Lions-Saints: Blitzing Matthew Stafford

Please trust me when I tell you I had some big plans for Detroit Lions coverage Tuesday as their first playoff game in 11 years approaches. But the rapid-fire release of news this morning, first the firing of Chicago Bears general manager Jerry Angelo and then the promotion of Rick Spielman to the Minnesota Vikings' newly-created role of general manager, has spread me a bit thin.

I've rescheduled some posts planned for later in the week, and moved a different topic to the front of the line. And in all honesty, it covers one of the most important points the Lions will have to address in their matchup with the New Orleans Saints.

Namely: The Saints' pressure defense and the impact it might or might not have against a Lions offense that didn't see the blitz often in the regular season.

Here are the facts:

  • Under defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, the Saints blitzed on 51.1 percent of opponents' dropbacks this season, the highest rate of any team in the NFL.

  • Opponents blitzed Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford at a lower rate than any NFL starter in 2011, about 24 percent of his dropbacks. But as the chart shows, Stafford's efficiency dipped noticeably on the occasions when he was pressured by five or more defenders.

As we've discussed before, any team blitzing Stafford must weigh the risk-reward of leaving receiver Calvin Johnson -- not to mention teammates Nate Burleson, Titus Young and Brandon Pettigrew -- in favorable coverage matchups. Even the Saints pulled back on their usual approach in the teams' Week 13 matchup at the Superdome, blitzing Stafford on 40.4 percent of his dropbacks.

On those plays, Stafford completed 10 of 17 passes for 167 yards. He was sacked twice and threw an interception. When the Saints sent four or fewer rushers, he completed 21 of 27 passes for 241 yards and a touchdown, good for a 116.2 passer rating.

(Hat tip to Matt Willis of ESPN Stats & Information for the legwork on those figures.)

The Saints were one of three teams this season to hold the Lions under 20 points in a 31-17 victory. Teams rarely use the same gameplan in season rematches, so you wonder if Williams will turn up the jets on Stafford and see if the Lions' young quarterback can respond under the pressure of a playoff environment.

If I'm the Lions, I would take that turn of events 10 times out of 10. Stafford played at a Pro Bowl level over the final month of the season, throwing 14 touchdown passes and two interceptions in the four games since losing to the Saints. Any good offense invites the blitz because it expects its quarterback to capitalize on the resulting coverage gaps.

Is it fair to ask that of Stafford, who at 23 will be making his first playoff start? I think so.

His performance against the blitz is a relatively small sample of his season. It wouldn't fall beyond the realm of possibility for a young quarterback to melt down against heavy pressure in what figures to be a raucous scene at the Superdome. But as we've discussed before, Stafford isn't a typical young quarterback and hasn't withered in a number of extreme situations earlier this season.

Many of you were upset that Stafford hasn't gained more national recognition for his achievements this season. Saturday night will provide him a national audience to demonstrate how precocious he really is.