Matthew Stafford in full-gunslinger mode — and Bears eager for the challenge
The Lions’ prolific QB, having his best season in years, is capable of big plays. But so is the Bears’ defense. “He’s a competitor,” Kyle Fuller said. “I’m looking forward to it.”
Like a lot of defensive backs who face Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, Bears safety Eddie Jackson sees danger but also opportunity.
“He’s an older guy, a vet, so he sees things a little different,” Jackson said when asked about what makes Stafford so dangerous. “Right now, they have a new offensive coordinator, so it’s working in his favor. But for us, we control what we do. We play the type of game we know we can play, we can stop him and contain him.”
They know they can also beat him. Against the Lions last Thanksgiving, Jackson intercepted a Stafford pass and returned it 41 yards for a tiebreaking touchdown that made the difference in a 23-16 victory at Ford Field.
The Bears contained Stafford in both games last year to sweep the season series for the first time since 2012. Stafford had passer ratings of 74.9 and 67.4, and the only two touchdown passes he threw came after the Lions fell behind 26-0 at Soldier Field in Week 10.
But the challenge for the Bears might be a little bigger this season. The No. 1 overall pick in 2009 is having his finest season statistically with a career-best 106.0 passer rating (sixth in the NFL). Stafford, 31, leads the NFL with 312.4 yards per game (a pace for nearly 5,000 yards for the season), has thrown 19 touchdown passes (second-most in the NFL) to only five interceptions. His 8.6 yards per attempt is fourth in the NFL.
Under new offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, Stafford is back in classic gunslinger mode. He’s aggressive and unafraid to make any throw and has the arm and athletic ability to do it. At 6-3, 220, he has never been afraid of contact and is one of those old-school quarterbacks who’s eager to deliver a blow as well as absorb or avoid one.
That’s the mentality that has made Stafford one of the most prolific passers in the NFL — his 41,025 career passing yards are 18th on the all-time list.
“You know he’s going to push the ball down the field — that’s who he is,” Bears defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano said. “He’s playing with a great deal of confidence. He does a great job of controlling the back end [of the defense] . . . controlling safeties with his eyes. And he can spin it and throw it into as tight a window as I’ve seen.”
No sooner had Pagano said that, he quickly acknowledged the flip side to the Stafford coin. The same gumption and aggressiveness that have sparked fourth-quarter rallies also have gotten Stafford into trouble. When an undrafted free agent such as Harold Jones-Quartey is back there, he can get away with it. When Jackson, an All-Pro, is back there, not as much.
“There are going to be opportunities,” Pagano said. “He’s thrown five [interceptions] this year. Guys have taken advantage of some throws. You know he’s not afraid to take some chances and counts on his guys to make some plays. We have just as much of a right to that ball as they do.
“Our guys will be in position. We’ve got to attack that thing at the high point and be aggressive on those things. I think he’s going to give us some shots.”
Cornerback Kyle Fuller knows firsthand about the danger and the opportunity.
“He’s a competitor,” Fuller said. “He has good weapons, and that helps him a lot. In the back of your head, you know the type of quarterback you’re facing. You gotta be tight in coverage because he’s capable of anything.”
After Jackson’s pick-six gave the Bears the lead last season, Fuller’s pick of Stafford in the end zone clinched the victory.
“Just right place, right time for that situation,” Fuller said. “I’m looking forward to it.”