How Matthew Stafford, Darrell Bevell helped Detroit Lions rediscover deep pass game

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Dave Birkett, Detroit Free Press
·5 min read
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They have not had their best playmaker, Kenny Golladay, on the field in more than a month. They cut their fastest deep threat, Marvin Hall, last week. And their quarterback, Matthew Stafford, still has a bum thumb on his throwing hand.

Yet somehow, the Detroit Lions were able to unlock the big-play portion of their passing game in last week’s win over the Chicago Bears to the greatest extent they have all season.

“We have those built in, we’re trying to look for them,” interim Lions coach Darrell Bevell said. “But we did talk about just aggressively how much we wanted to take them, and I think it was a perfect storm that we were finally able to get as many as we got.”

Detroit Lions head coach Darrell Bevell talks with quarterback Matthew Stafford in the first half the Chicago Bears in Chicago, Sunday, Dec. 6, 2020.
Detroit Lions head coach Darrell Bevell talks with quarterback Matthew Stafford in the first half the Chicago Bears in Chicago, Sunday, Dec. 6, 2020.

The Lions had eight passing plays of more than 20 yards against the Bears, as many as they had in their previous four games combined.

Stafford completed (three) and attempted (eight) his most passes that traveled at least 20 yards downfield all season.

And two of those throws, to Quintez Cephus and Marvin Jones, resulted in touchdowns.

While circumstances were at least a contributing factor to the Lions’ downfield success — three of their 20-plus-yard completions came on third-and-long, and two, including Jones’ touchdown, were in a hurry-up situation with the Lions racing to catch up late in the second half.

There is perhaps another, more simple explanation for why the Lions were able to generate so many big passing plays: They were willing to try.

In the first 11 games of the season, Stafford attempted five or more passes at least 20 yards down field on one occasion, in a Week 6 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars. That was in stark contrast to last season, when Stafford attempted five or more 20-plus yard throws seven times in the eight games he played.

Stafford has said on multiple occasions this fall that teams have played the Lions differently this year, dropping safeties and linebackers deep to help prevent the big play. And Bevell, in his second season as play caller, said last week he did not feel hamstrung in his play selection under Matt Patricia, who was fired Nov. 28 after two and a half seasons as head coach.

Matthew Stafford (9) is congratulated by Quintez Cephus (87) after throwing a touchdown pass against the Chicago Bears during the first half at Soldier Field on Dec. 6, 2020, in Chicago.
Matthew Stafford (9) is congratulated by Quintez Cephus (87) after throwing a touchdown pass against the Chicago Bears during the first half at Soldier Field on Dec. 6, 2020, in Chicago.

But in the limited sample size that is last week’s win over the Bears, together Stafford and Bevell seemed more eager to challenge their opponent vertically.

The Lions (5-7) opened the game with a 21-yard play-action pass to Mohamed Sanu, and while that ball traveled less than 15 yards downfield, and Sanu gained the rest after catch, it was the first of many plays the Lions ran attacking the middle of the field.

According to the NFL’s Next Gen stats, Stafford completed all six of his midfield intermediate pass attempts, when the ball traveled between 10 and 20 yards downfield. Several of those throws turned into 20-plus-yard gains, and the Lions’ success there helped open the rest of the field.

“When you looked at it, they were just guys that were open down the field,” Stafford said. “And some teams are playing ultra, ultra deep, and (line)backers are taking away 15-, 18-yard routes. That’s tough. You’re going to have to check it down in those, and we were able to get behind them a little bit. We also put ourselves in some third-and-long situations and had to get some chunk plays to get first downs. Kind of all over the board on that.

“But I thought some of those chunk plays, shoot, I threw a ball to (Jamal) Agnew that was behind the line of scrimmage, or at the line of scrimmage, and he got (19) on it as well. So we’ll take them any way we can get them, whether it’s throwing it underneath the coverage and running with it, or throwing it over the top or in between. Just happy that we had some success and obviously it makes drives a little bit easier when you can get a couple chunk plays here or there and get closer to the end zone.”

The Lions burned Chicago for six plays of 20-plus yards in their first meeting of the season in September, though Stafford completed just 1 of 4 passes 20 yards downfield in that game.

On Sunday, they face a Green Bay Packers team that has given up just 31 pass plays of 20-plus yards this season, tied for third fewest in the NFL. The Lions beat Green Bay for three of those plays in a Week 2 loss, and Packers coach Matt LaFleur said his defense must be about limiting the big plays this weekend.

“I think Detroit’s offense line’s playing at a high level,” LaFleur said. “And then anytime you go up against a guy the caliber of Matthew Stafford, I think he’s one of the elite players in this league. There’s not a throw he can’t make and he’s capable of throwing for 400 each and every week. So our defense is going to have a great challenge in front of them. It is an explosive offense, one of the better offenses in the league and we’ve got to come ready to play.”

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: How Detroit Lions rediscovered their deep passing game