I have not been able to keep this site as up to date as I would like lately due to preparing for the pending relocation of our servers, so I have missed on recapping the Detroit Lions heartbreaking loss to the Chicago Bears, followed by their thrilling victories over Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Washington. Detroit currently sits at 4-3 and is third in the NFC North division. With two more tough games ahead before the bye week, it is fair to ask if this Detroit Lions team is as good as their record. Defensively, they have struggled mightily. The Lions are near the worst in the league and simply cannot stop the pass. Every quarterback they face finishes the game with a passer rating over 100. Offensively, they have been down to their 4th and 5th string running backs, with the fifth stringer being newly signed Justin Forsett. To make matters worse, Eric Ebron, one of the team’s leading receivers, has been hurt for the past few weeks. With such a poor defense and so many key injuries on offense, how have the Lions been winning games? It is quite simple. Matthew Stafford has played at an MVP caliber level since losing Calvin Johnson to retirement.
Since the takeover by Jim Bob Cooter as offensive coordinator, Matthew Stafford has flourished. Cooter stated that his plan was simple, talk with his quarterback and come up with a playbook that features the things he likes and does well. Then work the talents of his teammates in to positions where they can excel.
Cooter simplified the blocking schemes, but not in a way you would think. The schemes are still complex. The key difference is that the players executing those schemes know what they are supposed to do in any given situation. Last season under Joe Lombardi, the offensive linemen consistently looked confused as to who to block. At one point, Justin Rogers of the Detroit News (then with MLive) showed a still frame of Travis Swanson, the center, trying to block an edge rusher from the left side while Riley Reiff blocked the blitzing linebacker. It simply made no sense to have your center try to stretch that far out to pick up a defensive lineman. This season, the blocking scheme seems to make more sense. Players no longer look confused as to who to block. Travis Swanson is playing at a high level. Riley Reiff is among the best right tackles in football, and rookie left tackle Taylor Decker appears to be a steal in the first round as rookie left tackles usually struggle more than he has thus far. Add to that rookie third round pick Graham Glasgow has replaced Laken Tomlinson at left guard for the past two and a half games and played very well. So well that Coach Caldwell still cannot say for certain that Glasgow will be returning to the bench.
In terms of his usage of skill players, Jim Bob Cooter is getting creative, although still has not hit his peak. Players like Marvin Jones and Golden Tate are being used in ways that maximize their skill sets. Tate excels in YAC, so Cooter has worked Tate out of the backfield and in screens to get him the ball in space. Theo Riddick is one of the best receiving backs in the NFL, so Cooter has designed routes for him to run that utilize his shiftiness and route running prowess. Eric Ebron and Jones spread the field with their speed, so he uses both to stretch defenses. Anquan Boldin may not have the speed he once had, but Cooter has used the veteran as a possession receiver and red zone threat. With so many injuries to their tight ends, Cooter has utilized his reserve tackles Corey Robinson and Cornelius Lucas as tight ends for blocking purposes.
Jim Bob Cooter has done a wonderful job of utilizing the talent he has to their best abilities, but it all is for nothing without Matthew Stafford. Stafford has had a career year for completion percentage, quarterback rating, and touchdown to interception ratio.. While his yardage is down, they are winning games. This season alone, Stafford has four fourth quarter comeback wins. For anyone doing the math, that every win so far this season. Even in their only game that was not close, their loss at Green Bay, Stafford never quit. He got them back in the game after being down 31-3 to make it close, losing 34-27.
The key knock on Stafford has always been that he cannot beat teams with a winning record. Each of the last three wins were against teams with winning records. Philadelphia was undefeated with the top ranked defense when Detroit faced them. The Eagles had not surrendered a single passing touchdown to that point. Stafford had three passing touchdowns in the first half. The Rams beat the Lions last season when Aaron Donald destroyed Stafford. This time Stafford got the best of the Rams. At the time, Los Angeles was 3-2. Washington this past Sunday was 4-2 having won 4 straight games. Stafford keeps winning.
Last season we said that the only thing keeping Stafford from taking it to the next level was the poor play of the offensive line. He was sacked a ridiculous amount of times and hit even more. Bob Quinn addressed the talent on the line and Cooter addressed the scheme issues, along with offensive line coach Ron Prince. The protection is not perfect, but it is getting better and as a result, so is Stafford. Is he an NFL MVP? By voting standards he is not. Nowadays to be an MVP, you have to be one of the best teams in the league. The Lions are not one of the best. In fact, until the defense gets healthier and plays at a level more congruent with what we are accustomed to over the past few years, the Lions will remain an average team. The problem is, MVP stands for most valuable player. And to the Lions, Stafford is the most valuable player. Injuries hit the defense, the running game, the tight ends, etc. but Stafford keeps the team in these games and lately keeps winning them. Without Stafford, the Lions are likely 0-7 and staring at another 0-16 season with the toughest part of the schedule still coming up.