NFC North: Matthew Stafford

The Film Don't Lie: Lions

September, 30, 2014
Sep 30
11:00
AM ET
A weekly look at what the Detroit Lions must fix:

Matthew Stafford is once again playing well at the start of the season, but for the Lions to have success against the Buffalo Bills and the rest of the year, he must receive better protection from his offensive line.

Stafford has been sacked 11 times, hit seven other times and hurried 31 times in four games, according to Pro Football Focus. Those numbers are all on pace to be far worse than last season, when the Lions were one of the best teams in the league at protecting their quarterback, allowing only 23 sacks.

Pro Football Focus gave three of Detroit’s linemen -- left guard Rob Sims and the right tackle combination of Garrett Reynolds and Cornelius Lucas -- negative grades. PFF has Sims charged with surrendering eight of those quarterback hurries while Dominic Raiola and Riley Reiff have six each.

The stats bear out the issues at right tackle, as Lucas and Reynolds allowed five sacks in three weeks. If the Lions felt truly comfortable with either player, they wouldn’t rotate between the two.

While it may not be an absolute fix, Detroit appears to be on track to have starting right tackle LaAdrian Waddle returning this week against the Bills. This should help in many ways. It would restore continuity to the offensive line and have the Lions starting their best five pass protectors. It also brings the return of a player who has yet to allow a sack in his career.

Considering Buffalo is sacking quarterbacks on 6.3 percent of dropbacks (12th in the league) Waddle might be returning at the perfect time for Detroit.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. – Joique Bell may have suffered a concussion Sunday against the New York Jets, but Jim Caldwell won’t discuss that.

Despite the focus the NFL has placed on brain injuries over the past few seasons, Caldwell said he would continue with his protocol of not discussing injuries to players, whether it is a concussion or not.

Bell
“Only because of the fact that once we start, it snowballs,” Caldwell said. “Then we’re talking next week about another injury. I haven’t done it up to this point and the reason is I don’t plan to start.

“I’ve been around long enough to know those things keep mounting.”

Caldwell wouldn’t officially confirm Bell has a concussion, but Bell was not allowed to talk to reporters after the game, which is consistent with league protocol for when a player is diagnosed with a concussion.

When Caldwell was asked whether it could be assumed Bell has a concussion based off him being unable to talk, he responded with “you can assume whatever you like. It’s up to you.”

The Lions did have some positive injury news, though. Caldwell said quarterback Matthew Stafford is “OK” after being spotted by MLive on Sunday limping and with his right arm and wrist wrapped.

“Physical game, a lot of contact,” Caldwell said. “As you well know, collisions out there so guys are going to sometimes come out of those games pretty sore. I doubt there’s anybody walking in this building that’s played 65 plays like he played that didn’t come out there with some issues.”
video
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Dominic Raiola snapped the ball on the second-to-last play of the third quarter and in a matter of seconds, Golden Tate already had the thing.

Matthew Stafford threw him a quick route on the right side and Tate had the ball in space with a man to juke out of the way. He did and it was like so many of the other plays Tate made Sunday afternoon against the Jets.

A quick pass to Tate and then let him work, picking up yards upon yards after the catch. With Calvin Johnson hobbled with an ankle injury, it was up to Tate to become the Detroit Lions' No. 1 receiver in their 24-17 win over the New York Jets. Stafford targeted him 10 times and he caught eight of those passes for 116 yards, his fourth career 100-yard game.

It was a reminder that even when Johnson is not fully healthy, the Lions have another player who can play like a top receiver. And that second option has the elusiveness to turn those small plays into massive ones.

"That's huge," Johnson said. "Matt [Stafford] and myself talked about that after the game. That was big-time what Golden did today. That's what we brought him here for."

Consider this, too. For the first time in Johnson's career, the Lions have won a game when he was held to fewer than 20 yards receiving. Until Sunday, Detroit had been 0-6 in those games.

The one Tate play that stood out, though, was the quick hit and then his dash to the end zone that came up a couple yards short. The play helped seal the game for the Lions. It was part of a 90-yard drive that took momentum from New York and gave it back to Detroit.

"That says a lot about any team who can drive 90 yards late in the game like that," Tate said."It was a pretty warm day out there on the road, so it says a lot about us to go 90 and score right there. We were just clicking. We got in a rhythm and moved the ball."

Part of Tate's effectiveness Sunday came because of the Jets' decision to run zone. When Tate lined up in the slot, this sometimes left a linebacker with the task of dealing with Tate. Of course, he was doing more than that. Anything the Jets threw at Tate on Sunday, he was able to squirt out of.

