SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Marvin Jones Jr. was deep downfield, a step past everyone. It’s a play the Detroit Lions had completed repeatedly last season. It’s the type of play Matthew Stafford is known for -- the quarterback with the exceedingly strong arm capable of finding any receiver in almost any spot on the field.
But this week and last week, something about Stafford has been off. He hasn’t quite been the same when he has looked deep, taking away the vertical portion of an offense that had the potential to be lethal with Jones on one side and Kenny Golladay on the other.
“They’re huge, right,” Stafford said. “Not going to get a lot of opportunities against a team like that. They want to keep everything in front of them. Two, for sure, to Marv that I thought I had chances at that just overthrew by, I don’t know, I’ll look at the film, but it didn’t seem like much out there.
“I have to hit those and we have to find a way to connect on them. He’s doing a great job of getting open down the field. I just have to give him chances.”
Too often in Sunday's 30-27 loss to San Francisco, he wasn’t, and it followed on what happened Monday night against the Jets. In the season opener, Stafford hit on only 3 of 8 passes that traveled 15 or more yards, with two interceptions.
On Sunday against the Niners, he was 3-of-7 on passes categorized as “deep” in the game’s official play-by-play. While those aren’t terrible numbers, the situations where they occurred -- with the Lions in desperate need of a jolt and the receiver open instead of contested -- are the largest causes for concern with the 10th-year quarterback.
It’s even more drastic of a change because of how well Stafford handled deep passes last year. He completed 50.9 percent of passes that traveled 15 yards in the air or more last season (55 of 108), a career best. He also had 11 touchdowns and two interceptions on those passes, some of the strongest numbers in his career (only 2011, with 13 touchdown passes on those types of throws, was better).
“They are obviously lower-percentage throws than anything else,” Stafford said. “For me, I have to give them chances. All of our guys, really, are great at going and getting the ball when it is in the air, so maybe take a little bit off of them and let those guys jump up and catch them.”
It is possible, though, that Stafford’s deep-ball prowess last season was an outlier -- and that the first two games this season are more in line with the mean of his career. Going back to the air yards, he had averaged (prior to Sunday) a 40.7 completion rate on throws going 15 yards or more in the air. Before last season, he had gone three straight years with a percentage under 40 percent.
The three years before that, with a high-powered Scott Linehan offense that featured Calvin Johnson, he was at 42 percent or better.
He has more diverse receivers now -- and more than one deep threat, too. In particular, Jones and Golladay are two of the better deep-ball threats in the league. Jones led all qualifying receivers in the league last year in yards per reception. Golladay averaged 17.04 yards per game a season ago with a smaller sample size than Jones.
But both have good speed, good jumping ability and -- perhaps more importantly -- big catch radiuses to aid Stafford if a ball isn’t exactly on target. Golladay and Jones can win contested balls. With those options, the deep-ball percentages should be higher, especially with teams accounting for Golden Tate and Theo Riddick underneath.
And that’s where the questions about Stafford’s long ball fit right now. His numbers are in the middle of what he has done in the past. But he has missed on throws he usually hits. And, as he said, he has to give his receivers a chance.
Too often over the first two games of this season, he hasn’t. And it is part of the reason Detroit is 0-2.