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On Paper: Detroit Lions vs. Arizona Cardinals

A statistical look at the Lions-Cardinals matchup.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

On Paper is here, which means last week is finally gone and we can all go on pretending it never happened. The Detroit Lions (0-3*) are still seeking their first win of the season. They'll have to defeat the impressive Arizona Cardinals (3-1) to get off the schnide. Detroit has not fared well against Arizona lately, dropping the last six games between the two. The Cardinals come to town as a three-point road favorite. But will the charts agree?

Editor's note: Remember, unit rankings are now based on Football Outsiders' DVOA rankings

Lions pass offense (16th) vs. Cardinals pass defense (6th)

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It's a bit surprising to see such a respectable chart given the Lions' well-documented offensive struggles. But the truth is, the Lions have played some really impressive defenses so far this year. All four opponents are allowing less than 240 passing yards per game (all in the top half of the league) and two of the Lions' opponents rank in the top ten in terms of passer rating allowed.

Still, it's hard not to be disappointed when Matthew Stafford and the Lions' offense rank 24th in passer rating (79.7), 32nd in yards per attempt (6.2) and t-13th in completion percentage (65.0 percent).

cards pass d

The Cardinals pass defense has a been a bit all over the place. Outside of Drew Brees, Arizona hasn't faced a particularly good quarterback (they dealt with Jimmy Clausen for the majority of the Bears game). But Arizona had an absolutely dominant performance against the 49ers. Then they followed it up by allowing Nick Foles to throw for three touchdowns against them, so I'm not sure what to think.

In addition to the high DVOA ranking, the Cardinals also look impressive with raw statistics. They're allowing a passer rating of just 72.3 (fourth), just 6.8 yards per attempt (eighth) and a completion percentage of 62.6 percent (11th).

Just about every data point concludes this is a very good pass defense, but that chart gives me pause. I don't think we know the identity of this defense yet, considering the poor competition thus far. Arizona's defense is good, there's little doubt about it, but I'm not convinced this is nearly a top five unit yet.

Player to watch: Patrick Peterson. As our friends at Revenge of the Birds have pointed out, Peterson has had a shutdown corner type of season so far, allowing less than 100 receiving yards on the season. If the Lions are hoping to have an offensive explosion this week, they'll have to go through one of the best cornerbacks in the league.

Advantage: Cardinals +1. I expected to be giving Arizona a much bigger advantage here, but when factoring in the opponents both teams have faced, I don't think the Lions pass offense is as bad as it looks and I don't think the Arizona defense is quite as good. Still, the Lions have an uphill battle here, and I'd be shocked to see Stafford throw for two or more touchdowns, or put up a passer rating above 100.

Lions run offense (32nd) vs. Cardinals run defense (5th)

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Things more effective than the Lions' running game: Donald Trump's PR department, jersey-burning guy, league apologies for ref mistakes.

The Lions running game is terrible. It's 99 percent the offensive line's fault. With Larry Warford's availability in question, that problem isn't getting fixed this week. Prepare for the Thunderdome.

cardinals run d

Scratch that, the Thunderdome has got nothing on this matchup. This is full Mad Max-tied-and-tortured-to-the-front-of-a-car-in-the-middle-of-a-sandstorm status. The Cardinals held the impressive run games of the Bears and 49ers to less than four yards a carry and completely shut down the Saints' rushing attack. There is no hope.

Okay, let's scale it back a bit. Todd Gurley and the Rams did exploit the Cardinals defense a bit, but when you take out Gurley's one long run, you're left with a much less impressive 112 yards at 4.5 a carry. Still, the Cardinals are allowing 4.2 yards per carry overall, which ranks them 22nd in the league. Additionally, Arizona is giving up first downs on 24.3 percent of rushes, also 22nd in the league.

Player to watch: Calais Campbell. The Cardinals leading tackler will be up against the turnstile that is LaAdrian Waddle at right tackle. In addition to his team-leading 25 tackles, Campbell also has four tackles for loss, second on the Cardinals.

Advantage: Cardinals +3. While the Cardinals run defense isn't quite as dominant as they seem, the Lions running game has offered zero hope. The Ameer Abdullah hype train has been derailed by the faulty tracks of the offensive line. If the Lions manage more than 70 rushing yards on Sunday, it'd be a miracle.

