Six interceptions in five quarters led to a lot of questions for Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford. Was his broken finger leading to inaccuracy, along with the four picks he threw against the Chicago Bears last Sunday in the game that allowed the Bears to climb back into contention in the NFC North? And what was the deal with the picks he threw to end Detroit's first two drives against the Carolina Panthers on Sunday?
As it turned out, Lions head coach Jim Schwartz stuck with his starter against all conventional wisdom, and he was rewarded supremely for it — Stafford went off the right way after that disastrous start, throwing five touchdowns from the second quarter on as the Lions took the Panthers apart, 49-35. With Stafford's comeback, the Lions became the only team in NFL history to come from behind to win three different games in which they had 17-point deficits.
"There was absolutely no question about sticking with him; maybe from [the media], but not from us," Schwartz said of the call to stay with Stafford instead of going with backup Shaun Hill. "I think Matt's our guy and we were aggressive throwing the ball today, but where our passing game really got going is when our run game got going. Kevin Smith, Maurice Morris, those guys were running the ball very effectively. Also, we were hitting some outlet passes."
Schwartz has mentioned the "passes as runs" concept before, and this was perhaps the most integrated and effective example. "The Nate Burleson touchdown — that's a run. That's a run called and he throws that pass to Nate because they were overplaying the run. Really, it's an extension of our run game — we had a few of those today. As soon as we were able to start doing that, we were really able to get some rhythm. We came out aggressively, took a couple shots deep — we wanted to set that kind of tempo — didn't work out. But I think our ability to throw the ball deep and long with running the football made a difference, particularly in the second half."
So, coach … what did Stafford do to turn things around? "He switched to a different glove," Schwartz said with a laugh.
"He tried to drive a ball in the first series, a guy made a good play; [he was] aggressive going after the end zone in another one. That was a real tight window. The worst thing that could happen in that game is all of a sudden you throw a couple picks and you get conservative and you don't take those shots down the field. He kept taking those shots down the field and when you have Calvin [Johnson] and Titus [Young] and Nate and all those wide receivers. There were a lot of plays."
Indeed there were. Stafford completed passes to nine different receivers, and each of his five touchdowns were caught by a different teammate. That little three-quarter juggernaut allowed the Lions to stay two steps ahead of a Panthers team that managed to stay competitive despite Cam Newton's four interceptions. Even when Newton proved to be sub-par in the passing game, he still proved to be a real problem to deal with when he decided to take off and run.
"We kept their offense in check for the most part," defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh said after the game. "Let a big run out and a let a couple passes go, but it is just the matter of the game. They got some great players over there. Cam is a young guy that is being really productive so we've just got to make sure going into the Green Bay game with a well-schooled offense, we need to make sure we limit those to none."
That Packers game comes up on Thanksgiving Day, and it was good for Suh's defense to get in the right mindset before dealing with Aaron Rodgers and the most explosive offense we've seen in a number of years. However, if the Lions are expected to keep up, Stafford must limit the mistakes.
"We were trying to be aggressive in the first part of the game," Stafford said by way of explanation. "You know, we went deep the first two plays of the game, and didn't hit them. I forced that last one on third down — that first pick.
"Then on the second one, Calvin and I got a little bit confused—I thought he was going to cross the [defender's] face and ended up not doing it, but other than that, we really moved the ball well in the first half. We just killed ourselves with turnovers, turning over the first three times. I knew if we could just keep the ball in our hands on those drives in the second half that we could get some points [and] we were able to do it."
"[You've] got to keep throwing, I mean, that's the way it is. That's the way you get yourself back in those games and it's [the] shooter's mentality. [You're] not going to make them all, but you've got to go out there and keep throwing it."
Against the Panthers, there was no other choice. Against the Packers, perfection will be a necessity.
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