An In-depth Look At The Lions Week One Matchup Against The Arizona Cardinals.
Catching Up With The Cardinals
The Cardinals had a disappointing season in 2016, finishing 7-8-1. While that was good for 2nd in the division, the Cardinals had their expectations set higher than that. With quarterback Carson Palmer turning 38 last year and wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald turning 33, there has been more pressure to keep their Superbowl window open.
But that task will become even harder this season with an aging team that likely lost more than it gained this past off-season. In free agency, the Cardinals lost safety Tony Jefferson, defensive end Calais Cambell, safety D.J. Swearinger, guard Earl Watford, linebacker Kevin Minter, as well as now current-Lion tight end Darren Fells. The Cardinals were able to soften these losses slightly with the additions of safety Antoine Bethea, linebacker Karlos Dansby via free agency as well as linebacker Haason Reddick, safety Buddha Baker, and receiver Chad Williams.
The Cardinals lost a lot of physicality with their departures this off-season. But, the rookies they brought in bring versatility that will allow the Cardinals to utilize some of their exotic blitzes and fronts, like they have in years past.
Haason Reddick was drafted in the first round by the Cardinals largely due to his incredible physical traits and versatility. These traits were why so many Lions fans were hoping for Reddick heading into the draft. Buddha Baker also brings versatility to the Cardinals and could play a role similar to how teammate Tyrann Mathieu has been used. He is shorter safety at 5’9″, that uses his short area quickness and great coverage instincts to break up plays and force turnovers.
However, with this being game one of the regular season, it will be interesting to see how much presence the rookies would make in this game, on both sides of the field.
Matchups To Watch For
Cardinals Short Pass Game vs Lions Coverage
A strength of the Cardinals in 2016 also happened to be the Lions defenses’ achilles heel that year. The Lions front office recognized their inability to cover short passes effectively and attacked it in the draft selecting linebackers Jarrad Davis and Jalen Reeves-Maybin as well as cornerbacks Teez Tabor and Jamal Agnew. The Lions inability to cover short passes in 2016 was largely due to lack of depth at the cornerback position and lack of coverage ability in their line-backing corps.
The Cardinals will offer as a good early season test to see whether or not this issue will follow Detroit to the 2017 season. The Cardinals often attack underneath on slants and bubble screens, utilizing receivers JJ Nelson and John Brown, for their speed underneath. Rookie Chad Williams may see some action in the short passing game as well with his 4.37 speed after coming in as the number three receiver on the Cardinals depth chart for week one.
While David Johnson is an animal running the ball, you really have to worry about him in space. The Cardinals utilize wheel routes well with their running backs and found great success with Johnson catching out of the backfield last season. The running back talent and wide receiver talent should serve as a very good test for Jarrad Davis and the rest of the Lions coverage unit in the season opener.
Lions Offensive Line vs Cardinals Blitz
One of the biggest headlines surrounding this off-season for the Lions has been Taylor Decker’s injury. Left tackle is the premium position on the line and Detroit lost their young stud at that position for this game and likely much of the early season with Decker out. The Lions look to Greg Robinson who has exceeded expectations following a very rough start to his career as a Ram. New addition guards TJ Lang and Rick Wagner will get their first start in the regular season for the Lions in this game.
Both Lang and Wagner excelled at pass blocking for the Packers and Ravens respectively. However, they go about it in different ways. Lang is more of a technician while Wagner utilizes his length and his strength to stop pass rushers. Chemistry is an important factor for lineman. These early games could be very informative on how cohesive the new look offensive line will play this season.
They will be tested against a Cardinals defense that blitzes as much, if not more, than any team in the league. Using a 3-4 scheme, the Cardinals like to move players around in their nickel and dime packages. These exotic looks hurt Detroit’s offensive line in 2016 against teams like the Vikings, Packers, and Redskins.
With the Cardinals defense blitzing so often and with multiple fronts, it should serve as a early look to see where the Lions new look offensive line is in terms of chemistry and ability in pass protection.
Prediction: Lions 28 – Cardinals 20
Like much of the 2016 season, I expect this one to be decently close in Detroit. David Johnson’s impact on this game could be huge and could see him scoring a couple times. But ultimately, the Lions new pieces on defense help slow the Cardinals passing game and help get a couple turnovers for the offense to capitalize on with a healthy running corps. and Stafford.
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