If you think you'd be hard-pressed to find weaknesses in an 8-1 team, you'd be right. The Arizona Cardinals are playing some fine football right now, and even though their starting quarterback is now lost for the season, the Cardinals don't seem to mind. But just like every team in the league, there has to be some formula to beat them. I went out and tried to find even the smallest chink in the armor that the Detroit Lions could exploit.
The Cardinals offense is far from elite, but they get the job done. They may only rank 24th in yardage, but they are 12th in points. Sure, some of that is aided by their brilliant defense, but they also rank well in offensive-efficiency stats. They have the 14th-best team passer rating (91.7), are 15th in yards per attempt (7.2) and have thrown the fewest interceptions of any team this season (3).
Still, this isn't exactly an explosive offense, and their issues start up front. Arizona's offensive line has had some trouble this season, and there's no better indicator than the Cardinals' struggling running game. Despite the emergence of promising young running back Andre Ellington, Arizona has mustered just 83.6 rushing yards per game at only 3.2 yards per carry. Those numbers are nearly as bad as the Lions' awful rushing attack.
Where Arizona struggles most is the middle of the line, which should perk up the ears of Ndamukong Suh:
Above, it's the center who fails to control the defensive tackle. He tries to control him with just one hand, and the tackle easily sheds the block to take down Ellington behind the line of scrimmage. Alongside him, the Cardinals overloaded the left side of the line, but the defensive end gets into the backfield, falls down and takes two Cardinals with him, leaving no room to the outside. There was never much hope for this play.
When it comes to pass protection, things aren't much better for the Cardinals. Specifically, their guard play has been a liability in keeping players away from Carson Palmer.
Watch as the right guard (camera left) cannot hold his block for more than a moment. He is easily forced off balance, and the defensive tackle comes barreling in on Palmer. The pressure forces an errant throw that is nearly intercepted.
The Cardinals tried to respond by giving their right guard some help by double-teaming the defensive tackle on that side. Let's see how that went:
Oof. Not well.
This is a matchup the Lions are well-equipped to exploit. Drew Stanton will provide a little more mobility than Palmer had, but the Lions should have no problem stopping the Cardinals' running game, and they could very easily force the inexperienced Stanton into a few costly mistakes.
The Lions will be facing one of the best defenses in the league for the second week in a row. The Cardinals' defense features a front that has allowed just 3.4 yards per carry this season (t-fourth) and a secondary that has tallied the most interceptions in the league (14).
I searched and searched for clear weaknesses, and there just isn't much there. The only team that has managed more than 20 points against the Cardinals is the Denver Peyton Mannings. And, unfortunately, Detroit doesn't have him on their roster.
Still, there is a small sliver of hope. I noticed that when teams spread their formations out against Arizona, they tend to have some success. The Cardinals' top two cornerbacks, Patrick Peterson and Antonio Cromartie, are nearly flawless. But when you spread out the offense, you force some lesser defensemen into the game, and that's where the Lions will need to attack.
Specifically, the Cardinals have had some trouble when they bring in extra safeties and corners to cover tight ends and slot receivers.
Deone Bucannon fails to punch the tight end at the line. That gives the surprisingly athletic Jared Cook all the space he needs to leave Bucannon in his dust for a touchdown. Bucannon is a rookie, and has really been playing more of a linebacker role this season, but if the Lions catch him in coverage, it'll likely be a good matchup for them.
Similarly, the Cardinals sometimes bring in Jerraud Powers when formations call for additional defensive backs. He, too, can be exploited:
Powers' coverage isn't terrible on this play, but you can see when Jeremy Maclin kicks it to a fifth gear, he starts to separate from Powers. Are you watching, Corey Fuller?
The Lions offense has been struggling all year, and they have their work cut out for them this week. Fortunately, they may finally have the personnel to spread out the Cardinals defense. This would be an excellent week for Joseph Fauria and Eric Ebron to come back from injury and exploit some of the lesser members of the Cardinals' secondary. Obviously, Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate will still play big roles in this game, but with Cromartie and Peterson lurking, it will be up to Detroit's depth to keep the offense moving.