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Matthew Stafford isn’t usually the superstitious type, but this time he wasn’t taking any chances.
Stafford fielded questions about his current streak of 137 consecutive throws without an interception on two different occasions this week, and both times he found the nearest piece of wood for some knocking.
“It’s good,” Stafford said Wednesday, after three taps on the lectern in front of him. “I understand that turnovers in this league are going to jerseys from china happen. We’re doing a really nice job right now of holding onto the ball, and was fortunate a couple times last week (not to throw an interception). But yeah, it’s a big part (of our success).”
The Lions have ridden an opportunistic defense and great special-teams play to a 3-1 record, but they wouldn’t be tied atop the NFC heading into Sunday’s game with the Carolina Panthers if not for some careful play by their quarterback.
Stafford threw a pick-six on his first pass attempt of the season, when Golden Tate was chucked off his route by Arizona Cardinals linebacker Josh Bynes.
Since then, Stafford has come close to throwing an interception or four, but for a variety of reasons he has played almost mistake-free football.
“Our defense is playing dangerously good football right now, so we don’t need to do anything that’s too crazy,” Tate said. “I think we’re OK with punting the ball, pinning them deep, letting our defense go out there and do a three-and-out or even get a pick or a fumble.
“So I would say that’s one of the reasons, and the next reason that comes to mind is that we all are on the same page a little bit better than we have been in the past and I think we all understand the offense a little bit better than we have in the past. So that’s playing a toll I would think.”
Drew Brees, who does not have a turnover in 152 pass attempts this season, is the only quarterback with a longer interception-less streak in the NFL, and just four teams have a better interception rate (.72%) than the Lions.
Stafford did lose a fumble in a Week 2 win over the New York Giants, and he has come close to committing several more turnovers this year.
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He threw an interception that was called back on a questionable defensive holding penalty in the final minute of a Week 3 loss to the Atlanta Falcons, and last week he nearly threw three picks in a win over the Minnesota Vikings.
On par, though, Stafford is taking precious care of the football, a change that started around the time Jim Bob Cooter took over as offensive coordinator midway through the 2015 season.
Stafford has four interception-less streaks longer than this one in his career. Twice in his 5,000-yard season of 2011, he went 150 passes without a pick. Last year, he attempted 171 straight throws without an interception. And at the end of the 2015 season and into Week 2 of 2016, he set a personal best with 211 consecutive pass attempts without a pick.
“Hopefully the comfort level is getting higher and higher in this offense and he really intuitively feels and understands where guys are, where guys are going to be,” Cooter said. “He’s doing a better job pushing our receivers, pushing our guys to be at those spots, sort of correcting a guy if his route’s 2 yards short or too tight, too wide, those type of things. They all play a big role in our pass game having success. Now we’ve had good games and bad games in the pass game, but all those things play a role in that sort of turnover game.”
Stafford has averaged an interception just once every 72.9 pass attempts with Cooter as his coordinator, a stark contrast to where he was early in his career.
Under Joe Lombardi, that number was one pick every 41.2 throws. Under Scott Linehan the first five years of it his career, it was one interception every 33.8 attempts.
“The turnover ratio was a high number,” Stafford said. “It was. You throw 20 in 10 games, that’s a tough hole to dig yourself out of.”
It’s true that Stafford’s 20-interception rookie season skews his early-career numbers, but there’s also no doubt that he’s matured as a player and found a home in a system that values possessing the ball more recently.
While Linehan’s offense pushed the ball down field more and Lombardi took a rhythmic approach to the passing game, Cooter has emphasized getting the ball out quickly and given Stafford more control at the line of scrimmage and more freedom to move in and out of plays.
Stafford downplayed the role scheme has had on his newfound ball security – “I don’t think so,” he said – and instead chalked the change up to “probably just comfortable being in the offense.”
Whatever the case, with the NFL’s fourth-ranked defense invading Ford Field on Sunday , the Lions need Stafford to continue his careful ways.
“I’m not referring to the streak that he’s on right now, I’m just going to say that obviously he’s done a nice job in terms of navigating some very difficult terrain with a lot of people around you, getting the ball down field, making the proper decisions,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell said. “There may have been a time or two that he maybe had to take a sack as opposed to throwing it up in the air, but I think he’s done a really nice job at that. But I think he’s been doing that for a while now when you look at just his trajectory over the years. He’s been improving in that area consistently, and we constantly preach that that’s the most important part of what we do is to win that turnover battle and so I think everybody’s kind of bought into it at this point in time.”