"He beat two men. He beat loaded coverages," Jets coach Rex Ryan said. "He beat a lot of different things. The game plan was to stop Calvin Johnson. That was the No. 1 priority.

"We recognize Golden Tate is a good football player."

Tate was reliable, too. Entering Sunday, he had nine third down catches on 11 targets for 122 yards. On Sunday, he had two more third down catches -- two of the six third downs the Lions converted -- for 46 yards, including a 35-yard catch-and-run on the Lions' first drive that led to a field goal.

It is those little things Tate is able to do that makes him so dangerous for the Lions as the second option behind Johnson.

"He has great hands," Lions running back Reggie Bush said. "You guys saw it today. He's a huge playmaker for us. We've seen that throughout the season and you've seen that throughout his career.

"I'm glad he's on our team. That guy is a big spark for us."
MADISON HEIGHTS, Mich. – Matthew Stafford leaned back onto the couch inside his trailer Tuesday afternoon, having finished an hours-long commercial shoot a little while before.

It is a commercial that is expected to be released digitally – and one that Pepsi obviously hopes will go viral at some point after shooting the commercial at a local Meijer. Stafford starred in the commercial and while his presence might help drive the video, it is unlikely he’ll be pushing it socially himself.

Social media and Matthew Stafford are pretty far apart. He claims not to have Facebook or Instagram. His Twitter account, @Staff_9, hasn’t been tweeted from in 281 days and counting, where he thanked Paramount Pictures for screening "Anchorman 2" with the Lions.

[+] EnlargeMatthew Stafford
Tim Fuller/USA TODAY SportsMatthew Stafford eschews social media.
The Detroit Lions quarterback prefers it this way as he tries to hold on to some of his private life that has become way more public. When he was drafted out of Georgia with the No. 1 overall pick in 2009 this is what he didn’t see coming.

“Not only in football but just the world, the social media aspect of life is something that five years ago I didn’t think was going to be what it is today and something that personally ... not my favorite thing,” Stafford said. “That everybody has access to you and everybody has an opinion about you and it’s apparently news and all that.

“That’s probably the biggest thing five years ago that if you would have asked me if life was going to be like that, I would have said ‘No way.’ “

By staying away from social media, Stafford is essentially trying to keep the last vestiges of his private life private. He has declined multiple times to talk about his engagement to former Georgia cheerleader Kelly Hall, who posted engagement pictures and pictures of her engagement ring on her Instagram account.

Even she has apparently cooled on Twitter, though, as the once-prolific Tweeter hasn’t sent a message in 144 days and hasn’t tweeted something that didn’t come from her Instagram account in 274 days.

Stafford is similar.

“I try not to put my private life out there as much as I can and don’t pay too much attention to what else is going on,” Stafford said. “There’s so much in my life that is public and talked about every day without my control, I’d like to be able to control as much as I can.”

Trying to live some of his increasingly-public life in private does have disadvantages, though. If there is one regret from choosing to abstain from social media, it is that life has been harder to stay in touch with childhood and college friends whp are now spread out across the country.

It wasn’t something Stafford always understood, but as he has grown in the league and his profile has raised as a quarterback, it is something he now accepts. To try and keep his privacy, there are things he has to give up.

“There’s a positive aspect to social media as far as keeping up with people and what’s going on in people’s lives,” Stafford said. “But that’s a trade-off I’d happily make.”
DETROIT -- It's hard to hold Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers and his troops responsible for Sunday's 19-7 loss to the Detroit Lions.

Not when you consider they picked off two passes, recovered a fumble after a strip-sack and gave up just 10 points.

Peppers
"They basically kept us going there for the first two-and-half, three quarters," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said of the defense.

But that was little consolation to those on the defensive side of the ball after Sunday's game. Even though the Packers' offense gave the Lions almost as many points (seven on Eddie Lacy's fumble that the Lions returned for a touchdown and two on a safety), the Lions managed to keep things going in the second half, officially converting 6-of-8 third downs plus two more by penalty.

Rookie Ha Ha Clinton-Dix gave the Packers their first interception by a safety since Dec. 2, 2012, and cornerback Davon House added a second pick of Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, although after House was ruled down at his own 1-yard line rather than in the end zone for a touchback it led to the safety.

In the third quarter, with the Lions threatening to increase their lead, Julius Peppers registered his first sack as a Packer, forced a fumble on the play and recovered it on his own.

"I think statistics show that anytime you're able to come up with three turnovers, we've been shown the numbers before [but] I can't recall off the top of my head, but usually the games tilt in your favor," Packers linebacker Clay Matthews said. "Unfortunately, it didn't."

