The true threat for the Lions on offense, despite the fact that they spent three consecutive top 10 selections on wide receivers, is Roy Williams. Former first rounder Mike Williams has been pushed further and further down the depth chart and oft-injured former #2 overall pick Charles Rogers was released before the season began. That leaves newcomer Mike Furrey (a fantasy surprise this year) and former return specialist Eddie Drummond. In other words, it's Roy Williams and a lot of mediocrity.
In all likelihood, Antrel Rolle will be assigned to cover Williams. Neither Williams nor Rolle are particularly physical players, both relying on finesse and athletic ability to get them by. It should be an interesting match-up to watch, pitting finesse against finesse, Williams' crisp route running versus Rolle's ability to turn his hips and run with a receiver out of his break. Aside from that, Eric Green, definitely more physical than finesse, needs to tee off on Furrey, making it as difficult as possible for him to get a clean release from the line of scrimmage and making solid contact when Furrey does catch the ball. Furrey seems to rely on his speed and shy away from contact. If Green can get him to hear footsteps by the third quarter, Furrey will oblige him by dropping a couple of wide open passes.
The wildcard in the secondary is Adrian Wilson. Jon Kitna made a point of praising Wilson repeatedly this week in interviews. He called Wilson one of the best players at his position, or any position in the league. He could be trying to avoid giving Arizona's coaching staff bulletin board material, but I'm assuming that he's also going to be obsessed with locating Wilson on every play and making sure someone is assigned to him before the ball is snapped.
The Lions have had issues with their front line starters throughout the Matt Millen Era. In the off-season, they were forced to place the franchise tag on left tackle Jeff Backus, paying him the average of the top 5 salaries at his position. While Backus is a fine tackle, has been very durable throughout his career, and rarely gets caught looking stupid on tape, he's not a dominant top 5 tackle. While it would be a stretch to say that Bert Berry has an advantage over Backus, he should see some daylight on Sunday and be able to get around the edge. Backus' counterpart, right tackle Ryan Tucker, is nowhere near the caliber of Backus and should have his hands full all day with Chike Okeafor coming on every play.
And, given the fact that Kevin Jones has been consistent but not explosive in the running game all year, and that Kendrick Clancy and Darnell Dockett are both healthy and ready to play, it should be difficult for Jones to find running room. Especially between the tackles where the Cardinals hold a talent, size, and athleticism advantage over Detroit's interior.
In fact, with Detroit likely to struggle running the ball, pretty favorable match-ups for Okeafor, Berry, Clancy, and Dockett, and the fact that offensive coordinator Mike Martz isn't exactly known for his protection schemes, the Cardinals may be able to get consistent pressure on Kitna simply by rushing their front four.
The line won't be what decides this game on defense, though. That's up to the linebackers.
Even though Gerald Hayes recently received a contract extension from the Bidwell family, he's still not a well-known, or even a particularly talented player. He's quite a physical presence in the middle, however, and is known for his hustle, determination, and range. Orlando Huff and Calvin Pace need to learn from his example and emulate his style of play the entire game for the Cardinals to be successful on defense.
Kitna is in his twilight years and was never known for his speed or mobility, but Arizona will need to keep Hayes as a spy, patrolling the backfield. Kevin Jones has caught a number of passes on check-downs, designed screens, and patterns out into the flat this season. Apparently, Martz understands that you need to get the ball in your best player's hands, whatever the cost, so that he can have room to maneuver in space. This is generally used as a strategy when you have a running back that has only seem mild success running the ball between the tackles. Hayes needs to spy Jones the entire game, running from sideline to sideline, following Jones when he goes in motion, and making solid tackles when Jones does get the ball in space.
Martz also likes to call a lot of short timing passes early in the game, setting the stage for deeper passes later in the game and opening up things for the running backs. The linebackers need to patrol the short area of the field in all directions; left, right and middle. They need to punish the whoever catches the ball and hope to force a turnover. In addition, if they can successfully conceal their coverage schemes, dropping seven and rushing four, but still getting pressure on the quarterback, Kitna will force a throw where it doesn't belong.
Sound coverage isn't actually as important as solid, physical tackling. As much as coach Rod Marinelli has tried to instill a tough mental and physical attitude in his players, you can only coach someone up so much. After that, the players have to make the plays.
The defensive outlook is very similar to the offensive outlook for the Cardinals. They have a talent advantage, they match up well against the Lions, and they're at home where crowd noise (assuming people show up) definitely helps a defense out. For the most part, they should be able to play straight defense, mixing in some timely blitzes, and be successful.
The keys to the game will be the defense's ability to pressure Kitna (with only the front four, or by blitzing), play physical coverage, and hit whoever has the ball as hard as possible. If they can do that, they stand an excellent chance of holding Detroit, forcing some turnovers, and winning the battle at the point of attack.
In addition, the Cardinals need to take advantage of Kitna's pre-occupation with Adrian Wilson. If nothing else, they can use him as a successful decoy, moving him around the field, up to the line of scrimmage, having him line up as though he's going to blitz, then back off. Since there's a lot of things Clancy Pendergast likes to do with Wilson, he should use Wilson as many ways as possible, but especially as a decoy. And most definitely if the front four is able to pressure Kitna early. Once Kitna gets rattled, he tends to turn into a turnover machine, fumbling and throwing interceptions in copious amounts. If Kitna has to deal with the fact that he's rattled, he doesn't know where the pressure is coming from, and he has to keep track of Wilson, he's going to ignore someone else. Most likely Green or Robert Griffith, but possibly Hayes or Huff. When he throws the ball into their outstretched arms, they need to make the play.
On paper, this looks like a match-up that the Cardinals should win easily. Unfortunately, the problem with scouting an inconsistent team is it's difficult to accurately predict anything about them. You can't even predict when they're going to be inconsistent. The Lions do have an awful lot of talented players on the offensive side of the ball. They have a lot of former first round draft picks on offense (even though they jettisoned two of those guys in the off-season).
If these guys suddenly remember how to play football and realize that they were once very, very good at it, the Cardinals could be in trouble. If they continue to underachieve, suffer from mental lapses, and Kitna continues his turnover-prone ways, the Cardinals are in very good shape.
That's why they play the games, I guess. Just ask Atlanta how good Detroit can be when they turn it on.