Fixing The QBs: Can Matthew Stafford overcome a lack of mechanics?
The first interception came with 7:54 left in the first quarter, with the Lions at the Rams’ three-yard line. It’s first down, and Stafford takes a quick drop and immediately throws an interception to cornerback Janoris Jenkins, who is playing in his first NFL game. This was clearly a quick read in which Scheffler was intended to use his size to beat the defender physically, but with an underthrow and converging hooded coverage, it didn’t work out that way.
I asked Greg Cosell of NFL Films, who produced Jaworski’s quarterback ranking segments and also produces the network’s NFL Matchup show, to help us break these plays down.
Cosell on the first pick: “To me, the pass to Scheffler was not a read problem. It was a pre-determined throw based on the coverage, and not an incorrect throw based on the coverage. He has a 6-foot-5 athletic tight end against a 5-10 cornerback. That was the matchup they wanted. But Jenkins never turned his head … the whole point of the back-shoulder throw is that the defender doesn’t see it. But Jenkins stayed square to Scheffler and never turned his body, and you combine that with the fact that Stafford threw it too far to the inside. The defense won, and Stafford made a badly inaccurate throw.”
The second interception came with 7:17 left in the first half. The Lions had the ball with first-and-10 at the St. Louis 16. Stafford was targeting tight end Brandon Pettigrew from the left slot, despite Rams linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar moving out to Pettigrew’s alley before the snap. Stafford made the throw, and Dunbar easily jumped the route. To me, this was a clear case of a defense reading a tendency and the quarterback failing to pick it up. It looks as if Stafford is seeing Pettigrew open and missing the fact that Dunbar is all geeked up to jump the route.
Cosell wasn’t so sure.
“This is an example of a play that looked like a bad read, but my guess is that because he has a big arm, he thought he could get that in there. That doesn’t make it OK, but I don’t think he was fooled by the defense. He saw Dunbar move before the snap, and he thought he could get it in there anyway. It’s something he does, and it can be both a positive and a negative. You have to make certain throws, but it comes down to situations, and you don’t want to see those kinds of ‘maybe’ throws in the red zone.”
The final pick came with 1:36 left in the first half. The Lions had first-and-10 at their own 23. Stafford had Calvin Johnson outside right, and Pettigrew in the slot. At the snap, slot corner Cortland Finnegan blew right by Pettigrew — the guy you’d think he’d be covering — to get to the sideline so that Bradley Fletcher, who had Johnson up top, would have help with the underneath concept. Safety Quintin Mikell, who Stafford may have thought would head over to cover Johnson deep, instead stayed up top. It was a brilliant disguised coverage, and Finnegan was rewarded with a 31-yard touchdown return.
“I really believe that because Finnegan was inside the slot receiver,” Cosell said, “Stafford did not factor Finnegan into this play. I’m not in Stafford’s head, but … it was a right-side read, and he saw Finnegan inside. It’s possible that it was inverted Cover 2, and Finnegan was the underneath outside defender. … He’s throwing to Calvin, so it could be a coverage designed for that — ‘Let’s show him the throw, and then, let’s take it away.’ They could be baiting him, too.”
To the point of Stafford’s mechanics, Cosell put it succinctly.
“I was very fortunate in my career to get to know Bill Walsh and to spend a lot of time with him,” he said. “And he drilled home to me the importance of ‘Mechanics, mechanics, mechanics.’ And it starts with footwork. He used to say that he could see a quarterback’s game from the waist down and tell you if he had a good game. Matthew Stafford is an elite arm talent — we know that. I didn’t just break any news there. Everybody in the league would tell you that. But if you have poor mechanics on a consistent basis, and if you continually change your arm angle when you don’t need to, and if you continually throw off-balance with your feet improperly set when you don’t need to, there’s no way you can be consistent. I really believe that he needs to be taken back to school in the offseason, and they have to get him to play with better footwork. That’s where it has to start, and once that happens, I think everything else will fall into place.”
Do I believe that the Lions see no issue with Stafford’s inconsistency? I think that Schwartz and his coaches tell Stafford things they would never tell the media, and that’s as it should be. Schwartz also knows that he has a young quarterback who can make some incredible plays and has a good head on his shoulders, despite the occasional veer from the norm. It’s important to remember that despite the fact that he’s entering his fifth season in the league, Stafford turned 25 in February. When the Lions selected him with the first overall pick in the 2009 draft, they’d earned that position by being the only team in league history to lose all 16 games in a season the year before.
He’s a very talented guy fighting some uphill battles, but I believe that Stafford would be able to do even more with a better battle plan, and a more accurate gun.