The stat Matthews was referring to: The Packers were 31-7 when registering three or more takeaways since McCarthy took over as head coach in 2006.

The problem was the Packers' offensive ineptitude forced the defense to stay on the field for more than 38 of the 60 minutes.

"We definitely took a step in the direction of getting pressure on the quarterback and getting turnovers," Packers defensive tackle Mike Daniels said. "There were a lot of plays where we could have even got more pressure and more sacks. There were a lot of plays where we had some more turnover opportunities. We need to take advantage of those opportunities when they come."
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Here’s a weekly look at some numbers behind the Detroit Lions' 24-7 loss to the Carolina Panthers.

0 – Turnovers caused by Detroit against Carolina.

1 – Reception by Calvin Johnson when Matthew Stafford threw the ball more than 10 yards.

3 – Drops by Lions pass catchers Sunday, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

3.89 – Yards per rush for the Lions on Sunday, 20th in the NFL.

4 – Consecutive road losses by Detroit, dating back to last season.

5 – Receptions by Johnson from 10 yards and in.

11 – Targets to Joique Bell, the second most in Bell’s career.

49 – Yards of both field goals Nate Freese missed against Carolina.

55.0 – Stafford’s QBR on Sunday, 43 points lower than his QBR in the season opener.

62 – Offensive snaps Johnson played Sunday.

66 – Offensive snaps Golden Tate played Sunday.

72.5 – Stafford’s passer rating Sunday, more than 50 points lower than the opening week of the season.

108 – Consecutive games with a reception for Johnson, a franchise record.

130 – Consecutive games played by Stephen Tulloch, the longest active streak for a defensive player in the league.

150 – Don Muhlbach's games with the Lions. He’s the 20th person to play 150 games for the team.

Some statistics provided were courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information. Follow Stats & Information on Twitter @ESPNStatsInfo.
video
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- When the Detroit Lions signed Golden Tate as their biggest free-agent acquisition in March, they did so with the plan he would open up the entire offense. He would become a sticky target for Matthew Stafford and deflect attention away from Calvin Johnson as a pure No. 2 receiver.

Through a game and a quarter, this worked, as Tate was targeted five times in the first quarter against Carolina on Sunday, catching four passes for 51 yards. Then, for the first time this season, a team took away Tate and helped turn the game.

Tate
Tate
Stafford targeted Tate only three more times the entire game and he caught only one more pass, finishing with five grabs for 57 yards. It isn't a bad stat line, but it also showed what could happen when a team eliminates him from the plan.

"They just paid more attention to me," Tate said. "For the most part, they did a good job of keeping me in front of them, not letting me behind the defense. That's what I noticed the most."

The Panthers didn't exactly shift their coverage to eliminate Tate, but they started to pick up on things they saw in their film study during the week. Based on where Tate was lined up in Detroit's offense, the Panthers predicted the route he would run or the area of the field he would be aiming to end up in.

Carolina knew there was a chance Tate and the Lions could adjust, but more often than not, they said they were right.

"More or less," Carolina safety Thomas DeCoud said. "This early in the season, there aren't going to be too many wrinkles. They are going to kind of stick to what they were doing. There were a few tells we were able to key in on."

Johnson said Carolina "mixed up their coverages pretty well." Stafford said it was "the way the reads go" as to why Tate was open in the first quarter and disappeared for the rest of the game.

None of the Panthers were willing to give up the tells they saw or the true specifics of what they did to eliminate Tate, but in doing so, they also turned the Lions' offense into more of a 2013 version of itself than the balanced 2014 version the Lions had been practicing toward.

The 2013 version meant a bunch of tosses to Johnson, who was targeted 13 times, catching only six passes. Included in that was a very 2013-like interception by Stafford, where he tossed the ball downfield to Johnson in double coverage, leading to a tipped ball and then the turnover.

Eventually, Carolina saw the benefit of what it was doing. It made the Lions dependent on Johnson, which is an all-too-familiar issue for Detroit. It wasn't necessarily the Panthers' strategy entering the game, but it is what happened.

"No question," cornerback Antoine Cason said. "That's their guy. That's what we as a defense have to do is continue to take things away from what they want and force it to be one-dimensional."

This is exactly what Detroit wanted to escape from -- and for a quarter it did. Then it returned to a past the Lions are trying to distance themselves from.

"When you can take away the other reads and guys who can hurt you on offense, it does kind of make you one-dimensional," DeCoud said. "And then they are going to try and feed their big receiver, their big target and now we can key in on that and be ready."

