With 10 seconds left in the game, Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford threw a five-yard touchdown pass to running back Kevin Smith to give his team a 27-23 win over the St. Louis Rams at Ford Field in Detroit. It was a "signature moment" for Stafford despite the fact that he had forgotten how to write his name at all through most of the game.
In 2011, Stafford threw just 16 interceptions in a league-leading 663 pass attempts. It's safe to say that his pick percentage went way the heck up in the first half of the Lions' season-opening game.
In less than 30 minutes of professional football, Stafford -- the man on the top of everyone's list as the next great NFL quarterback after throwing for more than 5,000 yards in 2011 -- tossed three interceptions, and almost managed a fourth. The Lions were lucky to be down just 13-10 at the half. Stafford finished the game with 32 completions in 48 attempts for 355 yards, the last-second score, and those three wounded ducks.
"I think it's a little overused cliché of the three-point shooter that misses a couple that keeps on going," Lions head coach Jim Schwartz said after the game. "Matt wasn't playing poorly, he just made a couple bad throws. A couple … they weren't really bad decisions, he knew what he was doing, it was just a little bit inaccurate pass trying to squeeze the ball into a little too tight of an area. They were playing a sort of bend-but-don't-break style of trying not to give up big plays, trying to make us burn a lot of clock trying to shorten the game. We fell into that.
"The good news is those last two times we had the ball, I don't know if anybody's ever played better. That one drive we went down, we didn't have a second down on the whole drive; it was bang, bang, bang, bang touchdown. A guy that threw three interceptions, maybe at the end you're sitting there going, 'Hey let's get into field goal range; let's try to take it to overtime.' That was never even in our thought. The whole time we were talking about, 'We've got plenty of time, let's go down and score a touchdown and win this game.' We can't do that without a quarterback like Matt."
On the first pick, Stafford tried to throw to his right with tight end Tony Scheffler as the target. But rookie cornerback Janoris Jenkins jumped the route, picked Stafford off at the goal line, and ran it out to the St. Louis 34-yard line. Stafford tried to finesse the throw and didn't seem to recognize that Jenkins had established inside position on the play. Then, with 7:17 left in the second quarter, Stafford threw his second pick on a pass to tight end Brandon Pettigrew which was intercepted by linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar.
To complete his reverse hat trick, Stafford threw a pick-six to cornerback Cortland Finnegan with 1:31 left in the first half on an attempted pass to Calvin Johnson.
"The one where I was throwing on the left side to Pettigrew, that one was a good play; (the) guy undercut it," Stafford remembered after the fact. "Really, the goal line fade, same kind of thing. You look at tape and those guys have been turning their backs the whole time. Thought the back shoulder would be there and the kid [Jenkins] did a good job. Like I said, I didn't throw great passes.
"Cortland Finnegan, he's a high-price free agent and he showed why. It was a heck of a play getting all the way out to a comeback outside from the slot. It's going to happen. Obviously you don't want to have three — you don't want to have three in the first five games and you don't want to have three in the first half of the first one. But the guys, we believe in each other. I believe in all the guys in that locker room that we can get it done no matter what happens to start the game. That's all we did. We went out there and put a little bit of a second-half together and got a win."
Unbelievably, it was almost worse. With 25 seconds left in the half, Stafford almost had another pick, when he threw deep to tight end Tony Scheffler. The ball was dropped by Rams cornerback Bradley Fletcher, but it was another ball that Stafford had no business throwing.
If Fletcher had held onto that one, Stafford would have racked up a full 25 percent of the 2011 interception total ... in just 30 minutes and 21 passes.
There was a bit of upside for Stafford in the second half -- late in the third quarter, he threw a pass that was deflected by Rams defensive lineman Eugene Sims, caught his own deflected throw, and ran for three yards. So, had that going for him, which was nice.
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