The Detroit Lions are 10-5 in their last 15 games. During that time, Matthew Stafford, who garnered a reputation as a reckless “gunslinger”, has thrown just six interceptions while attempting 534 passes.
Stafford has also thrown 34 touchdown passes during that stretch. For about a season’s worth of data now, Stafford has been playing as well as any quarterback in the NFL.
Obviously, Stafford deserves much praise for his play, but the factor that changed everything for Detroit’s franchise quarterback and the offense as a whole was the promoting of Jim Bob Cooter to offensive coordinator, even with Calvin Johnson no longer in the equation.
You can argue that Stafford’s play has elevated because he has been forced to grow as a passer and distributor. He no longer had the crutch of an all-time great wide receiver to bail him out when he was in trouble.
There could be some truth to that, but there is no question that Detroit’s offense and Stafford’s production would surely be even greater over these past 15 games with a healthy Johnson in his prime.
Taking a great player out of the equation isn’t a recipe for improvement, but the additions of Marvin Jones and Anquan Boldin have been paying off at the wide receiver position in a big way.
Detroit’s running game under former offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi was one of the league’s worst. When he took over, Cooter implemented far less zone blocking than Lombardi, instead utilizing man blocking schemes that got the Lions big heavy guards on the move and coming downhill at their target on pulls.
Overall, this offensive line that is currently made up of three former first round picks (Tyler Decker, Riley Reiff and Laken Tomlinson) along with third round starters Travis Swanson and Larry Warford. The Lions also used a third round pick on Graham Glasnow, a center, to turn the heat up on Swanson.
There is talent here and is slowly improving. However, the make up of this line is much more mauler than agility. Therefore, the change in rushing tactics made perfect sense by Cooter.
Injuries have been a big problem at running back this season, and the Lions really could use a bigger back to run behind this mauling line. The Lions average under 90 rushing yards per game and under four yards per carry in 2016. We might see Dwayne Washington this week in Houston.
Washington has ability and could take this offense up a notch during the second half of the season. Plus, Ameer Abdullah could possibly return after Detroit’s Week 10 bye, although the latest news surrounding his foot injury wasn’t as optimistic. Running back might be a the top offensive offseason priority for the Lions.
But make no mistake; this is Stafford’s offense. He is attempting 35.6 passes per game during these past 15 games. Stafford is a truly elite arm talent and is clearly one of the most gifted quarterbacks on the planet. He has rare passing skills. What Cooter has done with Stafford though is given him more defined quick reads and has gotten the ball out of his hands faster.
This also helps the heavier offensive line with quick sets and drops, to lessen their collective responsibility. The Lions also run a lot of screens, which keeps opposing pass-rushes off balance.
Stafford is playing much more in time and in rhythm and within the structure of the offensive design. Stafford has shown that he can excel with a lot of responsibility at the line of scrimmage, and the entire offense is thriving because of his usage of his brain more than his brawn under Cooter.
This has become a very efficient offense, but don’t think for one minute that Stafford has become bashful or complacent in any way. As he showed last week, he still makes throws that hardly anyone else in the league would even consider attempting. It has become a lethal combination.
Since Cooter took over, the turnovers-both fumbles and Stafford’s interceptions-fell drastically. In fact, the Lions committed the most turnovers in the league before Cooter took over and the fewest with Cooter in charge in 2015.
There might not be a team in the league that the gap between strong offense and awful defense is as cavernous as with the Lions. They have been quite strong this year on special teams, especially with their punt team, and that has been helpful. But there is no denying that Detroit’s defense is amongst the worst in the NFL this year.
In order to protect their defense, Detroit has greatly slowed down the tempo in which they play on offense and although Stafford excelled running the no-huddle and up tempo play, the Lions are now huddling more and taking a long time between plays to make life easier on their defense.
It won’t have an effect on the pace in which the Lions play, but it will be very interesting to see how Cooter uses Eric Ebron against the Texans. Ebron should be finally healthy this week and might offer a vertical presence down the middle of the field.
It should be noted that this quick passing game really emphasizes after-the-catch production and as tight ends go, Ebron has big play ability with the ball in his hands.
Although they always seem to play in very close games, the Lions have won three in a row and currently sit at 4-3. They have an uphill climb to get to the postseason in the very difficult NFC, but there is no denying that there is some great coaching and quarterback play right now in Detroit.