This week, I want to focus on what I belieive is the problem with Stafford's "accuracy issues": his footwork. In the past couple weeks, Stafford's accuracy has been down and he's been taking more sacks. I hypothesized that the two were obviously related and the pressure was causing Stafford to throw off his back foot more often, causing more inaccuracies. This week, I went over tape from the Broncos game to see if these problems emerged.
It only took the first offensive play of the game for me to get worried. Take a look (click to big-ify):
Clearly Stafford's posture is putting the pressure on his back foot, even though he has room to step into this throw. Now Stafford has a talented enough arm for this pass to still have heat behind it and he actually completes it for nine yards, but he is relying on skills he shouldn't have to on throws like this.
Another example came on a quick throw to Burleson:
In Stafford's defense, plays designed to throw this quickly often don't allow time for the quarterback to get completely set, but Stafford is still lazy with his footwork on this play and, this time, the pass suffers:
Instead, Stafford needs to, at the very least, throw this flat-footed, rather than falling backwards. This play is all about timing and the throw needs to be on the money for it to be a success. Therefore, it's inexcusable for Stafford to be lazy with his footwork.
However, it wasn't all bad news for Stafford's feet on this day. Obviously, something went right: the man had the highest QBR of all week eight quarterbacks, the highest passer rating of the week and ranked third in Football Outsider's DYAR this week. He had an excellent game. And there were some moments where his feet helped him on plays.
Many will point to Stafford's 21 yard run, but I was actually more impressed with a "sack" he took on third down. Yes, you read that correctly. I was happy with Stafford's footwork on a third-down sack. Let me set up the scenario for you: the Lions are 3rd and 9, up 7-3 at midfield. The Broncos are only rushing three and dropping eight into coverage. But only seconds into the play, Stafford (rightfully) sees trouble:
As you can see, none of the receivers have had the time for their routes to develop, but take a look at Gosder Cherilus and the defensive lineman on the near side of the line. The defensive end has cut inwards and is barreling in on Stafford. At this moment, Stafford correctly escapes the pocket towards us and extends the play. His eyes never leave the his receivers and he waits and waits for something to develop. Upon replay, I was not happy...
OMG, PETTIGREW OPEN AT THE TOP OF THE SCREEN!
There are two problems with my initial thoughts on the play. First, Stafford, at this point, is already scrambling to his right, which means this pass would be against his body, which is a terrible decision 99% of the time. Secondly, you can't tell from this angle, but there is a pesky Bronco linebacker just off-screen. I've used unbelievably expensive technology to digitally input the linebacker in the following screenshot:
Now, astute viewers may look at Nate Burleson standing at the 44 wide open, but astuter-er viewers notice the Broncos coming down on him hard. Stafford correctly escaped the pocket and correctly held onto the ball as long as possible waiting for something to emerge. When nothing did, he correctly ran out-of-bounds taking a harmless two yard loss. The failure on this play was completely on Cherilus and Stafford did a great job making sure that the damage was minimal.
Finally, I wanted to give Stafford props for correcting something I was critical of in the past: his impatience in the pocket. In the past two games, Stafford had been leaving the pocket before it was necessary and he was running himself into sacks and breaking down a play before necessary. On the Lions biggest play* against Denver, Stafford displayed his ability to be as patient as any quarterback.
The play I speak of, of course, is the 41-yard bomb to Titus Young. Take a look:
First, notice his posture. Despite two Broncos in his face, Stafford is shifting his momentum to his front foot and is not falling backwards. This is one of the toughest things for a quarterback to do in the face of pressure. When two 300 pound men are heading towards you, the natural tendency of the body is to do whatever you can to get the hell away from that situation. Stafford ignores that inclination, sets his feet, and drops an accurate throw to a wide-open Young.
Also impressive on this play was Stafford's progression on reads, something I have also been critical of in the past. Stafford looks for, at least, two other receivers before his progression leads him to Young on the play. Many quarterbacks would have panicked once their first two reads were covered, but Stafford stayed strong in the pocket (give credit to the offensive line for keeping Stafford clean for as long as he did) and delivered a great ball to Young for an easy touchdown.
So what do I take from the game? Well, not a whole lot. Every single quarterback that has faced the Broncos this year has put up a passer rating better than their season averages. Though Stafford made some easy throws tougher than he needed to, he mostly ended up making the throws. And while that's great, I'd still like to see him improve on his footwork for when he's facing much better defenses than the Broncos.
*technically second biggest to Calvin's TD, but this play was "bigger" in the sense that it was more important at the time.