Panthers vs. Lions preview

September, 11, 2014
Sep 11
8:00
AM ET

The Carolina Panthers and Detroit Lions enter Sunday's 1 p.m. game at Bank of America Stadium coming off strong opening day victories.

The Panthers (1-0) won 20-14 at Tampa Bay without Pro Bowl quarterback Cam Newton, sidelined with fractured ribs. The Lions (1-0) dismantled the New York Giants 35-14 Monday night on the strength of 346 yards passing by quarterback Matthew Stafford.

The last time these teams met it was a shootout, with Detroit winning 49-35 in 2011. Stafford threw five touchdown passes in that game, but the Panthers have a much-improved defense with only two starters remaining from that team.

NFL Nation Lions reporter Michael Rothstein and Panthers reporter David Newton are here to break this one down:

Newton: Michael, the Lions started fast last season before fading down the stretch. What did you see in Monday's victory that makes you believe this team might be in it for the long haul?

Rothstein: Saw two things, David. The first is Stafford, who looked calmer, more confident and more comfortable than at any previous point of his career. He appeared at ease in the new Detroit offense, executing checkdowns correctly and making the right reads and smart calls. If Stafford continues to play the way he did Monday, the Lions will be in every game.

The other thing was Detroit's defensive front. The Lions didn't have a lot of sacks -- two, including 1.5 by George Johnson -- but they pressured Eli Manning often and were good against the run, as well. The Lions held the Giants to 2.4 yards a carry. Here's the problem, though: As good as Detroit looked, its secondary is already in some tatters. Bill Bentley, the nickelback, is out for the season. The Lions have two safeties banged up.

Receiver was a question for Carolina entering the season, but can that group exploit a somewhat suspect back four for Detroit?

Newton: Did you happen to get a look at rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin against a pretty good Tampa Bay defense? He caught six passes for 92 yards, including a 26-yard touchdown catch few in the league outside of Detroit's Calvin Johnson would have made. So the answer is yes. I said this a hundred times in the offseason: The Panthers are better off now at receiver than they were a year ago. Benjamin is the real deal. Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant might be role players, but that's why they were brought in.

The biggest task for Detroit will be stopping tight end Greg Olsen and the backs on swing passes. When teams shift toward Benjamin on the outside, that leaves the middle of the field open for Olsen. He had eight catches for 83 yards and a touchdown and had another 30-yarder that went just off his fingertips that would have made it 24-0 in the fourth quarter. The Panthers are running a lot of two-tight-end sets to force teams to load the box to stop the run, which is going to set up a lot of one-on-one coverages. If there's a weakness, Carolina has enough weapons to exploit it.

I noticed Stafford was under a lot of pressure at times Monday night. He handled it really well, but the Panthers led the league in sacks last season and have the entire front seven back. How do you see that matchup against Detroit's offensive line?

Rothstein: It's an interesting question because Detroit had one of the best offensive lines in the NFL last season from a pass-protection standpoint. This season, there are a few more questions, particularly at right tackle. Stafford was sacked once against the Giants, and it could have been more if not for Stafford's footwork. Plus, Detroit's right tackle situation is in flux as LaAdrian Waddle is hurt and being replaced by Corey Hilliard. Hilliard can play -- he almost beat Waddle out in the preseason -- but he was limping after the game and the team's fourth tackle is undrafted rookie free agent Cornelius Lucas.

The interior of the line should be able to handle most tests, as Larry Warford might be one of the top two or three young guards in the NFL. It'll be interesting to see whether this line can hold up through the whole year, though, as Dominic Raiola is in his mid-30s and Rob Sims didn't play much in the preseason as he recovered from a knee injury.

Since you asked about the line, the Giants did what most teams do to Detroit's defensive line -- double-team Ndamukong Suh and force his teammates to cause havoc. Suh is one of the most extraordinary players in the league. How do the Panthers come up with a game plan for him?

Newton: Probably like they handled Tampa Bay's Gerald McCoy last week, with double-teams and throwing fresh bodies at him. McCoy is one of the best defensive tackles in the league, if not the best. He had eight tackles and one sack against Carolina, but the sack was more the fault of quarterback Derek Anderson than the line, and it was the only sack Carolina gave up. You also have to remember the Panthers were playing without Newton, so the Bucs didn't have to respect the quarterback as a threat to keep the ball on the read-option. That'll keep a D-line from teeing off some. Surprisingly, the line played well with basically four new starters. The key for Carolina will be establishing the run to keep Suh and the Lions from causing havoc.

When these teams last played, in 2011, it was a shootout. And the Lions just put 35 up on the Giants. What type of a game do you expect this time?

