Matthew Stafford: Detroit Lions QB excels at protecting the football

Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford scrambles with the football in the first quarter against the New York Giants in Week 2 of the NFL season on September 18 at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. Photo by John Angelillo/UPI | License Photo

By The Sports Xchange – UPI

ALLEN PARK, Mich. — Matthew Stafford has gone 137 consecutive passes without an interception, the fifth longest stretch of his career and a streak that helps explain why the Detroit Lions are 3-1 and tied for first place in the NFC North.

“It’s good,” Stafford said. “I understand that turnovers in this league are going to happen. We’re doing a really nice job right now of holding onto the ball, and was fortunate (not to throw one) a couple times last week. But, yeah, it’s a big part (of our success), especially when your defense is doing what our defense is doing and getting us the ball back a bunch.”

 Stafford has been far from flawless as a quarterback.

He is coming off his worst game of the season in a 14-7 win over the Minnesota Vikings and has thrown for just 595 yards and three touchdowns in the last three games combined. But the Lions lead the NFL with a plus-nine turnover margin, and their opportunistic defense isn’t the only reason why.

Stafford, who has averaged just one interception every 72.9 pass attempts with Jim Bob Cooter as his offensive coordinator, hasn’t thrown a pick since Justin Bethel returned his first pass of the season 82 yards for a touchdown.

He nearly threw three interceptions Sunday and was bailed out of a fumble when Zach Zenner fell on the loose ball, but overall Stafford has done an admirable job protecting the football.

“Obviously he’s done a nice job in terms of navigating some very difficult terrain with a lot of people around you, getting the ball down field, making the proper decisions,” Lions head coach Jim Caldwell said. “There may have been a time or two that he maybe had to take a sack as opposed to throwing it up in the air, but I think he’s done a really nice job at that. But I think he’s been doing that for a while now when you look at just his trajectory over the years. He’s been improving in that area consistently, and we constantly preach that that’s the most important part of what we do is to win that turnover battle, and so I think everybody’s kind of bought into it at this point in time.”

Stafford has a ways to go to break his personal mark for most consecutive throws without an interception of 211, set at the end of the 2015 season and the beginning of last year.

He knocked on a wooden lectern when reminded of his streak Wednesday, and said he is still looking for more consistency in the offense.

“If we cannot give it to the other team, that’s a positive,” Stafford said. “But we still got to go out there and be aggressive and score points.”

SERIES HISTORY: 8th regular-season meeting. Panthers lead series, 5-2. Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford had one of the most productive games of his career against the Panthers in 2011, when he threw for 338 yards and five touchdowns in a 49-35 victory. Kevin Smith also ran for 140 yards and two scores in that game, while Cam Newton ran for two touchdowns for Carolina.

–The switch back to outside linebacker has worked out well for Tahir Whitehead.

Whitehead led the Lions in tackles last year, in his first full season as the team’s starting middle linebacker, but he struggled as a pass defender and didn’t make many big plays in the running game.

This year, Whitehead has a team-high 25 tackles through four games, he intercepted his first pass since 2015 and he has recovered two fumbles.

“He’s been highly productive,” head coach Jim Caldwell said. “I think that you’ve probably noticed that no matter where you put him, he’s been able to certainly make tackles and he does a real nice job for us. He’s flexible, obviously. He’s played all three positions literally and is a big part of what we do.”

–Stafford said running back Theo Riddick‘s quiet start to the season — he has just 14 catches for 90 yards through four games — is a product of defenses paying more attention to the Lions’ top pass-catching back.

“I think you put on tape what he’s put on tape the last couple years, bound to scare a lot of defensive coordinators, and there’s definitely quite a bit of attention going to him,” Stafford said. “There’s been a couple plays here or there where we’ve just not connected which could have been big ones, so it’s kind of on us to get that going, on me as well.”

Riddick tied for the NFL lead in reception among running backs with 80 catches in 2015. He had 53 catches in 10 games last year, but finished the season on injured reserve and underwent double wrist surgery.

NOTES: LB Jarrad Davis is out of concussion protocol, but remains limited by a neck injury. Davis was a late scratch Sunday because of his neck, which he injured when he suffered his concussion Sept. 18. He could return to the field against the Panthers. … RB Dwayne Washington, who did not practice Wednesday, is expected to miss his third straight game Sunday with a quad strain. The Lions have used CB Jamal Agnew in Washington’s absence as their primary kick returner. … RT Rick Wagner (ankle/shoulder) and RG T.J. Lang (back) did not practice Wednesday. Both Wagner and Lang were able to finish last week’s win over the Vikings, though Lang missed one snap after the game’s ATC spotter radioed downfield that he needed to be evaluated for a concussion.