Setting the Stage:
It's hard to scope out many opening games because there's no current season footage or stats to base conclusions on. To use 2016 stats is to ignore personnel turnover and a new crop of rookie players. For purposes of this preview, we're using (despite its shortcomings) information from Pro Football Focus (PFF). It's not perfect and a bit dated, but at least it can provide us with an idea of "who the Lions actually are.
That said - on paper, the Lions don't seem to have very much to terrify its opponents. A lot of their success has ridden atop the shoulders of QB Matt Stafford, but WR Andre Johnson (aka Megatron) is no longer on the active roster, which leaves Golden Tate, M Jones and Ebron to carry Johnson's water. Their OL is spotty. They've got a couple of very good RB's. On defense, they've got quality at one of the CB's and both safeties. But they've got little to write home about on the Front 7. (Ziggy Ansah does come back from injury and he can help the Lions on the Edge).
Meanwhile, the Cards return with their offense virtually unchanged - the only "new" starters are Veldheer and Humphrey who switched LT and RT positions. Carson Palmer is back. David Johnson is back. Fitz is back. The only significant areas of concern are keeping Palmer and wideouts Smokey and Jaron Brown upright and healthy.
On defense, both Edge rushers and Interior D linemen are back. Depth is a bit iffy at ILB and we appeared to be successful at upgrading #2 CB and replace a couple of starting safeties. There are those who attribute last year's disappointing results with a breakdown in Special Teams play. Cards added an experienced kicker and punter, which should right the ship in 2017.
Perhaps the biggest intangible the Cards bring to 2017 is veteran leadership, especially on defense and ST's - Dansby, Bethea, Dawson and Lee to name just four.
It's a road game in a different time zone, and the Cards don't always put away teams they should be able to handle. But I still like our chances.
Lions went 2 & 2 in preseason, beating the Colts 24 - 10 and Jets 16 - 6 while losing 30 - 28 to the Pats in the "important" 3rd game and to Buffalo 27 - 17 a week ago.
WR 15 Tate..............19 Golladay
LT..........73 G Robinson..70 C Robinson
LG 60 Glasgow........66 Dahl
C 64 Swanson
RG 76 Lang.............xx Lake............xx Tomlinson......xx Z Kerin
RT 71 Wagner xx Milhaiik
TE 85 Ebron...........87 Fells............80 Roberts
WR 11 M Jones Jr...13 TJ Jones.....10 Abbrederis
QB 09 Stafford.......42 Rudock
RB 21 Abdullah 34 Zenner
RB 25 Riddick 36 Washington 38 Green
DE 92 Rucker..........90 Nkemdiche
NT 98 Peters...........69 X Williams.....72 Pierre
DT 95 Gunter......... 97 Mauro
SLB 55 C Jones
ILB 43 Riddick ........20 Bucannon....45 Bynes
ILB 56 Dansby.........57 Wheeler
WLB 44 Golden..........96 K Martin
LCB 21 Peterson.......37 T Williams
RCB 28 Bethel...........26 B Williams....28 Bethel
SS 41 Bethea..........27 Branch.........30 Ford
FS 32 Mathieu........36 Baker
Matchup: Lion Passing Attack vs. Cardinal Pass Defense
It's Stafford throwing to Tate, the Jones Boys, Abbredaris, the TE (Ebron) with Abdullah coming out of the backfield. Lion pass blockers should be vulnerable to edge rushers C Jones and Golden (along with whichever "from out of left field" blitzes) Bettcher wants to dial up).
With Bucannon expected to be held out at least one more week, ILB will consist of "The Master" (Dansby) mentoring "The Student" (& top draft choice) Riddick. Major concern for Card pass defense will be mixed-up communication covering the transition-area between the LOS and deep patrol.
Two best Lion pass blockers listed by PFF are RG Lang and OT Wagner. Lions acquired former Niner Greg Robinson - a high draft pick considered a bust in SF.
Key Matchups: Peterson vs. Tate. C Jones and M Golden vs G Robinson and Wagner. Ebron vs. Mathieu. Bethel vs. Abbredris.
Matchup: Lion Rushing Attack vs. Cardinal Run Defense
Judging from the Lion depth chart, it looks as if Detroit is going with 2-back offense featuring a FB (Riddick), so expect them to run early and often. Abdullah is rated Above Average overall by PFF. Card run defense was good a year ago, but has had sporadic trouble during preseason setting the edge and filling the right gaps. We've reportedly cleaned up this problem, but you never know.
Key Matchup: Dansby and H Riddick vs. T Riddick and Abdullah
WR1 11 Fitzgerald..........13 Jaron Brown.....10 Golden
LT 74 Humphries........73 Wetzel
LG 76 Iupati.................xxBoone
C 53 Shipley..............62 Munyer
RG 70 Boehm
RT........68 Veldheer...........69 Holden.............75 John
TE 87 Niklas...............80 Momah
WR2 12 John Brown.....14 JJ Nelson.........16 C Williams
QB 03 Palmer.............05 Stanton............07 Gabbert
RB 31 D Johnson.......38 Ellington...........33 K Williams......35 Penny
TE 84 Gresham
DE 94 Ansah .90 Washington.........78 Valoaga
DT 91 Robinson ..97 Spence................98 Ledbetter
DT 92 Ngata .xx Thornton
DE 69 Zettel ..xx Bryant..................79 Barrett
OLB......59 Whitehead 54 Longa
MLB 40 Davis ..58 Worrilow..............43 Bellore
OLB 44 R-Maybin
CB 23 Slay .31 Hayden................39 Agnew
CB 24 Lawson 30 Tabor....................28 Diggs
SS 32 Wilson .35 Killebrew
FS....... 27 Quin.............45 C Washington.......26 Carey
Matchup: Cardinal Passing Attack vs. Lion Pass Defense
Carson Palmer says he's in his best physical and mental shape ever. The Floydless WR unit (Smokey and Jaron Brown, Fitz and JJ Nelson) are back and intact. Gresham is ready to deliver on the expectations the Cards had when they got him. Niklas (if he can stay healthy) is ready to become a force. The OL is the same as last year, with the only change the flipping of tackles Veldheer and Humphries from right to left. Backup depth across the 5 positions has been upgraded, with a final peg in the puzzle the last-minute signing of veteran lineman Alex Boone.
