Matt Stafford Exposed As Bears Shut Calvin Johnson Down

The Bears defense has been a force all year. It's latest accomplishment: shut down Calvin Johnson. Despite Matt Stafford's efforts to find his star receiver, the Bears didn't let it happen. Stafford threw in Johnson's direction 12 times but only completed three for 34 yards and no scores.

With Johnson out of the picture, the Lions' passing game was impotent until a largely meaningless last-minute touchdown drive to pull the score to 13-7. Prior to that final drive (5-for-6, 67 yards and a touchdown), Stafford was 23-for-40 with just 197 yards an an interception to go with two sacks for -5 yards. The result: a horrid 3.7 adjusted yards per passing attempt.

It was just another disappointing game for Stafford in his fourth season as Lions quarterback. The former number one pick has fallen out of the top 10 in EPA per play (down from 0.19 to 0.14) and adjusted yards per passing attempt this season (5.9 to 5.1).

Despite Stafford's overall ineffectiveness, Johnson has still made a massive impact by EPA -- his 42.4 mark leads the league as does his tremendous 0.60 per play -- but his yards per target has dropped from 10.9 to 8.8 and he has just one touchdown through six games after 18 in 17 last year.

One thing hasn't changed: Stafford is still targeting Johnson on just under 25 percent of his passes, a plurality, and the reasoning is clear: the Stafford-to-Johnson connection was leaps and bounds better than any other passing weapon the Lions could offer. As expected, given Johnson's tremendous ability, the Lions exhibited one of the biggest drop-offs between top wide receiver production and production from the rest of the corps in 2011:

The above chart shows overall yards per attempt against yards per attempt when targeting all receivers except their top target. To ensure all receiver targets (or at least a vast majority) were coming from the same quarterback, I limited it to quarterbacks to play all 16 games. Stafford's drop-off when going away from his top receiver is one of the biggest -- nearly a full yard per attempt, right with Eli Manning and Cam Newton.

It's not just that Johnson was so far above the rest of the top receivers in this sample. Malcom Floyd averaged 12.2 yards per target for Philip Rivers and Marques Colston averaged 10.7 for Drew Brees, both above Johnson's 10.6 for Stafford. Both Rivers and Brees actually had a touch lower dropoff than we'd expect given their overall yards per attempt.

Now, we're left with the always dicey task of assigning credit (or blame), an especially tough task in football given all the moving pieces at work. Stafford did not have a well known cadre of receivers last season -- Brandon Pettigrew, Nate Burleson and Titus Young all received at least 95 targets last season. Was it due to a lack of dynamic secondary options, or did Stafford struggle to find his other receivers where Johnson could create catches out of throws other receivers miss?

It's been the same crew for Stafford this season, and many expected big things from the maturation of Stafford, Johnson and Young in particular. Still, before the season you could hear the following questions from the punditry: Is Matt Stafford an elite quarterback? How close to the first round does he belong in fantasy drafts?

These questions suggest most analysts expected Stafford's performance on passes thrown Johnson's direction were more indicative of his talent than the ones aimed towards the supporting cast. Instead, six games in, Stafford's overall performance has instead regressed to right where he was at when targeting non-Johnson receivers last year:

The difference in yards per attempt for Stafford when targeting Johnson as opposed to his other receivers has dropped to 0.75 yards from 0.95, an insignificant difference from the spread we've seen from most quarterbacks this season. Instead of dragging the rest of his receiving corps up, we've seen Stafford drop to near the back of the pack in terms of yards per attempt -- of the quarterbacks to play all their team's games this season, only Brandon Weeden, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Blaine Gabbert trail Stafford.

Currently, Matt Stafford owns a 40.8 EPA, good for 11th in the league -- better than players like Cam Newton, Tony Romo, Philip Rivers and Michael Vick. One can only wonder where Stafford would be this season without Calvin Johnson, though -- Johnson's 42.4 EPA eclipses Stafford's overall mark. On Monday night we saw what happens when teams manage to take Johnson away.

Luckily for the Lions, Johnson is good enough to beat a large majority of his matchps, but for Stafford to step into the elite class -- or even the above-average class -- he will have to find a way to make his other receivers productive as well.

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3 Responses to “Matt Stafford Exposed As Bears Shut Calvin Johnson Down”

  1. Unknown says:

    Does this expose Matthew Stafford? Or does it expose the lack-luster talent of the Lions' receivers? I'd argue it's the receivers hurting Stafford. Of the points plotted in 2011, all the quarterbacks above the slope have a plethora of weapons outside of their top target (Brady, Brees, Romo), while the teams below the slope have a lack of weapons outside of their top target (Dalton, Flacco, Hasslebeck). Also, the reason elite QBs like Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger fell below the slope line could be attributed to which WR was chosen as the "#1 target" per team. Targets is an imperfect indicator of "#1 option" when teams have a number of talented or injured receivers (ex. Giants' Nicks and Cruz, and Steelers' Brown and Wallace). Similarly, the small sample size bias existing in the 2012 data makes it difficult to use as an accurate indicator of Stafford's (along with the other QBs) performance thus far. Therefore, I'd argue that the blame doesn't nearly fall as much on Stafford as it does on the receivers.

  2. Anonymous says:

    for 2011, take away CJ's production (i.e. subtract off the yards and the TDs) and matt stafford is still above average in yards and tds. Still ahead of say, an alex smith by 200 total yards.

    If you simply replace CJ's stats with say marcus colton, the 15th best wr, then stafford finishes with 4500 yards and 33 tds. Still very awesome.

    In the graphs above, one would think the fact that most qbs lie above the line, indicate that the measure is somewhat meaningless in terms of distinguishing qbs from one another. to say stafford is on par with eli manning and cam newton's great year, is hardly "exposing him".

  3. Jared Doom says:

    Wow, exposed. That 5,000-yard season was a statistical anomaly and/or only achievable for a QB with Calvin Johnson.

    When you claim someone is "regressing to the mean" by comparing a more recent period to a past period, I suggest the more recent period contain as much or more data than the past period.

    The 2012 numbers are much more likely to be a digression from the mean because you have less than half the sample size (6 games vs. 16).

    Also look @ the pass defenses they've faced this year. Very talented (save TEN, where they score 40+).

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