Whether your quarterback has a history of injuries or hasn't missed a game in his career, there is one way to maximize his time on the field: Keep him off the ground. During the first two weeks of the 2011 season, no team has done a better job of protecting its quarterback than the Detroit Lions.
Matthew Stafford is the only NFL starter who hasn't been sacked. According to press-box statistics, Stafford has taken six post-throw hits -- all in last Sunday's 48-3 romp over the Kansas City Chiefs. In the process, he has played consecutive injury-free games for the first time since November 2009.
I know most everyone is tired of this topic, and for the most part I am as well. I'm not suggesting Stafford would be sidelined by now if the pass rush had gotten to him a few times.
If anything, I'm just advancing a conversation we started back in June. It's easy to attribute Stafford's past injuries to poor pass protection, but the reality tells us otherwise. Stafford has received, and has continued to enjoy, above-average protection. Last season, in fact, Lions quarterbacks were sacked 27 times -- tied for the sixth-lowest total in the NFL.
Speaking to Detroit-area reporters this week, Lions coach Jim Schwartz acknowledged what we all know to be true: Stafford himself has played an important role this season by throwing decisively rather than lingering in the pocket or scrambling. Game situations have also worked against opposing pass rushers; the Lions have led throughout the second half of both games and haven't put Stafford in a catch-up situation where he might hold the ball in hopes of pushing it downfield.
"I don't know that that's a development for Matt," Schwartz said. "I think that he's always been that way. We've put better talent around him and he didn't get sacked a whole lot. Our quarterbacks in general didn't get sacked a lot. I think we were sixth in the league [last year] in sacks allowed. So there's a lot of things that go in to it: Protection, quarterback knowing where to go with the ball, and weapons on offense. All those things will keep your sack numbers down and [if] you get the lead, you're not going to give up very many sacks, because you can throw a ball away. You don't have to wait.
"If you're down three scores with eight minutes to go, you're going to have to hold the ball and put yourself at risk for more sacks. I think all those are part of the development, so to speak."
This Sunday, Stafford and the Lions will face a Minnesota Vikings team that has four sacks this season, tied for No. 19 in the NFL, but will get back Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kevin Williams from a two-game suspension. It's reasonable to expect Stafford to take a sack or two some point soon, but it's clear the Lions have constructed a nice cocoon of pass protection, explosive skill players and smart scheme around him.