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Detroit Lions Week 3 scouting report: The Arizona Cardinals are winning the arms race

As the Lions collapse, the Cardinals are rising.

NFL: Washington Football Team at Arizona Cardinals Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Arizona Cardinals are an oddly familiar opponent for the Detroit Lions. The two have faced off 15 times since 2001, including seven times in the past eight years. This is mostly due to the two teams placing at the same spot in their respective divisions (typically, last), but two weeks into the season, the teams couldn’t be heading in more opposite directions.

The Arizona Cardinals are 2-0. The Detroit Lions are 0-2. The Cardinals have a fresh coach and quarterback that could be the face of the franchise for years to come. The Lions are facing a very stark reality that could mean a new coach, new general manager, and—yes—even a new quarterback in 2021 and beyond.

Last year, the two teams crossed paths as they headed in opposite directions, and they seemed to find each other at the exact moment their talents swapped. Appropriately, the two teams tied to open the 2019 season.

Let’s check back in with the Cardinals and see how much they’ve progressed in a year.

Arizona Cardinals

Last season:

5-10-1 record (4th in NFC West)
16th in points scored, 28th in points allowed
Overall DVOA: 17th (13th on offense, 20th on defense)

2020 offseason

Key free agent additions: WR DeAndre Hopkins, DT Jordan Phillips, LB Devon Kennard, LB De’Vondre Campbell

Key losses: RB David Johnson, DE Rodney Gunter, LB Joe Walker

2020 NFL draft picks:

Round 1: LB Isaiah Simmons
Round 3: OL Josh Jones
Round 4: DT Leki Fotu
Round 4: DT Rashard Lawrence
Round 6: LB Evan Weaver
Round 7: RB Eno Benjamin

It was a fairly quiet offseason for the Arizona Cardinals this year. Entering Year 2 of the Kliff Kingsbury/Kyler Murray era, the focus seemed to be primarily on developing the players already in town and building on a promising first year. From 2018 to 2019, the Cardinals went from 32nd to 17th in DVOA, with Kingsbury’s offense really being the highlight of the team. Even just from Week 1 to Week 17, the Cardinals showed a massive amount of improvement and promise:

First 8 games: 21.25 points per game, 85.8 passer rating, 116.5 rushing yards/game
Last 8 games: 28.88 points per game, 89.3 passer rating, 132.25 rushing yards/ game

Of course, Arizona’s quiet offseason was shaken awake with the massive trade for wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins. The Cardinals’ receiver room was already stacked with Larry Fitzgerald, Christian Kirk and Andy Isabella, but adding a top-five receiver in the league is quite the present for a second-year quarterback.

Otherwise, the additions were made on the defensive side of the ball, which clearly needed an upgrade after allowing the fifth-most points in 2019. Though it was their pass defense that needed the most improvement (32nd in passer rating allowed), they focused most of their efforts on the front seven, adding defensive tackle Jordan Phillips and former Lions linebacker Devon Kennard.

2020 season thus far (2-0)

Week 1: Beat 49ers, 24-20
Week 2: Beat Washington, 30-15

Stats:

  • 12th in points scored, 2nd in points allowed
  • 17th in DVOA: 23rd on offense, 8th on defense, 15th on special teams

Whatever the Cardinals did this offseason appears to have worked. Despite all the fanfare around Kingsbury, Murray and his arsenal of weapons at receiver, the storyline of the 2020 Cardinals thus far may be their defense. They’ve allowed just 35 points thus far (second-best), and rank highly in a ton of statistical categories:

  • 341.0 yards allowed per game (seventh)
  • 7 sacks (t-third)
  • 57.6% completion percentage allowed (t-second)

Of course, before we go crowning the Cardinals defense as hugely improved, we must consider the small sample size. Jimmy Garoppolo and Dwayne Haskins Jr. aren’t exactly a murderer’s row of NFL quarterbacks. Also, there are plenty of stats to suggest this defense still needs some work:

  • 7.3 yards per pass attempt allowed (19th)
  • 0 interceptions (last)
  • 95.6 passer rating allowed (17th)
  • 5.0 yards per carry allowed (26th)

As for the offense, while maybe not as explosive as the Cardinals have hoped, it has certainly worked out fairly well thus far. The biggest improvement has been getting Murray more involved with his feet. Last year, the Cardinals quarterback averaged a modest 34.0 rushing yards per game. Through two games this season, he already has 158 rushing yards—averaging more than double what he had last year.

He also wasted no time in developing chemistry with DeAndre Hopkins, who is currently fifth in the NFL in receiving yards at 219.

Still, we must remember that Murray is still young and prone to mistakes. He’s thrown just as many interceptions (two) as touchdowns thus far in 2020, and he’s taken five sacks already. That’s a lot of negative plays, but something you’d expect from a young quarterback.

Key injuries: CB Robert Alford (IR), TE Maxx Williams (IR), S Jalen Thompson (IR), Mason Cole (hamstring)

The Cardinals have managed to stay fairly healthy—unlike the rest of the league. However, the season-ending injury to No. 1 cornerback Robert Alford in training camp was certainly a big one. It’s an unfortunate story for Alford, who missed all of 2019, too, because of an injury suffered in training camp.

The Cardinals are in an okay position, however, as last year’s second-round pick Byron Murphy has stepped in opposite Patrick Peterson and showed some early promise both on the outside and in the slot. Veteran Dre Kirkpatrick has also played on the outside, but has struggled a bit early on.

Biggest strength: Receiving corps

You could easily make a case for Hopkins being the best wide receiver in the NFL. When he’s surrounded by future Hall of Famer Larry Fitzgerald, 2019 second-round pick Andy Isabella, and 2018 second-round pick Christian Kirk, you’ve got yourself one of the most lethal attacks in the entire league.

Granted, it’s a little early to crown a guy like Isabell, who only had 189 yards last season. But Kirk presents a real challenge (709 yards last year), and the overall speed of this unit just makes it damn-near impossible to cover everyone.

Biggest weakness: Secondary

Despite the improved stats from last year, I’m still very suspect of this defense. Patrick Peterson isn’t the player he once was, Murphy is still untested, and Kirkpatrick appears to be hitting the over-30-years-old wall. Matthew Stafford will be the best quarterback Arizona has faced thus far in 2020, with likely the best receiving corps, too. If they can hold up this week, then maybe you can start believing in their secondary.

Vegas line for Sunday: Cardinals by 5.5.