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Week 1 preview: Detroit Lions vs. Arizona Cardinals preview: On Paper

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On Paper is back, y’all. Bow down to the charts.

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NFL: Arizona Cardinals at Detroit Lions Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Football is back and the New England Patriots are the worst team (mathematically) in the NFL. It is truly the dawn of a new day and a new season.

And what better time than to bring back our beloved preview series, “On Paper.” If you’re new to Pride of Detroit or have never read On Paper before, here’s our annual explainer.

The preview is formatted by unit matchups. For example, I compare the Detroit Lions’ pass offense against the Arizona Cardinals’ pass defense. It’s blatantly obvious, but for whatever reason, not every preview looks at the game that way.

But the key to these previews are the charts. Each preview will have eight charts, four for each team. Here’s a thorough explanation of those charts.

Each chart represents one unit of a team (e.g.: Bucs Pass Offense, Lions Run Defense, etc.). Therefore, there are eight total charts (four units, two teams). Each chart lists the opponents the team has played, their performance that week and season averages to compare their performance for that week.

The purpose of this is because stats can be very misleading without the proper context. If the Lions give up 250 yards, 2 TDs and 1 INT through the air, that looks bad. But if it's against the Packers, who are hypothetically averaging 290 yards and 3 TDs, that is actually a very good performance. So if the team performs better than average on a given week, the cell is highlighted green, a bad performance is red and a yellow cell means the team performed within 5 percent of the team average. The color-coding system is based on the team being analyzed, so green doesn't necessarily mean good for the Lions. Confused? You can check out my past previews, but you'll get used it.

After analyzing each chart, I give a matchup edge to one team on a 0-5 scale. The scale is based not only on which team looks better in this matchup, but how likely this edge will affect the final outcome of the game. A +5 advantage would predict that this matchup is key and likely to win the game for the team.

As always, for the first few weeks of the season, I will be relying upon the previous year’s data. There will be no analyzing preseason stats. We’re above that.

With the disclaimers out of the way, let’s get to previewing Lions vs. Cardinals.

Lions pass offense (13th in DVOA in 2016) vs. Cardinals pass defense (3rd)

Lions key passing offense additions: RT Rick Wagner, RG T.J. Lang, TE Darren Fells, WR Kenny Golladay

Key losses: LT Taylor Decker (injured), RT Riley Reiff, RG Larry Warford, WR Anquan Boldin

Matthew Stafford and the Lions pass offense was absolutely rolling in the middle of the season. During Detroit’s 8-1 run, Stafford met or outperformed defense’s passer rating average in every game but one.

But then the final four games happened. Blame Stafford’s dislocated finger or Detroit’s tough December schedule, but whatever the reason, the Lions’ pass offense fell flat when they need it the most.

This year, the offense promises to be even better. Though they’ll be hurting without Taylor Decker at left tackle for the first month or two of the season, the right side of the offensive line should provide plenty of time for Stafford. Meanwhile, the loss of Anquan Boldin could be quickly mitigated by third-round rookie Kenny Golladay and the continued development of tight end Eric Ebron.

But with a healthy Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick, Stafford has a wealth of weapons, an adequate offensive line, and no excuses to not be a top 10 unit this year.

Key pass defense additions: S Antoine Bethea, LB Karlos Dansby, LB Haason Reddick, S Budda Baker

Key losses: DT Calais Campbell, LB Deone Bucannon (injured), S Tony Jefferson, S D.J. Swearinger

Despite a rough finish to the year, the Cardinals had one of the best pass defenses in the league last year. They allowed an average passer rating of just 85.1 (10th), a completion percentage of 62.9 percent (16th) and a yards per attempt average of 6.8 (t-7th).

But this was a tumultuous offseason for the Cardinals defense. They lost key players like Calais Campbell and Tony Jefferson. But for as much talent as they lost, they aggressively added a bunch of players, too. First-round pick Haason Reddick was a popular draft prospect in Detroit. While Budda Baker and Antoine Bethea could be huge additions to the secondary.

Unfortunately for Arizona, linebacker Deone Bucannon suffered a setback this week and will not play on Sunday, leaving the Cardinals scrambling at the last minute.

Player to watch: LT Greg Robinson vs. OLB Chandler Jones. Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press had a great article back in July about how Robinson performed with the Rams last year. Robinson is very familiar with Jones, having been NFC West foes, but unfortunately Chandler got the best of him in 2016.