Rothstein: I'm thinking it'll be somewhat similar because of the potency of both offenses, assuming Newton plays for Carolina. Add in the issues in the Lions' secondary and there is a good chance it will end up being a game in the 30s on both sides.

For Detroit to win, this might have to be a shootout because the run game is suspect right now. Although the stats looked bad at the end -- 2.0 yards a carry -- it was actually worse. The Lions averaged 1.2 yards a carry in the first half against the Giants. If Carolina can force Detroit to rely solely on the pass and get some pressure, it could force Stafford into the mistakes he didn't make Monday night.

Carolina has been known for so long for DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, who end up as a combined top-10 rushing duo most seasons. Has Newton's maturation changed their roles, and how do the Panthers divide carries provided Stewart stays healthy?

Newton: Before I get to the backs, let me assure you that if this is a game with scores in the 30s, the Lions will win. Only one team scored more than 24 points last season against the Carolina defense, which ranked second in the league. New Orleans scored 31 at home and won. I just don't see Detroit scoring that many.

As for the backs, this is the first time in about three years Stewart has been healthy, and even though he didn't have big numbers against Tampa he ran hard. It's really a three-headed situation with Mike Tolbert added to the mix. Tampa stacked the box for much of the day, but the Panthers still managed to rush for 113 yards, and that again was without Newton in there as a threat. He makes it a four-headed situation, although I'm not so sure he'll run as much this week in an effort to protect the ribs.

The Panthers want to run and control the clock as they did last week. They held almost a 3-1 advantage in time of possession in the first half against the Bucs. Their goal will be the same against Detroit, figuring Stafford and all his weapons can't hurt them when they're not on the field. For the Panthers to win, they have to do that and keep this game in the low 20s at the most.

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Calvin Johnson is eight years into his NFL career and widely considered the best wide receiver in the game.

Johnson
So now, at what is at least the midway point in his career, the discussion of whether or not his career ends in the Pro Football Hall of Fame is starting to pick up some validity for the Detroit Lions wide receiver.

Detroit Lions coach Jim Caldwell mentioned it Tuesday when he was asked how Carolina rookie Kelvin Benjamin compares to Johnson, saying there really was no comparison.

“There’s not many Hall of Famers in this league now that come through the ranks that you have a chance to see,” Caldwell said Tuesday. “Calvin’s going to be one of those.”

Johnson’s statistics through the first seven-plus seasons of his career would eventually lead to that if he continues on his strong trajectory. Through 107 career games, Johnson has 57 catches for 9,492 yards and 68 touchdowns. He will almost assuredly pass the 10,000 yard mark this season as well as over 600 catches.

He has also been widely considered the best and most well-respected receiver of his era, taking the talent portion at least from Randy Moss and turning the past few seasons of receivers into Johnson and then everyone else.

Part of the point: Almost every talented receiver in the league now is compared to Johnson since he is the benchmark.

So how would Johnson feel about reaching Canton at some point?

“Awesome,” Johnson said. “The biggest thing is you play to win a Super Bowl but if you can play so well to one day receive one of those gold jackets, that’s something that’s big as well, that guys couldn’t even fathom, you know.”

Soon enough, though, Johnson should be able to at least picture it one day should he continue on his current pace.

After all, there are few players who can cause their contemporaries – both in the NFL and other sports – to be amazed.

“He does stuff that nobody else can do and there’s no question about that,” Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford said. “It’s fun as the years go along to just be that much more on the same page as him and put balls in places where I know he can go get it and he knows he can go get it and the defense probably doesn’t think he can go get it.

“He did that again on Monday night.”
DETROIT – Matthew Stafford wasn’t expecting to run.

Yet on Monday night against the New York Giants, facing a third-and-goal, Stafford looked more mobile than he ever has. The preparation for what turned into a 5-yard touchdown run for Stafford -- the longest touchdown run of his career -- began well before the season started.

[+] EnlargeMatthew Stafford
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesMatthew Stafford's 5-yard touchdown run was a product of his offseason conditioning and mobility work.
“I work out with Stafford sometimes in the offseason,” receiver Calvin Johnson said. “And he’s been doing a lot of footwork drills and you see it paying off.”

It might have paid off the most on a play Stafford made in the third quarter, when his intelligence combined with an overextended pocket forced him to take off and make a play.

The Lions were lined up with Stafford in the shotgun, Joique Bell next to him and Calvin Johnson alone on the right side. On the left, the Lions had Golden Tate on the outside, Jeremy Ross in the slot and Joseph Fauria standing up as a tight end close to the line of scrimmage.

