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The cheat sheet: How the Lions can stop the Cardinals’ Air Raid offense

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Detroit Lions vs. Arizona Cardinals game preview and prediction

Arizona Cardinals v Minnesota Vikings Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

One of the biggest misconceptions heading into this season is that Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury is going to somehow bring the Air Raid offense to the NFL. In reality, Air Raid concepts have been making their way up the ranks into the NFL for years.

And recently, we’ve seen offenses and former Air Raid quarterbacks thrive using basic tenants of what Mike Leach and Hal Mumme created decades earlier.

Creating a mesh

When you think Air Raid, you might imagine heaving the ball vertically down the field. But no concept may be more synonymous with the Air Raid offense than the “Mesh” concept.

mesh concept
Basic Mesh Concept

The Lions like to play a lot of man coverage and the Mesh concept is definitely a man-beater (and a zone-beater at times as well). The key is to force the defender to break his path to the receiver and create separation underneath with plenty of room to run.

Here’s a compilation of Mesh concept plays that the Eagles ran with Nick Foles (a former Air Raid QB) against Matt Patricia and the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl a few years back.

More tempo

The scheme Kingsbury deploys shouldn’t surprise anyone, there are only so many route concepts, formations, etc., but the way in which he deploys it and the tempo at which the Cardinals play could definitely take teams by surprise.

No team in the NFL is an all-out Air Raid team, at least not yet.

And that’s where Kingsbury could completely change how the NFL and opposing defenses view that style of offense. If there is one thing he wants, it’s more tempo. His goal is to run a ton of plays, upwards of 90 a game.

”We’re going to get the ball down the field as fast as we can,” running back David Johnson said. “We’re trying to get a lot of plays in the game.”

Keep in mind that no team has ever averaged more than 80 plays per game throughout an entire season. So that’s a big, even unrealistic, goal for the Cardinals offense.

How can the Lions defend the Cardinals’ offense?

The irony of this game is that while Kingsbury and the Cardinals want to ratchet up the plays, Patricia and the Lions want to dial them back.

Think back to the strategy they deployed against the Patriots last season. They ran the ball 33 times for 159 yards and held onto the ball for over 39 minutes.

I expect to see the Lions continuing to try to control the clock with a mix of using up the play clock and running plays to keep Murray and Kingsbury at bay.

Arizona Cardinals v Minnesota Vikings Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

Opponent snapshot

A lot can change in a year. Even though these two teams faced off just nine months ago, the matchup looks nothing the same. The Cardinals hired Kliff Kingsbury and drafted Kyler Murray to try and turn around a franchise heading in the wrong direction.

I have no idea if the Kingsbury/Murray experiment will work (and I have my reservations), but it should be fun nonetheless.

Oakland Raiders v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images

Cardinals’ biggest threat

David Johnson

Despite what you may think, the spread attack the Cardinals want to deploy is heavily dependent on the running back. The idea being that if the Cardinals can force teams to crowd the box to stop the run, then that can open up space for the receivers down the field.

That’s where the Lions will need to stop the rush with their improved four-man front and force the Cardinals to become one dimensional early in the game.

Cardinals’ weak link

Cornerback

The Cardinals’ defense could be in big trouble if they can’t get to Matthew Stafford throughout the game. With Patrick Peterson and Robert Alford out, the Cardinals will rely on veteran Tramaine Brock and rookie Byron Murphy.

Stafford tried his best to brush off questions about the Cardinals’ inexperience in the secondary earlier this week, but there's no question he’ll be ready to take some shots against them on Sunday.

Bottom line

If the Lions can start fast, they should have no problems carving up the depleted Cardinals’ secondary. The key for the Lions will be to stay disciplined on defense and force Murray into bad decisions.

They couldn’t take down the rookie quarterback on opening night last season, but this year might just be a different story.

Prediction

Lions 27 Cardinals 23