- Michael Rothstein, ESPN Staff Writer
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ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Matthew Stafford is having one of most accurate, strongest seasons of his career through the first month of the season.
Through three games, Stafford is completing 63.6 percent of his passes, has already thrown for 1,020 yards and is averaging 8.11 yards every time he drops back to pass. He's thrown six touchdown passes and two interceptions.
“I think we’re just playing better as an offense, as a team, you know,” Stafford said. “A lot goes into playing quarterback and playing every position on the field, but our team is playing better and I’m trying to do my part.”
There is little question he has done that.
The more interesting look is where Stafford is bringing his accuracy after looking at numbers from ESPN’s Stats and Information. The fifth-year quarterback has done a lot of his most successful work short and over the middle.
Stafford has thrown 42.2 percent of his passes between the line of scrimmage and 10 yards out from it -- all of it between the yard-line markers. In those three markers, he has completed passes there 76.5 percent of the time (39 of 51). It isn’t surprising he would have such high numbers since a majority of the dump-off passes he throws to running backs Joique Bell and Reggie Bush live in that range.
Last season, Stafford only threw 34.9 percent of his passes into the same zone, with seven touchdowns in 16 games there.
This year, Stafford has thrown three of his six touchdowns in that range -- and five of his six overall touchdowns within the line of scrimmage to 10 yards out.
Other than the short passes over the middle, the place Stafford most likes to go is to the right of the hash marks behind the line of scrimmage, which is a likely place for those screens to Bush and Bell. He has completed 10 of 15 passes in that range.
Who Stafford is throwing to and when is also intriguing, and shows how much the Lions are using their running backs in the passing game.
Bush is receiving most targets per route run at 26.3 percent, but only catching 15.8 percent of passes per route run. Bell is next at being targeted on 25 percent of his routes, catching the ball 17.9 percent of the time he runs a route.
Among receivers, Calvin Johnson is targeted on 22.1 percent of his routes and only catching passes on 13 percent of his routes run. The injured Nate Burleson -- and this might give insight into his loss -- was targeted on 21.7 percent of his routes, catching the ball on 17.9 percent of his routes run.
This goes with this bit of information: There are only two zones where Stafford hasn’t thrown a pass this season -- beyond 20 yards between the yard-line designations and the hash marks. He’s completed his only pass over the middle beyond 20 yards, and has gone deep and either to the right or left five times.
The place Stafford has been most successful this season has been between 10 and 20 yards in the zone between the right yard designation and the right hash mark. Stafford has completed 5 of 6 passes in that zone, so it is a small sample size.
But Stafford has done a good job working with the short and intermediate routes -- and there’s reason for it.
“It’s more Matt making great decisions when teams are playing deep to short, you’ve got to kind of play all aspects,” Lions offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said. “We hit a few more this last week down the field, because that’s what we got.”
But for the most part, opponents are defending the deep ball against Stafford and he’s recognizing it and using his check-down routes with great success. His ability to keep himself from forcing the ball vertically to Johnson has helped the Lions’ offense to be one of the stronger ones in the NFL through three weeks.