For the third straight week, and the fourth time this season, Matthew Stafford has put together a late game winning drive to propel the Lions into victory. After failing to do so against both the Chicago Bears and Tennessee Titans, Stafford has found his rhythm late game and may have even put himself in the conversation for NFL MVP.
The Lions led for majority of Sunday’s match up against the Redskins, but the offense was never able to put the game away and allowed the Redskins to take a lead with just over a minute to play after a long Kirk Cousins run for a touchdown.
Yet again, it was up to Stafford and the offense to pull out another late victory.
After a touchback on the kickoff, the Lions got the ball at their own 25 with 65 seconds to play.
The Lions got the drive off to a fast start, as Marvin Jones (#11) got open down field and caught a 23 yard pass over the middle to get the ball around midfield after Stafford managed to use his feet to get out of the pocket and avoid the pass rush.
Jones was able to find so much room over the middle of the field for two reasons. First, while he ran a deep crossing route, Andre Roberts (#12) ran a shallow route that attracted the attention of Redskins safety Will Blackmon (#41). Blackmon vacates the exact area Jones makes the catch and allows the play to get behind him.
Linebacker Will Compton (#51) also dropped back into coverage, and picked up Roberts over the middle, the defenders both covered the same zone, and Roberts ended the play surrounded by three Redskins while Jones had acres of room downfield.
The Redskins were also playing in prevent defense. Although this makes sense as they do not want to give up easy points late on a deep pass, their coverage was way too soft. Quinton Dunbar (#47) was playing man coverage on Jones but maintained a 5 yard cushion throughout the route, and despite following Jones the whole way still managed to leave him wide open. This cushion would have been fine, had the defenders in zone coverage read the play correctly and not have all chosen to chase down Andre Roberts. If Matt Stafford had the time to find him, Anquan Bolden was wide open down the left sideline.
Stafford used his feet again on the second play of the drive, and this time turned up field and scrambled for a 14 yard gain and another first down.
The Redskins rushed four on the play, but they only rushed the edges. Will Compton and Su’a Cravens (#36) both dropped back into zone coverage, clearing the entirety of the middle of the field.
This may have been by design though. Ryan Kerrigan (#91) pulled a late stunt to collapse back on Stafford when he first stepped up in the pocket, but was late and missed a tackle.
If Kerrigan had been there earlier, he may have even had a sack on the play, but an execution error by the Pro Bowl Linebacker allowed the Lions to keep the drive rolling.
With the ball on the Washington 38, the Lions were now within striking range.
Washington elected to go right back into a soft prevent defense, and again gave up a pass over the middle. Will Compton dropped way back into deep coverage, along with both safeties, upon the snap. Cravens and Kendall Fuller (#38) also dropped back, and yet again the Lions had full use over the middle of the field.
The Lions started the drive with all three timeouts, and had only used one to this point. With over 30 seconds to play and two timeouts remaining, there is no reason for the Redskins to play so conservatively. They only rushed four and cleared the middle of the field, giving Stafford enough time to find Roberts over the middle for another 20 yards.
Now within 20 yards of their own end zone, the Redskins decided to finally get aggressive.
They rushed five on the play, but Stafford immediately lobbed it towards Golden Tate (#15) on a fade route to the corner of the end zone. The play was executed well, and if not for great positioning by Greg Toler (#20) to force Tate out-of-bounds, would have been the winning touchdown.
The defense remained aggressive on second down, rushing six.
The blitz caught the Lions off guard and Stafford was forced to quickly throw the ball towards Tate to avoid a sack.
Su’a Cravens burst through the front line untouched, and throws off a block by Zach Zenner (#34) to get to Stafford. On the other side, Kerrigan absolutely man handles Riley Reiff (#71) and shoves him back into his quarterback.
Andre Roberts had space just beyond Tate, but the pass rush made sure Stafford didn’t have time to get the ball to him.
After a more aggressive pass rush with more men playing zone over the middle of the field worked on both first and second down to force the Lions into a third and long, the Redskins chose to go back into prevent defense, and lost.
This time, the defense did their job to near perfection.
None of the Lions receivers had much separation on the play, and the eight men who dropped back into coverage seems to have well communicated their roles.
About a half second before Stafford throws the ball, you can see the smothering coverage the defense had on the play. None of the Lions four receivers have much room, until Anquan Bolden (#80) beats Kendall Fuller on a double move allowing him to get behind the corner. Even after getting behind Fuller, Bolden was still surrounded by both Quinton Dunbar and Will Blackmon.
For a quarterback like Matthew Stafford, there was enough room. Stafford delivers a near perfect pass into a small window of space, a “Stafford Window” as they are called, and Bolden made the catch and managed to fight through two men to get into the end zone for the game winning score.
The Redskins let the game slip through their fingers, and it was due to play calling on defense.
Matthew Stafford is one of the most talented quarterbacks in the NFL. He is a very accurate passer, and although he is too confident in his arm to make tight throws sometimes, his aggressive decision makes a dangerous quarterback in clutch situations.
How do you beat him?
Stafford has shown some scrambling ability this season, and even picked up a first down on this drive with his feet, but he is not fast or agile enough to dodge heavy pass rush on his own. The Lions pass protection has been awful this season, and the best way to Stafford is to not give him enough time to look downfield. The Redskins only rushed more than four players twice on this drive, both plays led to an incompletion.
Dropping into deep pass defense and allowing a team shallow passes over the middle is usually a sound strategy late in a close game. But execution errors allowed the Lions to move the ball with ease, and the lack of overall pass rush on a quarterback with Stafford’s skill lost them the game.
Matthew Stafford is one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, and the Redskins gave him just enough time to prove it.
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