NFC North: Matthew Stafford

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.
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.

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
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.

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.

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
(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

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.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- A fan asked Matthew Stafford a question Wednesday. It was almost a silly question six years into the quarterback’s NFL career -- especially since throughout his whole career, he has known one receiver more than anyone.

 To paraphrase the question: Was there any awkwardness for him, as a Georgia player, to throw to a receiver who went to rival Georgia Tech?

It took Stafford essentially one day to get over that. When a player is as gifted as Calvin Johnson, it’s easy to forget about college loyalties.

For Stafford, this connection has been extra special and extra important, and he knows it. Johnson is a special player. He is the best receiver in the NFL and perhaps one of the top pass-catchers of all time. Stafford is the second-fastest quarterback ever to throw for 10,000 yards, and a lot of that has to do with the man at the other end of so many of his passes.

All of those skills are why Johnson was named the top offensive player in the NFL by our 90 panelists here at ESPN. This may be a quarterback-driven league, but Johnson is one of the few players any quarterback in the league would want to make him look even better.

In seven years in the NFL, Johnson has amassed 572 catches for 9,328 yards and 66 touchdowns. He holds the single-season receiving yards record with 1,964 yards, and the combination of all of his physical gifts make him torturous to cover for opposing defensive backs, who nearly all admit to needing help to do it.

“When I first came into the league, Randy Moss was kind of that big, long receiver who could stretch the field, run by you, separate from any corner he played against,” cornerback Quentin Jammer told last year. “[Johnson] is a bigger version of that, [he can] out-muscle you and run by you.”

Then there’s how Johnson acts on and off the field. In a wide receiver world in which so many skill players like to talk and draw attention to themselves, Johnson does none of that. He’s almost universally liked, even by the players who have to cover him.

 He is fairly quiet. He rarely boasts and often appears uncomfortable talking about his own ability and feats. He is a superstar in skill and in game, but he's a regular guy when it comes to how he acts.

“When you talk about going against a guy, you look at off-the-field presence, who he is as a player, and he’s just a hardworking, stand-up, nice guy off the field, very humble,” Miami cornerback Cortland Finnegan said. “So it’s hard to try and p--- him off, you know. It’s just one of those things.

“But you just want to compete with him because you understand in order to become better and be on to his level, you have to play good every snap because he’s going to bring it every snap. It’s one of those things that you know every single play can be that game-changing play.”

Not many players in the NFL are like that -- and Johnson is one of the most dangerous and best at accomplishing it.

ESPN NFL Nation Denver Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold contributed to this report.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- When Golden Tate chose to sign with the Detroit Lions during free agency, part of the appeal to the wide receiver was the offense laid out to him.

After spending the first four years of his career in Seattle, where the Seahawks ran the ball just as much as they threw it -- including 155 more runs than passes during the last three seasons after the team acquired Marshawn Lynch -- he has now moved to an offense that likes to throw.

[+] EnlargeGolden Tate
Duane Burleson/AP PhotoVeteran wide receiver Golden Tate is anxious to see how his first season with the Lions will play out.
And potentially throw a lot.

This is why, when Tate says he believes he can better his 64 receptions and 898 yards from last season, it is a plausible thought even though he moved from being the No. 1 receiver in Seattle to the No. 2 receiver in Detroit.

"I think my numbers can be way better in this offense naturally how it's set up," Tate said. "I was coming from, you gotta think I was in the toughest division with the 49ers, Rams and Cardinals, defensively, with a run-heavy offense and now I'm going to a pass-happy offense where I'm on the same team as the best player in the league, one of the best players in the league who is going to draw a lot of attention, a lot of double coverage, which is going to leave me with a lot of single coverage with a lot of No. 2 and No. 3 cornerbacks.

"So mentally I think I should be able to excel and do very well here."

The player Tate is referring to is Calvin Johnson, who should still draw the majority of a defense's attention even with the additions of Tate and tight end Eric Ebron along with running backs Reggie Bush and Joique Bell and tight ends Joseph Fauria and Brandon Pettigrew.

Those are a lot of players for Matthew Stafford to choose between on a given play, so while Tate might not receive as many looks as he did in Seattle, he should see much more favorable coverage.

If Tate wants to eclipse those numbers, he might have to do it on fewer than the 98 targets he had last season. He did say, as many players will, he would sacrifice individual stats if Detroit can finally win.

"My goals are just to be better than I was last year," Tate said. "I think every year I just want to be better than I was last year. Just a little bit better. Coach (Jim) Caldwell does a great job of using, we just want to be six inches better, that's what I want to do. I want to help this team win.

"If my numbers aren't as great and we have 11 wins and go to the playoffs and go deep into the playoffs, I'm happy with that. I want this team to win. I think we definitely have what it takes to win and it's time to win now."

Caldwell, though, has no interest in making any predictions about statistics -- or about wins. He passed on commenting about season projections and when told of Tate's thought that he could put up bigger numbers in this offense, he downplayed that as well.

