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NFL Week 15 preview: Lions vs. Cardinals On Paper prediction

Our Week 15 preview statistically break down the NFC matchup between the Arizona Cardinals and Detroit Lions.

Detroit Lions v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The Detroit Lions are looking to bounce back this week after a tough, blowout loss to the Denver Broncos. Hopes were that they’d be healthier now, after battling the flu and COVID last week. Unfortunately for Detroit, they’ve only been adding more players to the reserve/COVID-19 list this week, and now they may be even more shorthanded than last week, particularly in the secondary.

That’s not exactly good news with the Arizona Cardinals and MVP candidate Kyler Murray coming to town. But we’ve seen the Lions hang with some tough opponents this year. They took the Baltimore Ravens to the wire. They were in control against the Green Bay Packers through 2.5 quarters. Heck, they nearly took down the Rams in Los Angeles.

So can our scrapping Lions challenge one of the best teams in the NFL this week? Let’s take a closer look at Lions vs. Cardinals: On Paper.

Lions pass offense (30th) vs. Cardinals pass defense (4th)

The Lions’ yardage is back up after some ugly performances against the Steelers and Browns, but their efficiency is still bad. Jared Goff looks more comfortable with his receiving corps than ever, but he’s still prone to back-breaking mistakes that have caused too many drives to stall or completely flip in the opponent’s favor.

The Lions are now 30th in points scored per drive (1.55) and have been particularly horrible in the red zone. They rank 31st in points per red zone trip, averaging just 4.32 point. The league average is 4.98.

But, hey, Amon-Ra St. Brown has 18 catches for 159 yards and one touchdown in the past two games, and Josh Reynolds has seven catches for 121 yards over the same span.

The Cardinals’ pass defense has been pretty solid all year. They’ve allowed a passer rating above 90 in just five of 13 games this year, and there hasn’t been a single quarterback who has eclipsed 300 net passing yards against this defense. In fact, nearly half (6 of 13) have been held below 200.

Overall, they’re allowing just 6.6 yards per pass attempt (fourth) and a passer rating of 87.1 (10th). They can get after the quarterback with 35 sacks on the season (t-sixth) and they’ve got some ballhawks, too. The Cardinals are t-13th in interceptions (12).

Player to watch: Penei Sewell vs. Markus Golden. There aren’t a lot of strength vs. strength in this game, but this is probably the one exception. Golden leads the Cardinals with 10.0 sacks this season, while Sewell has been one of the best offensive tackles in football over the past month. If there’s one thing Sewell can improve upon, it’s his pass protection, so this is a nice test for him.

Advantage: Cardinals +2. The Lions pass offense is improving, but it still has a long ways to go. With T.J. Hockenson out of the rest of the year, Goff’s job is only getting harder. That being said, the Lions can neutralize Arizona’s pass rush, so the pressure will be on Goff to take advantage of that. Consider me skeptical.

Lions run offense (23rd) vs. Cardinals run defense (12th)

The Lions’ running game remains somewhat efficient, despite all of the injuries along the offensive line and backfield. It continues to look like the Lions will be without D’Andre Swift and Jamaal Williams this week (unless the updated COVID policy clears Williams soon). And while the Lions are expected to get backup center Evan Brown back this week, things are not looking good for left guard Jonah Jackson’s availability.

Still, Detroit seems genuinely happy with their running back depth as Godwin Igwebuike, Craig Reynolds and rookie seventh-round pick Jermar Jefferson have all shined in limited opportunities.

Overall, the Lions rank eighth in yards per carry (4.6) and are earning first downs on 26 percent of carries (11th). Where they really need improvement, however, is in short yardage situations. The Lions rank 15th in power success rate, converting on third and fourth and short just 66 percent of the time.

Early in the season, the Cardinals were absolutely awful in run defense—but they kept winning anyways. Lately, they’ve been much better in stopping the run, but in each of their three losses, the opponent outgained their season average yards per carry.

For the season, the Cardinals are allowing 4.7 yards per carry, which is 31st in the league. However, as you can tell from the chart above, they haven’t allowed 4.7 yards per carry in an entire game since Week 5 vs. the 49ers. So while they’ve still only held four teams below 4.0 yards per carry in a game, it’s clear they’re better than they were earlier in the year.

