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Will Matthew Stafford fold under pressure?

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There’s one sure-fire way to disrupt Detroit’s passing offense.

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New York Jets v Detroit Lions Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

If you were disappointed with Jimmy Garoppolo’s performance in game one against the Viking’s elite defense, well, Lions fans were disgusted with Matt Stafford’s effort against the somewhat-less-impressive New York Jets. At Pride of Detroit, Jeremy Reisman wrote that:

“There is no excuse for the game Matthew Stafford had. I don’t care if the Jets recognized his hand signals.... You can’t make the kind of mistakes Stafford did all game. Stafford made some extremely poor reads, and looked completely flustered when pressured. I haven’t seen him play that badly in a long, long time.”

Stafford had four interceptions, and it was far from the first time that has happened. Since he entered the league in 2009, he leads all quarterbacks with five games of four interception each. And he had Calvin Johnson to throw to for most of that time.

This brings up a long-running debate: does Stafford fold under pressure? It matters because he can expect to face a lot of pressure Sunday, against a 49ers pass rush finding its stride and facing a Lions offense with no discernible running game and a shaky offensive line.

Lions starting right guard T.J. Lang is confirmed out, injured, so the newly effective front line of DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead and Solomon Thomas will be facing the likes of rookie center Frank Ragnow and marginal veteran guard Kenny Wiggins, who wasn’t even good in the preseason.

Stafford has faced accusations of folding under pressure since 2012, when Chicago Bears safety Major Wright said:

“He can make any throw on that field, so you have to be aware of putting pressure on him because you put a little pressure on him -- he kind of folds. ... You put a little pressure on (Stafford), you close the pocket on him, and he hesitates. He doesn’t make that perfect throw.”

In 2015, he was benched in the second half against Arizona after throwing his third interception of the night, and Neil Greenberg of the Washington Post wrote that:

Under pressure, Stafford’s passer rating drops from 91.5 to 57.4, and it is hard to fault the offensive line for those woes, who are rated as the sixth best pass-protection unit by Football Outsiders. Instead, it appears Stafford is struggling in the pocket.

Later that year, the Lions brought in offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter, who put in a quick- (and short-) passing offense that limited Stafford turnovers as well as his big plays. Not a mark of great confidence.

Of course there are some hometown voices who are more positive. Last year, Ty Schalter of LionsWire emphasized the fact that that in 2017, “Pro Football Focus charted him No. 3 in yards thrown under pressure.” This is true, but notice that Schalter’s not quoting passer rating under pressure, just total yards. What this statistic is really telling you is that Stafford was under pressure all the time last year, because their offensive line was terrible.

A more nuanced take comes directly from PFF, in their Lions preview this year. While they were optimistic about Detroit’s off-season investment in the OL — which hasn’t paid off so far due to injury and the talented Ragnow’s lack of experience — they broke down Stafford’s numbers this way.

In 2017, Stafford had the second-most pressured dropbacks of any quarterback (229). While he actually performed well under pressure – averaging 7.3 yards per attempt and earning a passer rating of 76.7 – his overall stats did slightly regress. Of all quarterbacks drafted since 2006 (minimum of 100 attempts), Stafford has the third-most career passing yards under pressure.

Their basic point is that, at this point in his career, Stafford isn’t bad under pressure. What he is, is great when he’s NOT under pressure, and mediocre when he’s sweating. I’ve bolded the key parts of this paragraph:

The Lions are hoping that the investments they’ve made in the offensive line over the last two years will help keep their franchise quarterback clean from pressure as few passers were better when throwing from a clean pocket than Stafford in 2017. He finished in the top 10 in passer rating (109.4), completion percentage (71.9) and touchdowns (23) last season when kept clean.

There aren’t many quarterbacks who don’t decline when under pressure. Jimmy G might be one of them, but Matt Stafford is definitely not. As long as Robert Saleh and new pass rush coach Chris Kiffin can continue their success in game one, the Niners defense should give Stafford a lot of problems on Sunday.