Cardinals pass offense (4th) vs. Lions pass defense (24th)

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If you were to take away the colors of this chart, things would look impressive for Carson Palmer and the Cardinals. They've thrown for over 300 passing yards in three of four games, and totalled a passer rating of 100+ in three games, as well. But then you take a look at the defenses they've played and you realize...

While the Cardinals have been an impressive passing team, they've been aided by having a string of terrible pass defenses to light up.

That being said, Larry Fitzgerald is enjoying a nice resurrection of his career, hauling in 432 receiving yards (third) and five touchdowns (first) through four weeks.

lions pass d

And now for the bad news...well, more bad news. The Lions have been terrible at defending the pass this year. Every opponent has thrown for a passer rating of over 100 against Detroit, and that includes two poor passing offenses in the Vikings and Broncos.

The raw statistics really tell the entire story. Detroit is allowing a completion percentage of 78.0 percent (32nd), giving up 9.2 yards per attempt (t-30th) and a passer rating of 110.9 (30th).

Detroit will likely get DeAndre Levy back this week, which could be huge. Levy has been one of the Lions' biggest playmakers on defense, both in defending the pass and the run. But this injury has been lingering and it's impossible to know how effective he'll be out of the gate.

Player to watch: Levy. The Cardinals offense likes to spread the ball around, and Levy's coverage skills are going to come in handy, especially considering the issues guys like Stephen Tulloch have had in coverage in Levy's absence.

Advantage: Cardinals +2.5. The Levy factor mitigates some of the damage for this matchup, but Palmer looks like he's revitalized his career for the 18th time, and the Lions pass defense hasn't really stopped anyone yet.

Cardinals run offense (14th) vs Lion run defense (14th)

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Though the Cardinals running game has hit the century mark in all four games this season, their competition has made it easy. Again, they have not played any particularly impressive defenses this year. Putting those performances in context, you see an average running game in Arizona.

lions run d

This is starting to look a little familiar. Last year, the Lions had nearly a perfectly green chart. Four weeks into this season, the Lions are on their way to repeating that performance. Although the numbers aren't nearly as dominant as they were last year (currently allowing 111.5 yards at 3.6 a carry; last year they allowed 69.3 yards per game at 3.2 a carry), the Lions' run defense is still certainly above average through Week 4.

Player to watch: Gabe Wright. Yes, Gabe Wright. Monday night, the Lions lost the services of defensive tackle Tyrunn Walker for the rest of the season. Additionally, it looks like Haloti Ngata is unlikely to play this week. That means it'll be up to Caraun Reid, newly (and oldly) signed Andre Fluellen and Wright to clog the middle of the line. Wright has slowly been improving as the season progresses, and we'll likely see how he does when given a significant amount of snaps on Sunday.

Advantage: Draw. I was ready to give the Lions the advantage here, but the addition of Levy is offset by the losses of Reid and Ngata. I don't see the Cardinals running all over the Lions defense, but I could see them wearing Detroit down as the game progresses.

Off paper:

The Beard is Back. I've already touched on how Levy's return can help both units of the Lions' defense, but his return is also going to be an emotional boost for the Lions. He has been a huge playmaker for years and his teammates have to be excited to play alongside him again.

Home field advantage? Tensions aren't high in Detroit. They're beyond that. From what I gather from this site, Lions fans aren't angry, they've already given up. The Lions will need a quick start -- something they haven't had since Week 1 -- or the home crowd will turn on the team and Ford Field will be filled with boos (and booze).

Last week's prediction:

On Paper either overestimated both teams' offenses or underestimated their defenses. While I was right in predicting a close game, my 24-16 prediction was not too close to the 13-10 final.

However in the predictions article, we had a perfect guess from Singledigit. Singledigit even correctly predicted the Lions touchdown would not come from the offense. Here is your prize:


You get a bat. I'm not sure why bats are on my mind...must be the baseball playoffs. Yeah, let's go with that.

This week's prediction:

The Cardinals come out with a decisive +6.5 advantage. While I don't think the Cardinals are as good of a team as advertised and I actually don't think the Lions are that bad either, this is just a terrible matchup for Detroit. We've seen it in the past three years, the Lions do not play well against the Cardinals. The defense is too good for this struggling offense and Arizona looks poised to throw all over Detroit on Sunday. I have a hard time envisioning any scenarios that end with the Lions coming out on top. Lions 13, Cardinals 27.

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