"You don't know. It could be game-to-game," Caldwell said. "You often see within schemes, in particular those, we'll run the ball as well, you'll see certain schemes and how they decide to attack you, one game one guy might catch six balls and the next game he might get two. One game a guy might get 12 and the next game he might get none.

"Just kind of depends on the situation so it would be tough for me to predict that."

One prediction will be easy enough -- Johnson will still see a lot of attention and if offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi is able to do it correctly, that should open up chances for everyone else on the offense.

Matthew Stafford ranked No. 71

August, 20, 2014
Aug 20
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- The ESPN #NFLRank project continues to roll on, and the second Detroit Lions player has made an appearance.

Reggie Bush popped up on Monday at No. 98 among offensive players. Now his quarterback, Matthew Stafford, has shown up on the list.

Stafford was ranked as the No. 71 offensive player in the league in a poll of 90 ESPN writers and analysts.

This is actually a big jump for Stafford, which is somewhat surprising considering the second half of his 2013 season, when he threw as many touchdowns as interceptions (13). Stafford was ranked No. 94 in last year's poll.

He is also considered the No. 4 quarterback in fantasy entering the season and is expected to put up big numbers in new coordinator Joe Lombardi's offense.

So far, as written about Tuesday, Stafford has looked extremely sharp this preseason.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Matthew Stafford doesn't believe he is any faster than a season ago. Didn't think he made any physical improvements, either. Doesn't think he is "any more jacked," either.

The sixth-year Detroit Lions quarterback is the same as he was physically. It is everywhere else, possibly, where the former No. 1 pick has changed.

[+] EnlargeMatthew Stafford
AP Photo/Paul SancyaQB Matthew Stafford has worked hard this offseason to understand the Detroit Lions' offense under new head coach Jim Caldwell.
Off the field, he became engaged to his longtime girlfriend, Kelly Hall. On the field, he also possibly engaged a bit more, having to learn a new offense and new terminology for the second time in his professional career.

It was that engagement on the field that caught new coach Jim Caldwell's attention almost immediately.

"He left this spring with I think a real solid understanding of what we're doing from an offensive standpoint," Caldwell said. "He came back this fall further ahead than when he left. That tells me that he studied.

"That he obviously dedicated himself to getting better and he's moving at a pretty rapid pace in terms of doing a lot of the nuances that come along with operating this particular offense."

It is this offense that gave some of the Lions some issues early on, from the longer terminology insisted upon by new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi to the change in routes run from certain positions and how many yards a certain route is supposed to be run.

Add in a new receiver -- Golden Tate -- and a first-round rookie tight end in Eric Ebron and there are timing issues to secure as well.

Stafford has apparently handled it all comfortably both in practice -- where he had an interception-less streak lasting almost two weeks -- and in his first real action, where he was 9 of 10 passing with his lone incompletion dropped by Reggie Bush.

"For me, the biggest challenge this offseason was trying to get the mastery of the playbook, the new system we have coming in," Stafford said. "So that's what I spent most of my time and effort on and with that comes new drops and new reads and things like that.

"I don't know if there's one thing that stands out to me. Just being an overall better player."

That had to happen, though, because Stafford realized from the day he stepped into the Lions facility in 2009 as the No. 1 overall pick the franchise would largely succeed or fail based on his play.

He looked at the commonalities among playoff teams and one of the things he noticed was the proficiency of the quarterbacks who made runs to conference championship games and Super Bowls. He understood he would have to attain a certain level in order to provide that for the Lions.

He said Tuesday he has always held himself to similar standards -- and his measure of that is the points the Lions score and how few turnovers he ends up responsible for. Those were numbers Detroit -- and Stafford -- struggled with in the latter half of 2013, when Stafford threw 13 touchdowns, 13 interceptions and had the No. 31 passer rating in the NFL over his final eight games.

His interpretation of high level -- something he clearly didn't achieve last season -- remains constant.

"It's tough to put numbers on it," Stafford said. "You just want to go out there and make good throws, make good decisions, limit turnovers, make sure we're in the right play every time if you can and with the team, that's the biggest thing."

If he does that, then he should have a season closer to 2011, when he was considered one of the brighter young quarterbacks in the NFL. Stafford may still be young from an age standpoint at 26, but he is also entering the prime of his career.

Six seasons in and the Lions shouldn't see the same movie from Stafford as they did last season. After the supposed improvements his new coaches made, they should see a sleeker, sharper version. The early results have indicated this as well.

"He's worked at it extremely hard," Caldwell said. "Often times you'll find guys will look for an excuse why they weren't as effective in certain phases. Hey we got a new system, it's real tough, learning curve is a little difficult. He's made none of those.

"He came out, he's worked, he's functioned and he's gotten better as a result of that and I look forward to him just keep improving."
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- During the spring, Matthew Stafford admitted there was a lot to pick up in the new offensive system, only the second one he’s had to digest in the NFL.

Through two weeks of training camp, though, Stafford has not shown many issues. Anything positive that happens for the Detroit Lions this season will start with the improvement of Stafford, who needed to show better decision-making and efficiency in practice and in games.

