Vikings DBs must prepare for deep throws from Matthew Stafford

EAGAN — Since changing offensive coordinators, Matthew Stafford is back to his old gun slinging ways.

In 2018, the long-time Detroit Lions quarterback averaged just 6.8 yards per attempt, which ranked only ahead of five quarterbacks who started at least 10 games. His lack of efficiency was largely due to his circumstances. Offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter’s system called for Stafford to get rid of the ball quickly and get it into the hands of playmakers, namely Golden Tate.

But the relationship between Tate and head coach Matt Patricia corroded and the Lions traded him to Philadelphia, leaving Stafford with few players to create yards after catch. Detroit’s other star receiver Marvin Jones missed most of the year with an injury.

At year’s end, Stafford ranked ahead of only three quarterbacks in average air yards per throw per NFL NextGEN statistics.

This year his numbers of completely changed, as Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer pointed out on Wednesday.

“With those receivers, they can get down the field. (T.J.) Hockenson has added another dimension to them as well, and I think they’re doing a nice job with their play actions,” Zimmer said. “He’s throwing them, I’ll give you a little stat since you like the stats, he’s number one in the league in throwing attempted contested passes. There you go. “

To be exact, 23.7%  of Stafford’s throws have gone into tight coverage, per NextGEN. His average air yards have jumped from 7.0 per throw to 10.9, the highest mark in the NFL.

No quarterback (with at least 100 attempts) has a higher percentage of throws traveling more than 20 yards than Stafford (20.9%) and his 469 yards produced on throws of 20-plus ranks only behind Patrick Mahomes, Dak Prescott, Russell Wilson and Deshaun Watson (per PFF).

Jones has been exceptionally dangerous on deep throws. He’s caught five of nine deep throws in his direction for 126 yards. In 2017, he ranked third in the NFL in deep receiving yards, only trailing Tyreek Hill and Brandin Cooks.

Fellow receiver Kenny Golladay ranks 13th in deep receiving yards with 159.

The Vikings have not allowed many deep passing plays this season, giving up 17 plays for 20 yards (T-9th) and just one play of 40 yards or more through the air.

Last year the Vikings had great success against Stafford, holding him to 4.6 yards per attempt and a 74.1 rating while sacking the veteran QB 12 times in two games. Stafford’s pass protection could still be an issue. PFF ranks the Lions 24th in pass blocking and they have given up pressures on 36% of drop backs.

“This will be a good test for us,” Zimmer said. “We’ll have to go in there and play good to win on the road.”