Free Press sports writers Shawn Windsor, Dave Birkett discuss the Lions’ offseason, 2019 outlook and Matthew Stafford, after loss to Bills, Dec. 16.
Dave Birkett and Shawn Windsor, Detroit Free Press

The way Jim Bob Cooter sees it, “in the NFL, throwing the football is a little bit of a sort of a race.”

Offenses are rushing to get the ball in the hands of their playmakers, defenses are high-tailing it to stop them, and you better not hold the ball too long or your quarterback will get creamed.

“Really, you look around the league, every week there’s a pretty good pass-rush threat in some form or fashion on every team, every time you step out there,” Cooter said in a conference call with Detroit reporters this week. “It’s a little bit of a race for those guys to get to the quarterback.”

The Detroit Lions, despite three springs’ worth of investments in their offensive line, have lost that race more often than not this year.

Matthew Stafford ranks among the most-sacked quarterbacks in the NFL for the second straight season, and this week the Lions have the tall task of stopping the one pass rush that’s pummeled him the most, the Minnesota Vikings.

Stafford took a career-high 10 sacks against the Vikings in Minnesota’s 24-9 victory last month, and he’s been sacked far more times by the Vikings (61) than any other team in his career (the Bears are second, with 46).

The Vikings, who can clinch a playoff spot with a win Sunday and a little bit of help, lead the NFL this season with 47 sacks.

“Top-notch, phenomenal defense,” Cooter said. “Really, really good football players kind of all over all three levels. Athletic guys, long guys, different strengths inside and outside. Plenty of really good rushers. Good cover guys. Kind of a really unique defensive scheme that creates problems with their blitzes. The challenge level is very high for us.”

Cooter confessed that he “did not do a good enough job of putting our guys in a good position to sort of play these guys” earlier in the year, but his game plan was only part of the reason the Vikings had a monster day.

Stafford spent most of that Sunday afternoon at U.S. Bank Stadium running for his life as the Lions lost one-on-one matchups in the trenches and couldn’t get their receivers open with any regularity in their first game without Golden Tate.

Danielle Hunter had 3.5 sacks, Tom Johnson had 2.5, and the Lions settled for field goals every time they reached the red zone and stumbled backwards in a series of negative plays.

“We were fortunate in that ball game, honestly,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer insisted in a conference call Wednesday. “There was a couple times that he had to scramble out of there and I think one or two of those was a sack, and then we got up and then they start having to throw the ball a lot.”

Zimmer said the Lions appear to have changed their protection schemes some since that Nov. 4 game. They’ve played more big personnel in recent weeks, with multiple tight ends and extra offensive linemen on the field.

But the biggest change in the last five weeks — the Lions gave up six sacks to the Chicago Bears the week after their Vikings debacle, but have allowed just eight sacks in the five games since — has been Cooter’s approach to winning that passing race.

In an effort to have Stafford take less of a pounding, the Lions have been more committed to the short passing game in recent weeks and Zimmer said he has noticed a change in route combinations that has helped Stafford get rid of the ball faster.

“I do think it’s probably accurate to say holding onto the ball a long time in the pocket in this league is not a recipe for success,” Cooter said. “But at the same time you can’t probably make a living getting the thing out as fast as you can every play. So it’s a little bit of a give and take, it’s a little bit of a bob and weave. You try to play that game with the defense and at the end of the day, it’s my job to sort of manage that whole thing, manage the structure of the offense that way so that the players can just go play.”

According to ESPN’s NFL Matchup, the Lions are throwing the ball 5 yards or less downfield on 61.2 percent of their pass attempts. Their 305 such throws are third most overall, behind the Vikings (329) and Pittsburgh Steelers (323), but no team in the top 10 has a higher percentage of short throws.

The Lions’ dink-and-dunk approach was born out of necessity on two fronts. First, the Lions don’t have many field-stretchers left on their roster with Tate gone and Marvin Jones on injured reserve. Second, they’ve been extra conscious of protecting Stafford, who’s played the past two weeks through a back injury that limited him in practice once again Wednesday.

Throw in the Vikings’ ferocious line —  Hunter is tied for second in the NFL in sacks, and Everson Griffen and Sheldon Richardson are just as disruptive up front — and it’s clear passing the ball will be a sprint for the Lions again Sunday. 

“We got our work cut out for us,” Cooter said. “We got to go put a good plan together and execute that plan at the highest level we can. At the end of the day, when you play a really, really good unit like this, you’re probably not going to win every single matchup every time, but you’re trying to fight and scratch and claw to win each one and sort of have some positive plays happen, have some positive drives happen for our team. So, we know the challenge that’s in front of us, we know how good these guys are. They’ve got good players all over the field and they’re playing at a really high level right now.”

Contact Dave Birkett: Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett. Download our Lions Xtra app for free on Apple and Android!

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