Robinson is bound to look better in a newer, simpler scheme, but look for Jones to pick up at least one sack on Robinson.

Advantage: Cardinals +1. While I think the Lions could really contend for one of the best passing attacks in the league, they may face their toughest test in Week 1. The edge that pushes the scales in Arizona’s favor is the quarterback pressure. Not only should Jones see some success against Robinson, but Markus Golden actually led the team in sacks last year. As a whole, the Cardinals had 48 sacks last season, which was second-to-none.

Lions run offense (25th) vs. Cardinals run defense (7th)

Key run offense additions: RB Ameer Abdullah (healthy), TE Darren Fells, RT Rick Wagner, RG T.J. Lang, TE Darren Fells

Key losses: LT Taylor Decker (injured), RT Riley Reiff, RG Larry Warford

The Lions run defense was god awful last year, but as you can see from above, Detroit made a pretty strong effort to fix the problem. The one thing they didn’t do was add a new running back.

Instead, they are banking on the return of Ameer Abdullah, who only played six quarters of football last year before being placed on injured reserve and never returning. Abdullah will have to drastically improve on a unit that averaged the sixth-fewest yards per carry and had just one rush of 40+ yards all year.

With an improved offensive line, a capable blocking tight end in Darren Fells and a healthy Abdullah, this unit is bound to be better in 2017, but the question is how much better?

Key pass defense additions: S Antoine Bethea, LB Karlos Dansby, LB Haason Reddick, S Budda Baker

Key losses: LB Calais Campbell, LB Deone Bucannon (injured), S Tony Jefferson, S D.J. Swearinger

The DVOA numbers may not show it, but the Cardinals’ run defense may have been even better than their pass defense last year. Only five teams managed to average over 4.0 yards per carry against Arizona, while eight were held at or below 3.0 yards per carry.

But much like the Cardinals’ pass defense, this run defense has gone through a lot of changes, and only time will tell if it has been a net gain or loss in talent.

Player to watch: Ameer Abdullah. I’m not sure there will be a player on the field Sunday whose return is more anticipated than Abdullah. Lions fans are eager to see if last year’s brief, but impressive, performance was real. He looked decent against the preseason Patriots, but rookie Kareem Hunt just walked all over that defense Thursday night, so who knows?

Advantage: Cardinals +1. Last year, this would have been a huge advantage in Arizona’s favor, but I believe the Lions got significantly better this offseason while Arizona may have gotten a little worse. Still, as I’ve said for the past eight years I’ve been doing this column: I’m not going to believe in this Lions run game until I actually see it.

Cardinals pass offense (27th) vs. Lions pass defense (32nd)

Key pass offense additions: WR Chad Williams

Key losses: G Earl Watford, TE Darren Fells

For as many changes as the Cardinals made on defense, they hardly addressed the offensive side of the ball. And that’s pretty puzzling, to be honest. Carson Palmer took a big step back last year, and the whole team suffered because of it.

Palmer posted his lowest completion percentage (61.0) since 2011, his worst touchdown (4.4) and interception (2.3) percentage since 2013. There’s no way around it, Palmer regressed significantly and there’s no telling if the 37-year-old can ever grasp the magic that nearly won him an MVP award in 2015.

In terms of weapons, Palmer’s arsenal isn’t all that different than it was last year. The biggest change is probably the health of John Brown. Last year, Brown—a key part to this Cardinals offense—suffered a myriad of “soft tissue injuries” that saw him much limited in his potential. Brown has already dealt with a hamstring and quad injury this preseason, but appears to be at least 90 percent heading into the season.

Key pass defense additions: LB Jarrad Davis, DE Cornelius Washington, CB D.J. Hayden, CB Teez Tabor, CB Jamal Agnew

Key losses: DE Devin Taylor, DE Kerry Hyder (injured), LB DeAndre Levy, S Rafael Bush

The Lions pass defense was historically awful last year. Aside from a string of three odd weeks in the middle of November, Detroit could not stop anyone. And I mean anyone. Brock Osweiler, Jared Goff Case Keenum and Brian Hoyer all had field days against this defense.

