrong by playing all 16 games and throwing for over 5,000 yards with 41 touchdowns. While he hasn’t reached those numbers in a few years – only averaging 4,300 passing yards and 26 touchdowns in the last three – he has been a really effective quarterback.

In Week 13 versus the Chicago Bears, he dislocated his right middle finger. Asked about his latest injury, he would tell you that the injury does not affect his performance:

I wanted to dive deeper into the past four games since injury to see if the stats would indicate otherwise. As you can see in the table (below), he has completed a worse completion percentage, worse yards per attempt, and a worse touchdown to interception ratio since the injury. While this is far from conclusive, something is clearly different in the past four weeks than earlier in the season.

Matt Stafford Finger Injury Stats - Samuel Gold

Another interesting stat I found while writing this article was that the Lions only played three games in outdoor stadiums this season. The rest of their games were played indoors. For fun, I compared his performance in these two stadium types to see if there were any useful trends of his performance.

Matt Stafford Open Close Roof Stats - Samuel Gold

As you can see in the table, Detroit is 0-3 in outdoor games this season. Wins and losses are a team stat, but I wanted to point out that while the team has lost all three of their games, Stafford hasn’t performed statistically worse outdoors than indoors.

Going back to his injury, whether it’s mentally affecting him or it’s completely unrelated, he has not played as well since the injury. Take this interception he threw versus the Bears in the fourth quarter. The Lions were leading 13-10 and Stafford forced his pass to Boldin on his out-route.

Chicago is playing Cover 2 Man with two deep safeties while the rest of the defenders are playing man coverage across the board. Knowing his proclivity for scrambling, the Bears leave rookie linebacker (94) Leonard Floyd to play contain.

In the slot, cornerback (22) Cre'von LeBlanc has excellent coverage on Boldin, but he throws the pass anyways. The ball is behind the receiver allowing LeBlanc to break on it and return it for a touchdown to give Chicago the lead.

Ironically, his pick six opened up the opportunity for him to break the single season record for comebacks as he led the Lions down the field to score a touchdown.

In this play, he did an excellent job of escaping the pocket after (92) Pernell McPhee bullrushed left tackle (68) Taylor Decker into his throwing lane. He would break two tackles as he eluded the defense to score.

Detroit wouldn’t be this lucky in their other three games. Versus the Dallas Cowboys, Stafford had one of his worst games of the season only managing 5.6 yards per attempt on 46 passes while their porous defense allowed 42 points.

With 4:10 remaining in the second quarter, the Cowboys run a “fire zone blitz” rushing five while dropping six into coverage. Tight end (85) Eric Ebron slips into the second level on his seam route and he is wide open in the middle of the field as his defender pre-snap rushes. Seeing Ebron’s original defender rush should have been the clue to him to target the tight end. Instead of getting taken down for a sack, this should have been an easy first down conversion.

Poor decision making against pressure seems to be a common issue for him. Later in the second quarter, Dallas lined up with two deep safeties so Stafford starts his reads looking left hoping to find a throwing lane between potential Cover 2 zones.

The Cowboys are actually in Cover 3 blitzing one of their defensive backs. Seeing the shift of the safeties with a single high safety and one rolling down underneath should have been a clue to him to move on from his first read to find the crossing route of (15) Golden Tate over the middle of the field. Instead, he scrambles around the pocket and throws the ball away, where the Lions would punt two plays later.

It hasn’t been all his fault. Lions center (60) Graham Glasgow and left guard (72) Laken Tomlinson have been awful this season. In the third quarter, Dallas rushes three while dropping eight into coverage and the defense still manages to get a sack. (96) Maliek Collins clubs Glasgow out of his way to chase the quarterback from behind.

In my opinion, he has to shift to his right and then step up in the pocket to avoid the pressure. This would have bought him more time, but with (57) Damien Wilson lurking over the middle of the field, the best he really could have hoped for is an incompletion instead of a sack due to the Cowboys’ excellent coverage.

In the very next play, he threw an interception to safety JJ Wilcox as he scrambled outside the pocket. He didn’t set his feet and missed the cornerback on the sideline thinking he could get the ball up the field to his receiver. The ball bounces in the air allowing Wilcox to pull it in.

In Week 17 against the Green Bay Packers, Stafford definitely played better than he did in Week 16 versus Dallas, but he still had issues with forcing throws. One of his passes was almost intercepted by linebacker (52) Clay Matthews near the end of the second quarter.

The Packers dropped six into coverage while bringing a five man pass rush with two linebackers in the second level. Detroit runs a slant-flat combination on the right side of the field. After the snap, he senses the pressure and then quickly fires the pass. He doesn’t see Clay Matthews undercutting the route who drops an easy interception.

Not only did he almost throw an interception, Eric Ebron was open in the flat since two of Green Bay’s defenders covered (11) Marvin Jones.

While he did have some poor throws, he did a great job with his deep passes in this game. For example, versus the Packers Cover 2 defense, he found the hole between the deep right safety and underneath sideline defender for the 35 yard gain to (13) TJ Jones.

If Seattle can generate pressure and Steven Terrell can play as well as he did last week versus the San Francisco 49ers, the Seahawks have a chance of stopping this high-powered offense. In my opinion, Seattle has to blitz. Defensive coordinator Kris Richard needs to take a page out of Green Bay’s book and dial up a number of blitzes versus Stafford to take advantage of their poor offensive line through the center A-gaps. Not only will this keep Stafford in the pocket, but it might force him to make a costly error.

Seahawks vs. Lions

Let's get ready for the playoffs! Seahawks vs. Lions!

Posted by Field Gulls: For Seattle Seahawks News and Analysis on Friday, January 6, 2017