The Detroit Lions face off against the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday for what seems like an annual tradition at this point. The two teams are easily the most frequent non-division opponent over the past two decade, mostly because they tend to finish in the same place in their respective divisions.
But it doesn’t look like that will happen this year. The Cardinals are off to a surprising 2-0 start after a huge Week 1 upset win over the 49ers, followed by a convincing win over the Washington Football Team. Meanwhile, Matt Patricia appears to be reaching the end of his road, as the Lions have looked mostly noncompetitive for the last five quarters of the season.
With the two teams seamingly headed in opposite directions, we know this feels like another loss headed towards the Lions, but do the numbers say something different? Let’s look at this Week 3 matchup.... On Paper.
Note: This is the last week we’ll be relying at all on last year’s data. Starting in Week 4, we’ll only be using 2020 data, including DVOA rankings.
Lions pass offense (14th in DVOA 2019/20th in 2020) vs. Cardinals pass defense (26th/7th)
The Lions pass offense is off to a rocky start, despite last year’s fantastic performances from Matthew Stafford. It’s had to exactly point at one culprit for the issues, but the lack of Kenny Golladay has certainly influence Detroit’s ability to go deep—which was one of the reasons they were so successful last year.
Per MLive, Stafford attempted pass 20 yards or more downfield 19.2 percent of the time last year. This year, that number is just 10.7 without Golladay.
The Lions are expected to have Golladay back this week, which could turn around their fortune, but thus far, it’s been a shockingly pedestrian year for Stafford. Take a look:
Passer rating: 83.2 (24th)
Yards per attempt: 7.2 (20th)
Completion percentage: 58.7 (30th)
Okay, “pedestrian” may be a little too generous.
If there’s one good thing to take from this unit, it’s that the offensive line has pass blocked very well. With guys like Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith and Khalil Mack, the Lions have still managed to place in the top 10 in pass block win rate (63%, ninth).
Last year, the Cardinals allowed the highest passer rating in the NFL. This year, they appear to have potentially turned things around. Though the sample size is small and the strength of opponent is certainly weak—Washington ranks 31st in passing DVOA, 49ers are 16th—they’ve still managed to do what decent defenses do: stop bad teams.
They rank 17th in passer rating allowed (95.6), t-17th in yards per attempt allowed 97.3), but t-second in completion percentage allowed (57.6). However, to put those stats further in perspective, check out how they look next to the Lions pass defense this year:
Lions pass defense: 38-of-66 for 443 yards, 5 TDs, 0 INTs
Cardinals pass defense: 38-of-66 for 442 yards, 3 TDs, 0 INTs
Yep, almost identical.
One big difference between the two units, however, is that the Cardinals can generate a pass rush. They have seven sacks on the season (t-third), all from different players.
Matchup to watch: Cardinals LBs vs. Lions RBs/TEs. We all know what happened last year with T.J. Hockenson vs. this Cardinals defense. That turned out to be a seasonal problem for Arizona, and it’s unclear if those problems are fixed. They drafted Isaiah Simmons to help, but he was so bad in Week 1 that he only played in seven snaps in Week 2. Looks for Hockenson and D’Andre Swift to have big games on Sunday.
Advantage: Lions +2. I’m not buying into the Cardinals defense being good yet. They’ve faced two subpar quarterbacks with minimal weapons. This week, they get a franchise quarterback who finally has all of his weapons at his disposal. The Cardinals’ pass rush (see: Chandler Jones) is the ultimate equalizer here, but Detroit’s pass protections has been decent this year. I like this as a bounceback week for Stafford.
Lions run offense (27th/12th) vs. Cardinals run defense (6th/19th)
The Lions run offense is off to a good start this season. With help from Adrian Peterson and an offensive line that may finally be coming together, this is the one aspect of the 2020 Lions that has promise.
Detroit is 12th in yards per carry (4.5) and ninth in percentage of rushes that have earned first downs (30%). Peterson has also been the source of big rushing plays, with two on his own. To put that in perspective, 10 NFL teams don’t have a rush of 20+ yards this year.
It’s a bit hard to believe this Cardinals run defense was considered top 10 last year when you look at this woeful chart. They don’t seem particularly great this year, either, as they’ve allowed nearly 5.0 yards per carry in each game and over 100 yards in each.
Again, this appears to be on Arizona’s suspect linebacking corps. No starting off-ball linebacker has a PFF grade above 60, with De’Vondre Campbell and Jordan Hicks each tallying two missed tackles thus far this season.
Overall, the Cardinals have allowed 5.0 yards per carry (t-28th) and ceded first downs on 27.1 percent of rushes (19th). They haven’t given up a rush of over 20 yards yet, but that means they’re allowing a good chunk of yards every play. There is no outlier pulling the team’s averages down. However, they have only allowed a single rushing touchdown on the year.
Player to watch: DT Corey Peters vs. G Oday Aboushi. If there was one loose end to Detroit’s offensive line, it’s at left guard, where starter Joe Dahl has been placed on IR. Aboushi came in last week, and was easily the worst of the bunch. It’s unclear if he’ll start again this week or if Detroit will turn to someone like Kenny Wiggins or even rookie Logan Stenberg. Either way, they will be up against Arizona’s best run defender in Peters. He currently has the ninth-highest run defense grade among interior defenders.
Advantage: Lions +1.
Cardinals pass offense (22nd/24th) vs. Lions pass defense (28th/24th)
I hope you enjoyed the first half of On Paper, because you aren’t going to like this part as much, I promise.