A year ago, the Lions sacked the QB 27 times (compared to the Cards' 48. PFF projects the Detroit 2017 Detroit sack total to improve to 36. The drafting of MLB Jarrad Davis and return to the active roster of DE Ziggy Ansah should contribute to improved stats.
Detroit has a pretty competent secondary - CB's Darius Slay is considered "Above Average" by PFF. #2 CB Nevin Lawson is rated "Average." Safeties Glover Quin and Tavon Wilson carry Above Average ratings. Where Detroit seems to come up short is on the edge (where leading pass rusher Heyder is out for the year but Ansah comes back "just in time" from injury to join C Washington) and at LB ((where, with the exception of rookie standout Davis) everyone is rated Below Average or lower).
Look for Palmer to utilize his receivers, TEs and D Johnson to exploit Lion intermediate coverage with short passes. Expect Cards to run multiple-receiver packages to put pressure on Detroit's #3 and #4 corners (Tabor and Hayden). Bringing Gresham and Niklas into the pictures should keep Detroit's safeties and LB's "honest" and open things up for Cardinal RB's Jonson, Ellington and KW.
Key Matchups: Fitz vs. Slay. Jaron Brown vs. Lawson. Smoke Brown vs. Tabor. Gresham va. Quin. D Johnson v. Wilson. Ansah vs.Humphrey
Matchup: Cardinal Running Attack vs. Bucs Run Defense
D Johnson is consistently rated in the top 3 of all NFL RB's (due to being a multiple threat as a runner, screen and wheel-route receiver).
Detroit runs a 4-3 defense. It's solid up the middle vs. the run with Haloti Ngata and A'Shawn Robinson plugging up the middle and rookie MLB Jarrod Davis providing sideline to sideline run support.
Card run blockers aren't the best but aren't horrible either. Humphrey is the only Cardinal O-lineman rated Above Average or higher by PFF.
Expect Cards to test the Lion flanks early and occupy Detroit's front seven with intermediate throws to a variety of receiving options.
Key Matchup: D Johnson vs. Davis. Iupati vs, Ngata. Boehm vs. A. Robinson.
PK 05 Matt Prater
H 02 Redfern
KO 05 Prater 02 Redfern
LS 48 Muhlbach
PR 15 Tate 13 TJ Jones........10 Abbrederis
KR 13 TJ Jones 10 Abbrederis
K 04 Dawson
P xx Lee
H xx Lee
LS 86 Brewer
KR 10 Golden
PR 10 Golden
Matchup: Lion Special Teams vs. Cardinal Special Teams
Prater was 31 for 36 in FG attempts; (4 of 5 from 30 - 39 yds and 10 of 14 at 40 - 49 yds). Redfern is a new Lion punter. Tate's the new punt returner. TJ Jones returns kicks.
Last year, thre Lions averaged 1.3 yds per punt return (while holding their opponents to 6.0). They averaged 22.7 in kick returns while giving up 21.5).
Some Cardinal observers (including yours truly) estimate that poor special teams play cost the Cardinals 4 games (& a spot in the playoffs). Changes were made in the offseason and preseason with the Cards signing 42-year old veteran kicker Phil Dawson and 35-year old Punter Andy Lee. It is felt that their steadying presence alone could win us 4 more games in 2017.
Whether the Cards coverage and return games will enjoy equal improvement over 2016 remains to be seen. Cards had hoped to take advantage of rookie TJ Logan's explosiveness as a returner, but will have to wait till at least mid-season when he's expected to come off IR. Until then, Brittan Golden will be given first crack at returning kickoffs amd punts.
Key matchups: Dawson and Lee enjoy an experience edge over Prater and Redeirn. Tate and TJ Jones should enjoy an edge over Golden in the return game.
DT: Jim Caldwell is Lion HC. Solid resume but no ring as a head coach. DC is Teryl Austin. OC is Jim Bob Cooter who is a former QB coach.
Card HC is Bruce Arians (aka the QB whisperer). His DC is Jim Bettcher (who employs an aggressive ("every man is an island") defensive philosophy. Harold Goodwin is OC but Arians calls most of the play, employing a "no risk it/no biscuit" approach. Cardinal coaching staff is an interesting blend of mostly AARP members and rookie interns.
Opening game. Eastern time zone. On paper, this looks like a Cardinal winner, but we've seen past Cardinal teams play down to the level of their opponents and turn "gimmes" into "should'ves."
It's important (both for this game and the 15 others) that the Cards leverage what looks like a solid edge in talent up and down the roster by consisently playing up to the level of that talent.
We want this to be a WYSIWYG team.