By NOAH TRISTER, AP Sports Writer
ALLEN PARK, Mich. (AP) — For his first two NFL seasons, Matthew Stafford was held back by injuries.
Ever since, he’s been a picture of durability.
“Before I arrived, I remember visually just watching him play in a couple ballgames where he had things that he had to battle his way through and you knew he was a tough, hard-nosed guy,” said Jim Caldwell, who is in his fourth season as Stafford’s coach in Detroit.
“He has a lot of great traits, that’s one of them. I mean he really is a little different in that regard, and I think that benefits him.”
This week, Stafford’s ankle has been a concern, but he’s been practicing, and there’s been no indication that he’ll miss Sunday’s game at New Orleans.
Stafford has made 101 consecutive starts for the Lions in the regular season — plus three in the playoffs — and Detroit certainly hopes he’s close to full strength this weekend against a team he’s had success against in the past.
The Lions have beaten the Saints in each of the past three seasons, doing it on the road in 2015 and 2016.
“It’s a difficult place to play, it really is. That’s as loud a stadium as you play in in the NFL,” Stafford said.
“A hostile environment, but a whole lot of fun to go out there and play. I think we’ve just played well as a team. Last year our defense played extremely well, got three turnovers I think, and on offense, played good enough.”
Stafford’s streak of consecutive games is in stark contrast to what he went through in his first two years after being drafted with the No. 1 overall pick in 2009.
He was limited to 10 games his first season because of shoulder and knee injuries.
The following year, he hurt his right shoulder in Detroit’s opener and missed more than a month.
In his second game after returning, he injured the same shoulder again and was done for the season.
Since then, he’s suited up for every Lions game, although the past couple of weekends have been tough for him. He was sacked six times by both Minnesotaand Carolina .
The protection has been a bit better when Stafford has faced New Orleans in recent years.
In 2011, the Lions lost twice at New Orleans, including once in the playoffs, but Stafford threw for 408 yards in the first game and 380 in the postseason matchup.
In a 2014 win over the Saints in Detroit, Stafford threw two touchdown passes in the final 3:38 to lift the Lions to a 24-23 victory.
In 2015, he went 22 of 25 for 254 yards and three TDs, nearly posting a perfect passer rating at the Superdome. Last year, Stafford threw for 341 yards and two touchdowns at New Orleans.
“Definitely arm strength is one of his fortes. He can click the ball and go 65 yards effortlessly,” said New Orleans safety Rafael Bush, who played for the Lions last season.
“But I just think that it’s him making plays at the right time. When we needed plays last year he made them. I think this year he’s doing the same thing. When they need plays he just finds a way to make them and that’s what you want from your quarterback.”
The truth is, a lot of quarterbacks have had success against New Orleans of late. The Saints were 31st, 31st and 27th in yards allowed per game from 2014-16.
They’re 29th in that department this season, but their past couple of games have been better. They’re even coming off a shutout in a 20-0 win over Miami in their most recent game.
If Stafford’s mobility is affected by his ankle, New Orleans may be able to defend him a bit better this time.
“The last game, obviously, he got hit a lot and any time that you can affect the quarterback, you’ve got a chance,” Bush said. “We want to try to affect the quarterback. We know he’s a little dinged up. But, like I said, he’s going to play because he’s tough and he’s a competitor.”
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