Wednesday, November 09, 2016
By Jeff Seidel
November 9, 2016
Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford walked through the door without a limp.
He could breathe with no apparent pain in his ribs or chest.
He didn’t wince. Didn’t gasp for air. There were no bandages on his hands and no reports of postgame X-rays, which was truly remarkable considering he had just reached the halfway point in the season.
Stafford smiled and looked relatively healthy, standing at the podium Sunday afternoon after an overtime victory over the Minnesota Vikings.
If you want to know why the Lions have won three of their past four games, it starts right there — with Stafford’s health.
It starts with the protection he is getting from the offensive line. Because Stafford can’t pull off any miracle comebacks when he’s beat up and on his back after getting sacked.
In the first five games of the season, Stafford was sacked 14 times. He has been sacked six times in the past four, and the Lions have won three.
“They did a great job,” Stafford said of the offensive line after he was sacked once and hit four times Sunday. “It might be the cleanest I have been in a game playing these guys, especially at their place.”
Let’s get a quick history lesson.
A year ago, Stafford was beat up unmercifully in both games against the Vikings. After the first game, Stafford needed X-rays on his ribs and chest, and he barely could breathe. In the second game, Stafford was hit 13 times, sacked seven times and needed X-rays on his left hand.
I remember watching the offensive line and thinking: They look so confused, like they have no idea whom to block.
The next day, the Lions fired offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi and Jim Bob Cooter took over, a change widely praised and dissected — in Cooter we trust!
But something else significant happened, which has gone largely unnoticed. On the day Cooter took over the offense, Caldwell also fired offensive line coaches Jeremiah Washburn and Terry Heffernan. Ron Prince, who had been coaching the tight ends, took over the offensive line. Prince was an assistant offensive line coach with the Jacksonville Jaguars (2012) and Indianapolis Colts (2010-11).
Last January, Caldwell made another move that seems to have paid off, hiring Michael McCarthy as a new quality control/offensive line coach.
“Ron Prince has done a great job,” Caldwell told reporters Monday. “He and Mike McCarthy have done a tremendous job with those guys, and we’re just trying to keep going, keep getting them better.”
When Pro Football Focus graded the Lions’ offensive players after Sunday’s game, four of the top-six grades were given to the Lions’ offensive linemen: left tackle Taylor Decker (83.4), left guard Graham Glasgow (73.6), right tackle Corey Robinson (73.6) and right guard Larry Warford (71.5).
Only Golden Tate (85.0) and Stafford (79.1) also cracked the top six, although I think they give extra points for the backflip.
And a lot of the credit has to go to Prince and McCarthy.
“I think the guys are really playing better and better together,” Caldwell told reporters Monday. “It’s because they’ve got a lot of heart and they fight you.”
There is plenty of room to improve for the offensive line. The Lions are averaging a measly 86.8 yards per game on the ground, fourth worst in the NFL. But the Lions are trying to cover up a bad running game with Stafford’s arm and a strong kicking game.
Everything, as always, hinges on Stafford.
In the four losses, Stafford has completed 63.3% of his passes for five touchdowns and four interceptions. In the five wins, Stafford has completed 71.2% of his passes for 13 TDs and one pick.
All in all, Stafford is a pretty good quarterback when he isn’t on his back.
So, as you praise Cooter and Stafford, don’t forget about Prince and the offensive line, which still is incredibly young and far from perfect, but it is jelling and continues to improve.
You could see the proof on Stafford’s face Sunday.
The way he looked pain-free after playing the Vikings.
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