So far, not bad. He has not thrown an interception during any serious team or seven-on-seven periods in the first two weeks of training camp.

“I’m being coached differently,” Stafford said. “Our drops are different. Our reads are different. Our plays are totally different. It was kind of nice to scrap everything and start from the new way they wanted me to do it.

“I tried to embrace myself in that as hard as I possibly can and it’s been fun.”

That Stafford has shown this already -- along with strong rapport with receivers Golden Tate and Kevin Ogletree to go with Calvin Johnson -- is a massive positive for the Lions as they search for offensive efficiency.

Both Stafford and his offensive coordinator, Joe Lombardi, understand that pressure is on Stafford every play in practice. So far, he’s handled it.

“That’s the quarterback position,” Lombardi said. “All of the pressure is always going to be on him [Stafford]. Like all competitive people, and he’s a highly competitive guy, they put more pressure on themselves than anyone else does.

“It’s fair.”

It also needs to continue as Stafford continues to learn the offense.

Three reasons for optimism:

  • [+] EnlargeJim Caldwell
    AP Photo/Carlos OsorioPlayers are buying into new coach Jim Caldwell's focus on efficiency.
    This team appears to truly believe in Jim Caldwell, at least for now. Yes, it is easy to speak positively of a new regime before a regular-season game has been played, but the players are buying into his focus on efficiency. From his elimination of stretching periods in practice to his promise that he’ll treat every player equally, the Lions have been appreciative of Caldwell's approach compared to the previous regime under Jim Schwartz. Accountability has been a big focus for Caldwell, and so far it has worked.
  • Megatron. It might sound simplistic, but if this team has a healthy Johnson, that is a massive reason for optimism because of what he is able to do to opposing defenses. Johnson has looked impressive through the first two weeks of camp, making jaw-dropping plays essentially every day. This is typical for Johnson, who has been doing that since his freshman year at Georgia Tech in 2004. But Johnson looks healed from his offseason knee and finger surgeries, and the Lions are being smart with his repetitions during practice. As long as Johnson is healthy, Detroit can feel good about its passing game.
  • Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley have been dominant. Both entered camp in great shape and are playing for future contracts this season. If the Lions receive first-round efforts from both Suh (expected) and Fairley (questionable) in 2014, Detroit could have the dominant defensive front it has sought since it drafted them in back-to-back first rounds.
Three reasons for pessimism:

  • If Stafford gets hurt, the Lions are in major trouble. Yes, many teams can say that about their starting quarterback, but in previous years Shaun Hill gave Detroit a level of confidence that it could remain competitive if Stafford were to go down. So far, No. 2 quarterback Dan Orlovsky has looked somewhat rough both in practice and in one preseason game. Kellen Moore showed some flashes of potential in the preseason opener, but he was mostly facing players who won’t make Cleveland’s 53-man roster. More than any other season, Stafford’s health is of supreme importance right now.
  • [+] EnlargeDetroit's Matthew Stafford
    Leon Halip/Getty ImagesA lot of the Lions' success in 2014 will depend on how well Matthew Stafford picks up the new offense and if he can stay healthy.
    The secondary is still questionable. The Lions are set with their starters here, but the depth is still up in the air at both cornerback and safety. Beyond Rashean Mathis and Darius Slay -- and even with them -- the Lions have no sure things at cornerback and in a division with Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler, that is not good for Detroit. Safety appears to be a little stronger both in starters (Glover Quin, James Ihedigbo) and also depth (Don Carey, DeJon Gomes, Isa Abdul-Quddus) but lacks a top-end playmaker.
  • The offense has still looked a little shaky. Stafford has practiced well, especially with Johnson, but the defense has looked stronger than the offense on multiple occasions. There is still a large learning curve, but considering what the Lions have put into their offense in the offseason, that might not bode well for a team trying to score points in bunches. Part of the issue might come from Detroit’s multiplicity offensively, with players lining up in different spots on almost every play. Early on the defense has looked stronger.
Observation Deck:

  • Detroit has stayed mostly healthy through the first two weeks of camp. Part of that might have to do with the way Detroit has practiced this summer -- short, efficient, smart splitting of reps and days off for veterans. So far, Caldwell has taken care of his players.
  • Eric Ebron is coming along. He had a rough first week of camp, dropping passes and looking lost at times. Since then, the first-round pick has been much better both with ball security and route running. He has probably the most challenging camp of any player on the team as he’s a rookie and lining up in four different spots within the Lions offense. He is making progress.
  • The kicking situation has the potential to be a mess and, at best, an untested situation. Neither Nate Freese nor Giorgio Tavecchio has kicked in a regular-season game. Freese is a rookie and Tavecchio has been cut the past two camps. Both have looked decent-to-good in practice thus far, but it’ll be interesting to see how much the Lions trust an inexperienced kicker the first time the game is on the line. Punter Sam Martin has been impeccable at camp, though, and looks to have improved from his strong rookie performance.