Kyler Murray has wowed many this year with plays made from his mobility. But when it comes to his ability to pass the ball, he is still very much a work in progress. Granted, he’s gone against some tough secondaries, but he’s still a little prone to rookie mistakes and taking an unnecessary negative play or two. Despite his impressive arsenal of receiving weapons, his statline remains somewhat pedestrian.
- 6.6 yards per attempt (25th)
- 83.1 passer rating: (25th)
- 66.7 completion percentage (17th)
He’s thrown just two touchdowns to two interceptions and has taken five sacks already. But if you thought he’d need time to develop a chemistry with DeAndre Hopkins, you were mistaken. He’s already seen a league-high 25 targets in two games and has turned them into 22 catches for 219 yards and a touchdown.
The Lions pass defense seems to have picked up where it left off last year—which is to say, it’s been bad. Aaron Rodgers and Mitchell Trubisky had no issues carving up the Lions’ secondary—especially with Detroit’s lack of a pass rush. The damage almost certainly would’ve been worse had Trubisky been more accurate in the first three quarters and if Rodgers hadn’t dealt with the most dropped passes in Week 2.
Overall, the rankings only tell part of the story. Detroit is 24th in passer rating allowed (105.7), 17th in yards per attempt allowed (7.3) and second—yes, secon—in completion percentage allowed (57.6).
But Detroit’s pass defense has not made any disruption plays this year. They have only two sacks on the year (t-30th) and zero interceptions.
Player to watch: DeAndre Hopkins on whoever. It’s unclear if Desmond Trufant will play this week, so it could be him, it could be rookie Jeff Okudah on Nuk this week. Either way, they’re going to have their hands full. Hopkins is responsible for 32 percent of Murray’s targets, 42.4 percent of the team’s receiving yards and half of their touchdowns.
Advantage: Cardinals +2. I don’t have much faith in Detroit’s ability to rush the passer, but Murray is still working things out as a passer. Unfortunately for the Lions, I don’t have much faith in their ability to cover, either. Seeing as Mitchell Trubisky was able to eventually tear this defense apart with lesser weapons, it feels like it’s only a matter of time before Murray does, too.
Cardinals run offense (2nd/10th) vs. Lions run defense (16th/32nd)
The Cardinals rushing attack was good last year, and it may be even better in 2020—despite the small decrease in DVOA. They upgraded at running back by adding Kenyan Drake late last year, and they added by subtraction by sending David Johnson to Houston.
Of course, the huge factor here is Kyler Murray’s scrambling ability. All week, Lions players and coaches have remarked about how terrifying Murray is when he’s on the run, often comparing him to a punt returner.
“But his explosive speed is really – it’s quite exceptional,” Lions head coach Matt Patricia said this week. “It’s really along the lines of like a punt returner, someone who can just get the ball and get vertical right now. From that end of it, those are always really hard guys to duplicate in practice and certainly at game speed is very difficult.”
Currently, Murray leads the team in rushing yards (158), yards per attempt (7.5) and rushing touchdowns (30).
The Lions are the worst run defense in the league. There is no denying it.
- Last in run defense DVOA
- Last in rushing yards allowed (204.0 per game)
- Last in yards per carry (6.5—next closest is 5.6)
- Last in adjusted line yards (5.81)
Matchup to watch: Kyler Murray vs. Containment. If there’s one single thing the Lions defense has done consistently well under Matt Patricia, it’s contain mobile quarterbacks from running all over them. Murray had just 13 rushing yards against him last year. Mitchell Trubisky had a combined 12 yards in two games last year and only 26 in Week 1. Patrick Mahomes did have 54 on them last year, but nearly half of that came on one play late in the game.
Murray is a different beast, and Arizona is finally leaning into that more this year, so this will stress the defense more than ever.
Advantage: Cardinals +4. My only hesitation in giving Arizona a maximum +5 advantage here is because the sample size is so low this early in the year. Arizona is absolutely lethal on the ground thus far in 2020, and I won’t trust this Lions defense until they give me a single reason to. Even if Detroit manages to corral Murray, I think Kenyan Drake will run all over this team.
Last week’s prediction:
The Packers had a significant +2.5 advantage but I hedged my bet, thinking the Lions run game could stretch out the game and mitigate the damage. Through one quarter, they had done exactly that, but then the passing offense gave out, and the rest went to hell. My prediction of 24-20 Packers turned out to be way too optimistic. On Paper is now 1-1 overall, but 0-2 against the spread.
In the comment section, joseph.r.sweeney.5 nailed his depressing prediction of 41-23 Packers, just three collective points off the actual score.
Your prize, today, is via our old friend Dan Orlovsky. The former Lions quarterback drew a lot of Twitter attention this week for his... let’s call it “interesting” take on spices and seasonings for food:
Orlovsky, the savvy businessman that he is, has already jumped on the opportunity by producing his new line of seasonings, and you get the first batch, Joseph!
This week’s prediction:
The Cardinals come out with a +3 advantage, almost all stemming from their running attack. This has all the makings of a shootout, and while the Lions may try to do what they did in the first quarter against the Packers, they’d be foolish not to be more aggressive on offense to keep up with Murray’s attack.
I do believe this game has the potential to be closer than some are imagining. After all, the Lions do have the advantage in half of the matchups here. But until I see a single sign of life from this defense, Detroit will remain vulnerable to another Packers-like blowout, especially against a team with so many offensive weapons. Lions 24, Cardinals 38.