Golden Tate motioned a few steps to his right, and as Matthew Stafford looked his way, New York Jets cornerback Morris Claiborne began pointing emphatically towards the middle of the field.
Tate had come closer to the line of the scrimmage to run a pick route on Jets linebacker Darron Lee in an attempt to free up Theo Riddick for what should have been an easy third-and-1 conversion.
But Lee, with Claiborne’s assistance, recognized the play, jumped the route, intercepted Stafford’s pass and returned it 36 yards for a touchdown in a third quarter that snowballed and led the Detroit Lions to an embarrassing 48-17 loss to the Jets in Game 1 of the Matt Patricia era.
“We were calling out their plays as he was getting up to the line,” Lee told reporters after the game. “We knew his signals. We knew everything. That’s just preparation as a defense. … It just seemed like we were in his head as a defense.”
If not in his head, the Jets at least seemed able to read Stafford’s mind on Monday, intercepting four passes (and nearly a fifth) in what will go down as one of the worst performances of Stafford’s career.
After the game, Stafford, whose last four-interception game came in 2013, said he was to blame for the Lions’ forgettable night.
“I told those guys in there I’ll take this one,” Stafford said. “Hope I never have to say that again. I don’t want to do it. I’ll push myself as hard as I can to make sure I don’t have to. Felt prepared coming into the game, just didn’t make enough good decisions or good throws.”
Stafford was hardly the only Lion at fault for Monday’s debacle.
The Jets ran for 169 yards against a playmaker-less defense that still is struggling to grasp Patricia’s scheme, and the Lions’ usually reliable special teams gave up two long punt returns, including a 78-yard touchdown.
But Stafford’s play was unbecoming of a quarterback who’s one of the highest-paid players in the NFL, especially when compared to Jets rookie Sam Darnold, who bounced back from a pick-six on his first NFL pass to complete 16 of his final 20 throws for 198 yards and two touchdowns.
“We was able to just take advantage of plays and stuff that we knew that they run a lot of,” Claiborne said. “Our film study this week was great. It was probably one of the best I’ve been around as far as preparing for the game. And one of the big things, us as a defense, we want to talk, and we was out on the field, certain guys were seeing certain things that showed up in reports and they’re calling it out and get everybody on the same page, so at least we have an idea of what’s about to happen or where they’re trying to beat us or how they’re trying to hurt us.”
Clairborne stopped short of calling the Lions offense predictable, but with Stafford pulling the trigger and Jim Bob Cooter calling the plays, the implication was clear.
“I don’t want to say they was predictable, but we did a good job this week on just executing our game plan and knowing what they like to do, who they like to get the ball to,” Claiborne said.
Stafford’s first interception on Monday came on the Lions’ second possession, when Claiborne made a leaping grab on a sideline route to Marvin Jones.
The Jets turned that turnover into three points, and got 13 points total of Stafford’s four miscues.
Trumaine Johnson picked off Stafford early in the second quarter, after TJ Jones ran into Jets safety Jamal Adams. Kenny Golladay forced a Johnson fumble that the Lions recovered on the return.
And two series after Lee’s touchdown return, the third-year linebacker intercepted Stafford again, this time when Stafford tried to force the ball to Luke Willson into triple coverage.
“Not going to walk through all of (the interceptions), but different circumstances in the game,” Stafford said. “Probably trying to do a little bit too much at certain times, definitely late. But just got to be smarter with the ball.”
Stafford left the game briefly in the third quarter after getting sandwiched by two defenders, and he appeared to injure his knee late in the first half. He downplayed the effect those injuries had on his play, indicated he’ll be fine for Sunday’s game against the San Francisco 49ers, and said he simply has to be better overall.
“The story of the game is turnovers,” Stafford said. “We had too many of them, I had too many of them. Can’t do that to our team.”