The way the play was designed, Stafford was initially supposed to throw to the left. Nothing was open. Then he looked at Johnson, who was doubled on the play. Meanwhile, Stafford’s pocket was pushed a little bit more when Giants defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka ran past right tackle Corey Hilliard before Hilliard knocked him to the ground. This slightly shifted the pocket and gave Stafford a larger hole to run through.

As the pocket shifted, Tate was cutting across the field waving his hands slightly to try and get Stafford’s attention. Stafford, still looking somewhat upfield, appeared to commit to the run at the 10-yard line.

“They did a great job of covering us up on that,” Stafford said. “They kind of had a population issue over there to the left where we were trying to get the ball, and Calvin was doubled as well, so our offensive line again did a great job of giving me some lanes to step up.

“[I] Stepped up and decided to take off.”

This is where Stafford made the entire play. Seeing Tate covered and linebacker Jacquain Williams waiting around the goal line, Stafford gave a slight head fake like he was looking toward throwing to Tate. Williams looked to the right for a split second, appearing to throw off his timing.

It was a perfect sell by Stafford to give himself a chance to get close to the goal line. He knew it still wasn’t a guarantee he’s score, though.

“Knew I probably didn’t have the jets to get there but if I sold him enough, I could maybe cut back,” Stafford said.

He joked later the cut back is “about my only move,” but the final move resulting in the touchdown was more instinct than anything planned, no matter how much he works on his footwork.

That’s what happened when he reached the 2-yard line. Stafford, Williams, Tate and Giants safety Stevie Brown all converged just right of the hashmark. Stafford timed his cut back perfectly, knocking Williams slightly off balance for the wrap tackle while taking Brown out of the play with the move.

Stafford looked like he wanted to dive into the end zone, but Giants linebacker Jon Beason was standing just inside the goal line ready for one last shot at the play. Instead of diving, Stafford tucked the ball and almost jumped in the end zone, scoring to give the Lions a 27-7 lead after the extra point.

“He’s confident in his feet,” Johnson said. “The footwork drills that we do, he runs well. He’s running better than he has in the past. He’s going to be smart.

“He knows we need him out there so he isn’t going to do anything crazy.”
DETROIT -- An examination of what the Lions must do after their win over the Giants:

The numbers were at least a little bit staggering for the Detroit Lions at first. One half into their season, and half of their offense became essentially ineffective.

Joique Bell and Reggie Bush, the team’s two-headed running back, touched the ball 11 times. They gained a total of 12 yards -- 10 of them coming on one run from Bell. While the Lions were able to pass the ball easily, they couldn’t get either of their running backs going.

Bell
Yes, Detroit finished with 76 yards on 30 carries, but other than one elongated drive in the second half, neither Bush nor Bell looked particularly productive. Considering what is to come for the Lions, this is an area that needs improvement, as the opponents become tougher starting Sunday against Carolina.

“I really felt like New York was playing well up front,” left guard Rob Sims said. “They were stuffing us, and it was always an extra safety. They were really loading our box up. We just kept after it, and when we needed to run, we ran it.”

Detroit was particularly good rushing in a pass-first offense last season under Scott Linehan, with both Bush and Bell getting 500 yards rushing and 500 yards receiving. Bush rushed for more than 1,000 yards, the first time that happened with the Lions in a decade.

On Monday night, though, the run game looked bad until Detroit had a lead at the end of the game and went run heavy both in play-call and to grind clock. That this is one of the Lions’ biggest issues at this point -- and it was still at least mildly successful -- is a good sign for Detroit after the first week of the season.

But as good as Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson looked Monday night, Detroit knows it needs running back production similar to last season for there to be continued success for the Lions this season.
DETROIT -- Matthew Stafford saw the rusher coming and with a quick move, he made New York Giants defensive tackle Damontre Moore miss him entirely.

Then he looked up the field, saw Calvin Johnson and 67 yards later, the Lions had their first touchdown of the season. And Stafford, whose play was one of the biggest questions entering 2014 for Detroit, started to answer exactly how comfortable he felt in the Lions offense.

[+] EnlargeMatthew Stafford
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioMatthew Stafford completed 22 of 32 passes for 346 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran for another score in the Lions' season-opening victory.
One game in -- the answer is pretty darned comfortable with it.

Stafford completed 22 of 32 passes for 346 yards with two touchdowns throwing, one touchdown rushing and perhaps more important than anything else, no interceptions.

"I'm just trying to be as smart as I possibly can," Stafford said. "Our defense was playing outstanding tonight. They were getting us the ball back and stopping New York. I knew if we just played smart, still aggressive without question by making some big plays by throwing the ball down the field, but with how our defense was playing, that was going to be a recipe for success."

