Technically Speaking: Breaking Down Stafford’s First Pro Start

As I was breaking down the film of Matthew Stafford’s first start and going back to read my previous Stafford breakdowns I realized two things. First, there were typically a few very common themes on almost every play. Second, those were really long articles. In the interest of efficiency I decided to change up the format a little bit.

I will still do my weekly breakdowns, but instead of going play by play, I will provide a summary of my findings. This new weekly article will be known as “Technically Speaking.” Before I start, I’d just like to say I really look forward to when the Lions start winning. It’s painful enough to watch some of these games once, let alone 3-4 times.

As expected, Stafford really struggled in his first NFL start. The conditions couldn’t have been worse for him either. His first start came on the road, in a noisy dome, going against the best offense in the league and falling behind early. His inexperience jumped out immediately in almost every aspect of the game.

Pocket Presence: Stafford’s first instinct is to drop farther back in the pocket or roll out to avoid the pass rush. The purpose of the “pocket” is for the offensive line to create “U” shape around the quarterback to protect him from the rush and allow him to see the field clearly. The gaps in between the linemen are called throwing lanes. When the pocket forms, the tackles try to force the defensive ends to the side and then downfield behind the quarterback.

Stafford looked very uncomfortable in the pocket and whenever he felt like he was in the pocket too long he would drift backwards or start scrambling to his right. This defeats the purpose of the pocket and puts the offense in a bad position. As he drifts back, the tackles are pushing the defensive ends right into him instead of past him. When he rolls out, he’s running right into the pass rush. He needs to step up in the pocket to take advantage of the protection.

Stepping up in the pocket gives Stafford several advantages and also puts the defense in a predicament. By stepping up in the pocket, Stafford is able to still see in his throwing lanes. It also puts him closer to the line of scrimmage, which gives him the option of pulling the ball down and running. The linebackers then have to decide whether to stay back in coverage or come up in case he runs. Lastly, stepping up allows Stafford to maintain his technique and take a strong step into his throw and follow-through. If he throws while drifting backwards, he will throw off his back foot, which leads to inaccurate throws and interceptions. Throwing on the run is obviously more difficult than throwing in the pocket and leads to inaccurate throws as well.

Footwork: Be prepared to hear the term “happy feet” a lot over the next few months. The term means that the quarterback is chopping his feet while standing in the pocket instead of standing stationary or bouncing on the balls of his feet. When a quarterback has “happy feet” it can throw off the timing of the pass play because he has to reset his feet, or it leads to off-balance throws which are inaccurate. A quarterback can develop “happy feet” from taking a lot of hits in the pocket, nervousness, or indecisiveness. Stafford wasn’t taking a lot of hits in the game, so I attribute it to nerves and indecisiveness. He didn’t display “happy feet” very often in the preseason most likely because there was less pressure on him because the games don’t count. I expect he will calm down some after getting his first start under his belt.

Reads: One thing that impressed me about Stafford in the preseason was how well he manipulated the coverage with his eyes. He would look at one receiver before quickly looking to the opposite side of the field and making his throw. He really struggled with looking of the defense and progressing in his reads. He was forcing a lot of passes into tight coverage and allowing the defense to read his eyes. Combine that with inaccurate throws and it’s easy to see why his completion percentage was low and he threw three picks. Stafford did a better job of manipulating the defense and going through his progressions early in the game, but he started to press after the Saints got out to a healthy lead. He would pass up an open receiver in favor of looking for a bigger play and ironically, that was limiting his chances of making big plays. Drew Brees was able to take shots downfield because he was working the short and intermediate parts of the field to draw the coverage up. That created more opportunities to attack downfield because the defense couldn’t key on one area to defend.

Overall Technique: Stafford’s technique took a major step backwards on Sunday; he was nervous and trying to carry the team by making big plays rather than taking what the defense gave him. Stafford had some major flaw in his technique or reads on over half of his 37 pass attempts. The encouraging thing is the majority of these flaws didn’t surface as much in the preseason. That leads me to believe nerves were largely responsible for his ineffectiveness. I still wholeheartedly believe that he would be better served refining his technique in practice for the bulk of the season, but now that he’s starting he won’t be benched unless he gets injured. This game was a perfect example of the pitfalls of starting a young quarterback. He was so wrapped up in the game that his technique suffered, leading to inaccurate throws and turnovers. If he sat all season, he would have two full offseasons and two training camps to work on his technique. Once proper technique is second nature to him he’ll just do it without having to think about it. He can focus solely on reading the defense and making the right throws. Right now, he needs to do that along with paying attention to all the aspects of his technique. Mentally it is more important to him to focus on the game than technique so he will develop bad habits. Instead of spending the 2009-10 offseason perfecting his technique, he will spend it trying to unlearn “happy feet” and throwing off his back foot.

How Can He Improve This Week: I think making sure Stafford doesn’t have to carry the offense is the best opportunity for improvement this week. He needs to have a running game to take the pressure and focus off of him.

If I were designing the game plan for this game, I would focus on getting Stafford comfortable early. Everybody wants to talk about how great the “Williams Wall” is at stuffing the run. They are effective at clogging up running lanes, but they are not so effective in pursuit. I would heavily feature screen passes and slant routes in the passing game early on. Make the Williams Sisters run all over the field chasing Kevin Smith on the screens. Throwing the short slants will also force them to pursue the receiver because they will be catching the ball a few yards behind them. Those guys are good at stuffing the run because they are 340+ lbs, but that’s a lot of weight to haul around the field. They will have to make a decision, wear out quickly by pursing the running backs/wide receivers or don’t pursue them and take themselves out of the play. Either way it benefits the Lions. The screens will also help slow the pass rush down and keep the Vikings from blitzing a lot.

I would be very conscious of when the Williamseseses come off the field and then pound the running game against the second stringers. I would start hitting them with play action and start attacking downfield once the running game is on track and the defense is coming up to defend the short passes. Now the Vikings have to be prepared to stop the run, defend the screens and short passes, pay attention for play action and don’t get beat deep. It’s a lot harder to defend an offense when the defense has to defend all phases of the offense rather than just one or two.

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