It’s easy to look at the numbers on a box score or the broadcast view of an interception and say that the quarterback stinks. But few things in life are black and white, and in football, nothing is. That rings true for Los Angeles Rams QB Matthew Stafford and his worrisome interceptions over the past four games. Can he fix things before facing Arizona on Monday night? Is there anything to fix to begin with?
Matthew Stafford’s interceptions
The best way to do this is by show and tell. Simply explaining some of the interceptions would not suffice. We must look at all of them individually and take into account the situation in which they occurred to understand whether it’s a problem or not.
Situation: First-and-10, 15:00 Q2 from the SEA 32 | Rams 3 – Seahawks 0
Stafford is correct in his decision to throw to Cooper Kupp here, but he makes a critical error in his leverage read against Quandre Diggs, who is one of the better free safeties in the NFL.
Stafford must have believed keeping his eyes right at the snap would ensure Diggs couldn’t go across the field and intercept a laser beam thrown just inside the numbers. The funny part is, Kupp read this perfectly. He jabs outside at the top of the route and stems back inside, winning the route.
But because Diggs was already shooting that way, Kupp then stacked Blessaun Austin and was looking for a pass over his outside shoulder.
Blame: Stafford. This is an outstanding play from a good safety, but it’s also a misread from Stafford. And on first-and-10 in enemy territory, it was an unforced error.
Situation: Third-and-6, 4:11 2Q from LAR 13 | Rams 10 – Vikings 0
If there were ever a play that could summarize a career, this would be it. The only thing missing would be a 50-yard heave from Stafford instead of a short throw to his right.
He shows outstanding strength to shake the free rusher on the interior and then works immediately to get his eyes up and find his outlet. Unfortunately, the throw is low and inside, finding its way into the diving arms of Anthony Barr.
Blame: Stafford. If “doin’ too much” was a football play, this is it. Given the situation in terms of field position and score, this pass should be high and away if it’s thrown in the vicinity of being in bounds.
Situation: Second-and-5, 14:18 Q3 from LAR 30 | Rams 13 – Vikings 3
It’s a two-man route. The Rams felt this was a good time to try a max protect shot play off of play-action. Their QB has a howitzer and can make a 55-yard throw from the opposite hash to the numbers off a bootleg.
But I noticed something on LA’s offensive line and felt vindicated when I heard Chris Vasseur say it while he was watching the game. At times, the effort from the Rams’ OL can be a problem. There’s sometimes a bit of a “you got this” attitude between offensive linemen, leading to what we see above.
Admittedly, this isn’t the most outstanding example of that, but that lackluster block is why this ball is underthrown slightly, leading to the INT.
Blame: Offensive line. If Stafford gets his whole body into this throw, it’s at least a contested situation. Van Jefferson had both defenders beat.
Situation: Second-and-10, 11:13 Q3 from LAR 12 | Rams 13 – Vikings 3
Plays like the above video are what make quarterback evaluation so tricky. I could sit here and argue that this was an unbelievable read on a quick passing concept from Stafford.
The fact he properly read Xavier Woods’ (No. 23) leverage is nutty. It took me a good four or five rewinds before I realized he made the more dangerous — but still correct — read. The Vikings’ defense showed blitz but ended up bringing a sim pressure instead, dropping D.J. Wonnum into coverage in the flat.
I’m not inside Stafford’s head, nor do I have his number to text him and ask what he saw here. But I assume he caught that and saw Woods’ leverage led him to the outside. Stafford decided Kupp probably wouldn’t be able to do much post-catch, and Tyler Higbee did uncover.
Blame: Luck, and partially aggression. The pass is probably completed if it’s not tipped. Also, the ball falls harmlessly to the ground if Barr doesn’t drop off from his blitz look.
Situation: Third-and-2, 2:33 Q1 from the LAR 1 | Rams 0 – Ravens 0
We got some of that high-quality tape now. As egregious as this looks for Stafford and the Rams, there’s no blame to give on the players. Everything Stafford saw here checked out.
“Stick” is one of the most common third-down calls I see at all levels of football where a QB can consistently complete passes. I want to pull my hair out seeing Ben Skowronek not occupying the cornerback by running vertically. It’s a bit of a spacing nightmare, but that happens in all offenses at times, and Sean McVay is not immune.
Stafford’s eyes are on Patrick Queen (No. 6) here. With Chuck Clark (No. 36) playing almost square with Odell Beckham Jr., Stafford is right to believe he’ll scoot to the flat with OBJ.
Blame: Tendencies. This is either outstanding scouting from the defensive staff and the defensive backs, or Clark gambled, ignored his responsibilities, and jumped the inside route. My money is on the former.