Playing smart has always been a question with Stafford, who looked brilliant at times and erratic at others during 2013. There was none of that against the Giants during Detroit's 35-14 win on "Monday Night Football." Actually, it might have been the best game of Stafford's career, now in its sixth season.

His QBR was 97.5, the highest rating of his career and the highest rating of any quarterback in the first week of the season. Undeniably, Stafford appeared more comfortable in the offense. He was making the right reads. He was checking down to running back Reggie Bush when he needed to. He wasn't forcing passes, an issue in 2013.

"He really took control of where we were going with protections and in the run game," center Dominic Raiola said. "He did a nice job of just taking control and just being that general on the field that we want him to be. He did a great job."

He did the type of job expected of a former No. 1 pick and a quarterback paid to be the man running the franchise on the field. He played confident. He played steady. He played like the Lions are going to need him to all season long.

Detroit Lions QB Matthew Stafford: 'Sometimes instincts just take over'

September, 9, 2014
Sep 9
12:47
AM ET
(Matthew Stafford opened the 2014 season with an exclamation point Monday night, throwing for 346 yards and accounting for three touchdowns and producing a career-high 97.5 QBR in the Detroit Lions' 35-14 victory over the New York Giants. Below are his extended thoughts, as told to ESPN's Kevin Seifert.)

DETROIT -- It's nice to put last year to bed.

[+] EnlargeMatthew Stafford
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsMatthew Stafford scrambles and finds Calvin Johnson for the team's first touchdown.
Obviously, I didn't play as well as I could have last year. I'm not in the dark about that. I know that. I'm real with myself. I understand that there's a lot of factors that go into that, and part of that was just not playing well. It's a quarterback-driven league and you've got to play well at quarterback. I've worked extremely hard this summer to make sure I can play as well as I possibly can. Our defense set us up a couple nice times, but it was huge to get some points tonight and get our offense loose in this new scheme. On our first touchdown, I got to the line and saw the defense was in a two-shell. They rotated into single coverage, and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie had pretty decent coverage on Calvin Johnson. Our offensive line did a nice job pushing guys past me, and I got out to the right sideline. Their defensive end [Damontre Moore], he was scraping over the top, and I made him miss.

[+] EnlargeDetroit's Calvin Johnson
Tim Fuller/USA TODAY SportsCalvin Johnson dives for Detroit's second score.
I was trying to find Joique Bell, just to complete the ball and get the first down, but then I saw Calvin was uncovering. Everyone was kind of working toward the sideline, and he just snuck out the back. I had enough time to check back and make sure no one was over there, and nothing bad was going to happen, and then I threw it. Sometimes instincts just take over when you're on the field. That's what happened on our second touchdown. This game, if you played it on air, it would look totally different. Everyone would step in and make the perfect read and the perfect throw, and everything looks great. But stuff happens in this league and when it breaks down, you have to find ways to make plays. Calvin and I have played together for so long that he kind of knew what I was thinking. I was running away from him, but I was able to put it into a spot where only he could get it. It was tough to see from my angle, and I still haven't seen the replay, but from what I hear, he made a heck of a play to keep that ball off the ground.

[+] EnlargeMatthew Stafford
Tim Fuller/USA TODAY SportsStafford's 5-yard touchdown run in the third quarter.
I don't run a lot, and it's a fine line on when to take off. Knowing the situation in the game is a big part of it. Most of the time, I'm buying time to throw the ball down the field and get it to guys who are a lot faster than me. But sometimes, you've just got to go out and make a play, and that's what I did on the third touchdown. It just kind of happened. Pre-snap from the 5-yard line, they had a pretty good two-on-one over there with Calvin. So my first read was Golden Tate. He was there, but we had a population issue over there. If he catches it, there are too many people there. Chances are he's not getting in. Then I had Joe Fauria in the back of the end zone, but the mike 'backer [middle linebacker] was way deep in the back there. That would have been a jump ball. That's 50-50. So it's one of those things that just parted for me. I moved right, initially thinking I could find a throw somewhere. But I just kind of saw the opening and tried to run. I knew if I kept going, I was just going to get smoked. So I cut back and got in. I think a team rallies when you see a quarterback kind of stick his neck out and try to go in and get a score. It was a tough situation coming in this year, learning a new offense. It's as different as it can be compared to what we used to run. Guys have really embraced it, and I've tried to embrace it as much as I can. I want to lead these guys and it was nice to get out and put some points up.

Rapid Reaction: Detroit Lions

September, 8, 2014
Sep 8
10:08
PM ET

DETROIT -- A few thoughts on the Detroit Lions' 35-14 win over the Giants at Ford Field.

