The Final Cut: Cardinals vs. Lions

FREE PREMIUM CONTENT: On paper, this looks like an easy match-up. The Cardinals have the edge in most relevant categories, except special teams. Both teams have been consistently inconsistent. Both have loads of talent on offense and very little talent on defense. While all signs point to a Cardinals victory, the phrase "Cardinals Victory" seems like an oxymoron. So, I flipped a coin.

Special Teams:

In punt coverage, the Cardinals are giving up 15 yards per return.  With the ever-dangerous Eddie Drummond (a Pro Bowl caliber guy) returning kicks for the Lions, this does not bode well for Arizona.  Drummond is especially dangerous given the fact that this will probably be a close game that is won by the team that breaks the big play at the right time.  J.J. Arrington and Troy Walters seem to be incapable of returning any type of kick for more than 20 yards, so the Lions shouldn't have any worries there.  I cannot stress enough that this is a very big advantage for Detroit.

When it comes to kicking the ball, Jason Hanson has a well-deserved reputation for having ice in his veins.  Throughout his career, he's been one of the most accurate, consistent, clutch kickers in the game.  It just so happens that he plays for Detroit and doesn't set records like Neil Rackers, so he doesn't get as much press.  Scott Player for Arizona and Nick Harris for the Lions are both solidly average punters.  Neither crushes the ball, neither is an excellent directional punter at this point, and neither usually puts as much air under the ball as you would like.

The punters are a wash, the kickers favor Detroit, and the return/coverage teams heavily favor Detroit.  Will it be enough for the Lions to beat the Cardinals?  Well, a lot of this game will still come down to offense and defense, which is good news for Arizona.

Game Plan:

On offense, at least in the passing game, the Cardinals really don't need to do anything fancy.  Given the tremendous size, strength, and mass advantage Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin, and Bryant Johnson hold over Dre Bly, Fernando Bryant, and Stanley Wilson, quarterback Matt Leinart should have a fun afternoon playing pitch-and-catch with his talented wide receivers.  This is provided that Leinart can deliver the ball accurately and in a timely fashion and that the receivers can properly use their hands and body position to cut off the cornerback's avenue to the ball.  All of these things can be assumed to happen, especially since Arizona will probably play it safe with short and intermediate timing routes, but these are the Cardinals we're talking about.

In the running game, the key will be Dennis Green's and Mike Kruczek's willingness to stick with it, even if Arizona doesn't have early success pounded Edgerrin James up the middle.  Since Detroit is dealing with injuries and suspensions (especially in the middle of their defensive line), James and the offensive line should be able to wear Detroit down as the game gets into the second half.  Also, don't discount Marcel Shipp to get spot carries and James and have an effective day against an undersized Lions defense, though not relevant for Fantasy purposes.

On defense, the Cardinals need to play it as straight-up-and-down as possible, without becoming predictable.  The Lions have given up 29 sacks already this year and Bert Berry and Chike Okeafor need to break out of their collective slump eventually.  Matched up against the underwhelming combination of Jeff Backus and Rex Tucker should be just the cure for what ails them.  Antrel Rolle and Eric Green will need help over the top against Roy Williams and Mike Furrey (especially Williams), but the Cardinals should play more of a Cover 1 defense, with Robert Griffith playing center field, covering the deep man, and allowing Adrian Wilson to run around and get inside Jon Kitna's head.

In both the passing game and the running game, the linebackers need to be very, very active.  They need to patrol their zones and Gerald Hayes needs to shadow Kevin Jones at all times.  In known passing situations, Karlos Dansby and Wilson need to blitz Kitna, hopefully forcing him into a critical mistake that will determine the outcome of this game (he has already thrown 11 interceptions this year).

In the running game especially, Calvin Pace and Orlando Huff need to keep Jones from getting to the edge.  Once he breaks containment, he can break a big play very easily.

Overall, the Cardinals just need to play good, smart football.  They need to be patient on offense and defense, wait for Detroit to screw up, and make them work for everything they get.  Arizona has been burned for too many long gains this season and most of them were as a direct result of being too aggressive or being undisciplined. 

While it's unrealistic to assume that the Cardinals can suddenly play mistake free and disciplined on offense and defense, it's also unrealistic to assume that Detroit will stop their sloppy style of play any time soon.


It also looks as though Leinart should face his first pressure-free game of the season.  The Lions defensive line is woefully bad at getting to the quarterback, and they'll be without suspended stalwart tackle Shaun Rodgers.  The Cardinals are going through their 38th different starting five on the offensive line this season (okay, that's an exaggeration, but not much of one) and they've been considerably better in pass protection than in the running game (though that's still not saying much).  Leinart should have the time he needs for his receivers to get out of their breaks, position themselves properly to box out the cornerback, and Leinart should have a clear pocket to throw from, delivering the ball to his targets in stride and accurately.

I still think that this is the game that Edge breaks free for a hundred yards.  He may do well, he may score, he should definitely catch some passes out of the backfield.  However, this will not be a break-out game for him.  Not with Arizona's offensive line.  Not even with Detroit's depleted defensive line.  They will, though, and should stick with the running game.  Unless, of course, they fall way behind early.

Kevin Jones might actually have a long day.  Arizona's run defense is superior to its 24th overall ranking (especially if you take out the Green Bay and Atlanta games) and has been surprisingly effective this year.  The Lions offensive line is weak up the middle and the tackles aren't especially strong.  There's only so much a talented running back with a solid passing game to compliment him when he has to run behind a sub-standard line.  Just ask Edgerrin James.

Rolle and Green should match up well against Furrey and Williams, but it will be up to the linebackers to fill the short and intermediate areas of the field and Robert Griffith to patrol the deep area.  The key, though, will be the front four's ability to pressure Kitna, make him hear footsteps, and rattle him so that he starts throwing erratically, fumbling uncontrollably, and chucking the ball into triple coverage.

The trouble with playing a talented but inconsistent team like the Lions is that you never know when the switch might get flipped and they finally remember that they know how to play the game of football and play it well.  On the other side of it, you never know when the light's going to come on for the Cardinals.

It should be interesting to watch.  Will the Cardinals "figure it out" and end up blowing out the Lions?  Or will the Lions put everything together and blow out the Cardinals?

I'm thinking it will be a game full of blown coverages, mistakes, and big plays on both sides.  The winner will be the last team holding the ball.  Let's just hope Neil Rackers doesn't shank the potential game-winning kick.

Cardinals 23, Lions 20.

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