Situation: Third-and-10, 12:57 Q2 from the Ravens 43 | Rams 0 – Ravens 7
When Les Snead and McVay traded for Stafford, they knew they were getting an incredibly high ceiling that also came with a body-splattering floor. That is the case here.
The Ravens are in Cover 5 (Cover 2 Man) here. The condensed split from Kupp and Jefferson beside Higbee forces the Ravens defenders to play off and carry from depth. Kupp’s inside stem is a perfect rub for Jefferson running a drag underneath. Jefferson picks up this first down and more if Stafford doesn’t see fireworks from the deep TD he’s about to throw.
Blame: Stafford. The above video is the devil on the shoulder of Stafford. We’ll get into that more in a bit. Given that Stafford is a 13-year vet, it’s unlikely McVay will ever knock the gunslinger out of the QB. The Rams signed up for this because everything else he brings usually makes up for it.
Situation: Third-and-16, 1:00 Q3 from the LAR 19 | Rams 17 – 49ers 17
It appears the 49ers are playing a soft spot drop Cover 3 on the long third down. I love the call from McVay to run a Scissors concept, where the slot runs to the corner, and the outsider receiver attacks the post.
That was outrageous range from Jaquiski Tartt (No. 3) to get to this football. When Stafford decides he’s taking the shot (the correct read), Tartt has his hips at a 45-degree angle to the Rams bench. Stafford shouldn’t realistically expect Tartt to flip so fluidly and then cover all that ground to boot.
Blame: Stafford for the underthrow, but this was effectively a punt. The throw was approximately 54 air yards from the opposite hash to outside the numbers. That’s a throw only a small handful of NFL QBs would even dream of attempting.
Situation: First-and-10, 2:00 Q2 from the Rams 38 | Rams 24 – 49ers 27
Earlier I said that there was an inherent give and take with Stafford. Throws like the above aren’t included in the anticipated red on the Rams ledger. One does not account for throws like that because they shouldn’t exist.
I’m not sure if Stafford and the Rams were frustrated because they hadn’t touched the ball for 14 minutes. I’m not sure if it was pure arrogance. All I know is that this was a pathetic decision.
Blame: Stafford. The 49ers are in Cover 3 here, which is practically what they lived in against Los Angeles in some shape or form. Rookie Ambry Thomas is playing 7 yards off and hardly even backpedals before a slight half-turn. Then, he turned on the jets in a full sprint. Notice his eyes never leave Stafford, and he only abandons over-the-top leverage as he begins to track the ball.
That brings us to our next point.
The Final Tally
Four of the eight interceptions were largely Stafford’s decision-making. Another was not quite having enough arm and simply taking a shot on third-and-forever, but it was still on him. One interception was bad luck and a bit of unnecessary but correct aggression. The offensive line was almost directly to blame for another. The final interception was great scouting on the part of Baltimore.
Matthew Stafford and the devil on his shoulder
Being outrageously talented might have a few drawbacks. If FIGJAM were a person, it would be Phil Mickelson. But in the NFL world, nobody has more on-field FIGJAM, or possibly ADHD, than Stafford.
Aside from his interceptions, his film is riddled with top-tier level quarterback play. There aren’t five quarterbacks with more potential when he’s engaged and things are clicking.
But once every 7-10 dropbacks, he loses his ever-loving mind and chooses to raise the difficulty slider from Rookie to All-Madden. Stafford isn’t Carson Wentz. He’s not out there trying to make THE play on every single dropback. He’s not trying to shake every sack and throw the ball across his body.
But when he gets bored, or when that devil on his shoulder slips the angel a Quaalude, he goes out of his way to make things difficult.
Eric Kendricks is an outstanding linebacker, particularly in coverage. But Stafford 1) has a military-grade arm and 2) could layer this throw over Kendricks pretty easily. Instead, he waits until the secondary window opens and goes sideways with the gat, leading to the sinking cornerback on the numbers.
Matthew Stafford: The moments where the devil and angel meet
These are the moments that the Dan Orlovsky’s of the world mention when discussing Stafford as a top-five quarterback in the NFL. From a purely physical talent perspective, there’s not much arguing that.
Extraordinary things occur when the devil on Stafford’s shoulder and the angel team up, bringing sound decisions to outrageous talent. It’s why he’s in Los Angeles, and it’s why he’s in a special group of quarterbacks in the league that is intoxicating to watch, for better or for worse.
Stafford’s interceptions are not a debilitating issue
There will always be a give and take with a gunslinger. Stafford will make mistakes being aggressive. Some of them will hurt the team. But if McVay can pull the reins just slightly going into 2022, this offensive could be practically unstoppable through the air with a healthy Robert Woods.