What it means: The Lions have to be pleased with what they saw Monday night in Jim Caldwell’s head coaching debut. It is only one game, to be sure, but the Lions saw a much more efficient and smarter Matthew Stafford at quarterback. He was patient with his receivers. He looked more mobile than ever, and he was willing to wait out a play for an open receiver instead of just chucking the ball to Calvin Johnson -- a huge difference from prior seasons.

Stock Watch: Rising: Stafford, Johnson, Golden Tate and DeAndre Levy. The three of them were extremely efficient Monday night. Stafford, who went 22-of-32 for 346 yards and three touchdowns (one rushing), looked possibly even better than his 2011 self. Johnson caught two touchdowns and almost had two others. Tate was the No. 2 receiver the Lions always hoped for. Levy picked up from where he left off in 2013, and he made 10 tackles and intercepted a pass.

Falling: The Lions rushing game was abysmal until the final drives of the game. In the first half, Detroit had 13 carries for 15 yards, and 10 of those came on one run from Joique Bell.

Levy continues ascent: The linebacker went from being an average player prior to the 2013 season to a fringe Pro Bowl-caliber player the past season. Not much changed in the season opener. He intercepted a pass -- one that led to a Detroit touchdown and broke open the game on the next offensive possession -- and continued his consistent sideline-to-sideline performance. He finished with 10 tackles, two tackles for loss and the interception.

Game ball: Matthew Stafford. Although Johnson caught both of his touchdown passes, it was Stafford who made those plays happen. He used his feet to create time for Johnson to break free on both touchdowns and threw perfect passes both times. He also, in a rarity for him, had a 5-yard touchdown run on which he actually juked a New York defender. For a night at least, he looked like the quarterback Detroit has always wanted him to be.

What’s next: The Lions go on the road for the first time and head to Carolina on Sunday to face the Panthers (1-0).
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- In some ways, the freedom has always been there for Matthew Stafford. He is an NFL quarterback and as such, will always have some flexibility to change what he sees.

Now, though, he might have more freedom than ever to make adjustments on the fly before a snap in the new Detroit Lions offense.

"In this offense, they put a lot on the quarterback, which is great," Stafford said. "You like to have a lot of control at the line of scrimmage and things of that nature. But it’s a challenge, no question.

[+] EnlargeMatthew Stafford
George Gojkovich/Getty ImagesMatthew Stafford completed 21 of 30 passes this preseason for two touchdowns and one interception.
"Coming in the first year in an offense and try and operate at a high level. But the guys have done a great job picking up this system. Mental errors are going down and down and down. Trying to make sure we’re in the right spots, running the right routes and executing at a high level."

Most important among those cutting down on mental errors has to be Stafford this season, especially if the Lions are going to give him more responsibility than before. Besides limiting mistakes after the play begins, he must now make sure he doesn’t check Detroit into a poor play based on a read he makes.

So far, though, it sounds like he has been pretty good at avoiding that.

In a small sample size, Stafford completed 21 of 30 passes this preseason for two touchdowns and one interception. The interception was on a forced pass to Calvin Johnson during the third preseason game in a situation where it appeared the Lions were doing as much as possible to have Johnson pick up some work in his only limited appearance during the preseason.

Other than that, Stafford made smart reads most of the time and threw the ball into the proper spots. He also got a handle on what he was doing pre-snap with the new offense.

"It’s great to see coach allows him to sometimes put him in position to make a call, to call a play and then put us in the best position he feels he can put us in," Johnson said. "That’s pretty awesome to see, because that’s some stuff that you see Peyton Manning do all the time at the line, check out of something into a totally different play that wasn’t in the play call that coach may have called in.

"That’s pretty cool to see and gives the whole team confidence."

Handing Stafford more control of the offense makes sense considering who is influencing the offense. Jim Caldwell and quarterbacks coach Jim Bob Cooter both worked extensively with Manning, who calls a lot of plays at the line. Lombardi, the offensive coordinator, worked with Drew Brees in New Orleans and Brees is one of the game’s best and most cerebral quarterbacks.

So both entrusting and expecting Stafford to handle this comes from their past as much as what they think of his skills in the present.

"He had some (freedom), certainly last year they even expanded the things he did pre-snap," Lombardi said. "So maybe a little bit different emphasis of the things that he is in control of.

"But he is very comfortable, I think, with making decisions at the line of scrimmage. He’s done that in the past and he continues to have some of that flexibility."

How much? The Lions will answer that starting Monday night.

SPONSORED HEADLINES