But the Lions did a near full overhaul with their front seven. All three linebacker positions will have new starters in 2017, led by first-round draft pick Jarrad Davis in the middle. Half of the starters on the defensive line are gone, and the entire rotations behind the starters has been replaced.

So the Lions changed players at all of these positions, but are they any better? Early returns on the defensive line are worrisome. There doesn’t appear to be a lot of talented pass-rushers on the roster, but the return of a “healthy” Ezekiel Ansah could do wonders for the unit.

Still, there are some serious concerns that the Lions defense won’t be that much better than last year, especially with an impotent pass rush.

Player to watch: Quandre Diggs/DJ Hayden vs. Larry Fitzgerald. Future Hall of Fame receiver Fitzgerald has kept his amazing career alive with a move into the slot. That just so happened to be the Lions’ biggest weakness in the passing game last year. Diggs had an extremely disappointing 2016 season after a promising rookie year. However, the Lions brought in Hayden to compete for the spot, and head coach Jim Caldwell promised on Thursday that we’d see both play a little on Sunday.

Advantage: Even. Palmer was probably never as good as he seemed in 2015, but the Lions defense will have to go a long way before they can earn their fans’ trust. Arizona has enough talent at receiver to make Detroit pay if they can’t pressure Palmer. But the Lions’ secondary is also good enough to prevent the big play, which just so happens to be Arizona’s specialty.

Cardinals run offense (14th) vs. Lions run defense (19th)

Key additions: None.

Key losses: G Earl Watford

David Johnson was one of the most feared players in the league last season. His 2,118 yards from scrimmage (1,239 rushing, 879 receiving) led the NFL.

That being said, the Cardinals’ run offense was actually just mediocre last year. In seven of 16 games, they failed to outgain their opponent’s average YPC allowed. In total, the Cardinals averaged just 4.3 YPC, good for t-12th in the league. Not bad, but nothing special, either.

Again, not much has changed about this team from last year. The team lost starting guard Earl Watford, but he was one of the worst players on their roster in 2016. The Cardinals did add former Vikings starting guard Alex Boone this week, but it sounds like it’s too early in the learning process for him to start on Sunday.

Key pass defense additions: LB Jarrad Davis, DE Cornelius Washington, DT Akeem Spence, DT Jeremiah Ledbetter,

Key losses: DE Devin Taylor, DE Kerry Hyder (injured), LB DeAndre Levy, DT Tyrunn Walker

The Lions 2016 run defense wasn’t awful, but it was closer to awful than it was good. They held just six opponents below 4.0 yards per carry and only three significantly below their YPC average.

Again, there is hope that the Lions’ completely overhauled front seven will help in stopping the run, and there has already been some promising play from the linebackers in that vein, but it’s all still theoretical improvement at this point.

Player to watch: Jarrad Davis. Davis is being thrown into the deep end Week 1 of the season. The rookie linebacker is expected to quarterback the defense from his spot at middle linebacker from the very first snap. How Jarrad Davis goes, so goes the Lions defense. He’s supposedly a tackling machine, so he’ll be key in stopping both Johnson and whatever the Cardinals throw his way.

Advantage: Draw. Johnson is a scary player to face no matter how good your defense is. However, his value as a running back has always been a bit overstated. He averaged a modest 4.2 YPC last year. He is much more dangerous as a receiver.

So the Lions have more than a fighter’s chance to stop Arizona’s running game on Sunday. They did an okay job at it last year, and with so many new faces around this season, there’s legitimate reason for hope.

This week’s prediction:

The Cardinals come out with a minor +2 advantage. But the purpose of this column is to use as much data to come to a conclusion as free from subjectivity as possible. Unfortunately, I have essentially no data to work with.

The most popular mistake made among NFL prognosticators before the season begins is relying too heavily on last year’s results. Teams change, and they can change drastically in just one offseason.

I’m excited to see what the Lions’ defense will look like in 2017, as their success likely hinges on its improvement. Luckily, they don’t face an offensive juggernaut in Week 1, and therefore, I think we see a pretty low scoring game.

I’m not going to go against my “data,” but I expect this game to be a low-scoring toss-up, which should put everyone on MATTHEW STAFFORD COMEBACK ALERT. Still, I have to follow the charts. Cardinals 24, Lions 20.

Give your own score predictions in the comment section below. The person with the closest prediction to the final score will be honored in next week’s On Paper column.