EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — The pocket fell around Matthew Stafford and once again, the Detroit Lions quarterback was forced to improvise. Like he’s done so often during the first two weeks of the season, Stafford spun out of the back of the pocket, away from the pressure.
And then he made his decisions. Sometimes, if the lane was there, he took off, trying to get the first down. Other times he kept his eyes focused downfield, searching for a pass-catcher, any pass-catcher, to make a play.
This is the Stafford the Lions have gotten used to seeing over the past two seasons, the smart quarterback making intelligent decisions, the quarterback who so often took very little he had to work with and somehow made a play. He did this, too, without his starting left tackle, Taylor Decker, and on a night where Decker’s replacement – Greg Robinson – struggled to handle the New York Giants pass-rush. Robinson picked up a couple of penalties, a couple of pressures and was part of an offensive line that sent Stafford scrambling for 23 total yards in a 24-10 win over the Giants.
But these games, the ones like Monday night, are not the ones Stafford has historically won as Detroit’s quarterback. Entering Monday night, he was 20-34 in his career on the road. He’d only won one game – against New Orleans in 2015 – on the road on Monday night. And more critical for Stafford, it’s how he looked doing it, a 15-of-21, 122-yard, two-touchdown, no interception day where he did everything he needed to in order to win.
He played sharp. He made smart decisions. He moved the pocket well with his eyes and his footwork — all things he’s improved on over the past few years. These are all things the Lions have preached to him and he’s been able to improve on under Jim Caldwell, Jim Bob Cooter and Brian Callahan continually showed up against the Giants. Simply, Stafford played like the type of quarterback who understands what he needs to do on the road.
He took deep shots when he needed to – including a touchdown pass to Marvin Jones in the first quarter – and minimized risk. He did what so many top NFL quarterbacks do going into a tough environment on the road. He managed the games and his decisions to make sure his team was in position to win.
He got help from special teams, with an 88-yard punt return for a touchdown from Jamal Agnew, and from a defense that sacked Eli Manning five times and picked him off once. He even came back a play after getting poked in the eye to lead a touchdown drive in the first half – a big momentum boost for the Lions.
These types of games are the ones Stafford had to start winning. Yes, he did so last year – to an extent. But so much of the Lions success was based on his last-minute miracle comebacks instead of what he was able to do Sunday.
Stafford led the Lions to a complete win, one where Detroit never trailed, never looked frazzled and never seemed not in control of the game. On the road. On a Monday night. And that, more than anything else, might be the next step in Stafford’s development as a quarterback. For the second straight week, Stafford completed over 70 percent of his passes (15 of 21, 71.7 percent Monday night) — one of the team’s biggest goals with him this offseason.
This was a national stage for him – his first since signing his $135 million contract that made him the NFL’s highest-paid player. He showed that not only could he handle it, but he can thrive in it. And that, for the Lions, might be the next step in the development of an elite quarterback and a team he can win with.