How the Detroit Lions improved running game will affect Matthew Stafford

TAMPA, FL - DECEMBER 10: Matthew Stafford #9 of the Detroit Lions throws a pass in the fourth quarter of a game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium on December 10, 2017 in Tampa, Florida. The Lions won 24-21. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
TAMPA, FL - DECEMBER 10: Matthew Stafford #9 of the Detroit Lions throws a pass in the fourth quarter of a game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium on December 10, 2017 in Tampa, Florida. The Lions won 24-21. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images) /

The Detroit Lions have put a great number of resources into their running game. here is a look at how that could affect Matthew Stafford and the team.

Matthew Stafford has been the engine running the Detroit Lions offense since 2011. He was drafted in 2009 but spent two years getting murdered behind the line of scrimmage. He was figuring out how to be a professional quarterback with very little help around him. In 2011, however, he showed the league what type of player he could be. He threw for 5038 yards with 41 touchdowns, and only 16 interceptions. He led the Lions to their first playoff berth since before the Matt Millen era.

While Stafford has never reached those heights again statistically, he has remained the primary determinant for the team’s offensive success. Despite not having a credible rushing attack, he has kept the Lions offense respectable. In 2018, Stafford is coming off his best season since 2011. He posted a career high in yards per attempt at 7.9. Only two quarterbacks with more than 300 passing attempts, Drew Brees and Jared Goff, managed a higher average. Stafford was also third in the NFL in passing yardage and fourth in touchdown passes.

Despite the fact that their receiving group actually got worse, the Lions have done more than ever in the 2018 off-season to bring in help for Stafford. Rather than bringing in “weapons” for the passing game, a favorite tactic of previous administrations, the Lions under Bob Quinn have shored up the offensive line and focused on the running game. Offensive lineman Frank Ragnow and running back Kerryon Johnson were the Lions first and second-round picks. The Lions also signed LeGarrette Blount as a free agent. What effect might this have on Matthew Stafford’s game in 2018?

Every team’s situation is different, of course, but teams have done this before. The Jacksonville Jaguars finally gave their quarterback some support in 2017, by drafting running back Leonard Fournette, and offensive lineman Taylor Moton in rounds one and two. They nearly made it to the Superbowl one year after drafting in the top five before the season. The Minnesota Vikings drafted a second-round running back in Dalvin Cook and added a veteran to back him up in Latavius Murray. They added to their offensive line as well in free agency. Despite starting Case Keenum at quarterback for most of the season, they also came within one game of the Superbowl.

Both of those teams have dominant defenses that are primarily responsible for their team’s success. The Lions lack that very important ingredient and that makes the comparison less than ideal for determining how the Lions moves might affect Stafford or the team. The Tennesee Titans added running back Derrick Henry and offensive lineman Jack Conklin in the first two rounds of the 2016 draft. They also added a veteran running back, Demarco Murray, to their offense. Marcus Mariotta responded with the best season of his young career thus far and the Titans made it to the playoffs.

Of course, Mariotta was a second-year pro, so an improved performance was expected. However, in 2017 the Titans running game dropped from third in the league to fifteenth. Mariota was asked to put the team on his shoulders. The team’s record and Mariota’s statistical performance declined sharply without the support of their running game. Stafford is no young up and comer, however, so this example is also imperfect.

The 2017 Saints may be the best example in recent memory of what effect focusing on the run game can do for a veteran quarterback. Drew Brees threw for 5208 yards with 37 touchdowns and 15 interceptions in 2016. It was one of the most productive seasons of his first ballot hall of fame career. His team won seven games. The Saints running game jumped from 15th in 2016 to fifth in 2017. Brees threw the ball 137 fewer times but was much more effective when he did. His yards per attempt rose to 8.1 and his touchdown to interception ratio rose from 2.47:1 to 2.875:1. Brees threw for seven fewer 300-yard games, but his team won 11 games instead of seven.

The Saints added plenty of other players. Their defense improved from number 27 in yards allowed to number 17. That is partially due to the other effect of improving a team’s running game in addition to coaching and a good draft. The clock continues ticking down on a running play unless the ball carrier goes out of bounds. Passing plays stop the clock on the 35-40% of attempts that are incomplete. Saints passing plays stopped the clock 52 fewer times in 2017 than 2016. For a frame of reference, each team gets 48 timeouts over the course of a season. 52is no small number of clock stoppages. The Saints took an average of 28.81 seconds between snaps in 2017. That reduction in incomplete passes removed 25 minutes of clock time from their season.

As for whether the additions to the running back group will have the effect that the Lions want, Stafford was noncommittal: “Man, it’s kind of hard to judge these guys right now. We don’t have pads on, nobody’s really trying to tackle them. Those guys make their money on missed tackle and running.” Not a ringing endorsement, but a fair assessment. Many Lions running backs have been talked up by the team at OTAs and failed to live up to the hype.

Next: Patricia and Stafford avoid answering anthem question

An improved running game will likely decrease Matthew Stafford’s statistics in 2018. As the Saints 2017 season shows, that may not be a bad thing for the Lions. Fantasy evaluators may want to consider moving their ranking on Stafford downward. Gamblers, assuming their state legalizes gambling, may want to consider taking the over on Lions wins. Vegas has the over/under set at 7.5 right now.