Player to watch: Whoever is playing left guard? Tommy Kraemer? It’s not entirely clear who would step in if Jackson can’t play this week, but Kraemer stepped in at right guard earlier in the year. Kraemer is really the only healthy option on the roster outside of third-string center Ryan McCollum, though Detroit could promote Parker Ehinger from the practice squad. Ehinger has six career starts in his five-year career.

Advantage: Lions +1. I think the Lions will be able to control the line of scrimmage when it comes to the run game this week. The issue that could limit Detroit’s effectiveness on the ground is simply the game score. The Cardinals score a lot of points, and so if this one slips away from the Lions early, they may have to abandon the only thing they’re doing consistently well.

Cardinals pass offense (5th) vs. Lions pass defense (30th)

*games started by Colt McCoy

Kyler Murray is good. His receiving corps—even without DeAndre Hopkins—is good. Their offensive line... well, it’s not very good, but Detroit doesn’t exactly have a roster that can counter it.

Perhaps most telling, too, is the scheme is good. If Colt McCoy can come in, go 2-1, and put up two pretty fantastic statistical games, then your whole system is running pretty darn smoothly.

If you’re somehow not convinced yet, here are some eye-popping stats. Second in yards per attempt (8.4), first in completion percentage (72.4), third in passer rating (105.0). Much of their passing yardage is gained through yards after the catch. The Cardinals rank ninth in total team YAC and eighth in YAC per reception.

The Lions are so far down in their depth chart at cornerback and safety that I literally have no idea who will be starting opposite Amani Oruwariye at outside cornerback. They’ve lost Jeff Okudah and Jerry Jacobs for the season. Currently, cornerbacks Ifeatu Melifonwu, Bobby Price, Mark Gilbert, Nickell Robey-Coleman and Corey Ballentine are all on the reserve/COVID-19 list. While it’s possible one or more come off the list with the new protocol, currently it’s newly-added Saivion Smith in line to play. Smith was literally added via waivers this week and has only played in seven career games.

So that’s the scenario this week for a pass defense that already ranked near the bottom of the league in most categories. The Lions are 31st in yards per attempt allowed (8.2), 28th in passer rating allowed (101.1), and 31st in sacks (20th).

Good luck, boys.

Player to watch: Christian Kirk. The Lions have had trouble defending slot receivers this year, and although AJ Parker looks like he’ll be back this week, Kirk presents a pretty big mismatch. He currently leads the Cardinals with 53 catches and 718 yards.

Advantage: Cardinals +4. Aaron Glenn, if you even slow down Kyler Murray in this game, you deserve the Jaguars job ASAP. Wait, no. Nobody deserves that job. But you definitely deserve a promotion.

Cardinals run offense (26th) vs. Lions run defense (29th)

Arizona doesn’t run the ball all that efficiently, but things could change this week. James Conner is not a great every-down back, as he’s been used over the past four weeks. However, he is tough to bring down and he’s nearly unstoppable by the goal line. His 14 rushing touchdowns currently second most in the league.

But he’s only averaging 3.7 yards per carry. Chase Edmonds, however, is averaging 5.7 yards per carry, and he has returned to practice from IR. It’s unclear yet whether he’ll be activated for Sunday, but if he is, he brings an entirely new element to their running game (and passing game, for what it’s worth).

Overall, it’s still just an average-to-below-average running game, especially with the Cardinals toning down Kyler Murray as a runner.

I’m done trying to figure out this darn run defense. One week, it looks like they’ve finally turned a corner and figured it out. The next week, they’re ceding over 180 rushing yards and look like they can’t tackle a traffic cone.

Let’s just call them inconsistent and be done with it. But, hey, they may get Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Alex Anzalone back this week, so maybe this is a “good” week?

Player to watch: Levi Onwuzurike. At this point in the season, you should pretty much just be watching the rookies anyways. But Onwuzurike has been a slight disappointment so far for his rookie season. He struggled a lot last week, so it should be interesting to see how he bounces back.

Advantage: Cardinals +1. My biggest concern in this matchup is the Lions’ edge defenders. It looks like they’ll be shorthanded again this week, and if they don’t stay disciplined in their rushing lanes, Murray will make them pay. He could be just as dangerous with his feet this week as he is with his arm.

Last week’s prediction

I feel pretty darn good about last week’s 30-13 Broncos prediction that turned out to be a bit optimistic compared to the 38-10 final score. I don’t feel like any of the matchup results were all that surprising, so I’m not making any real adjustments, other than maybe thinking more highly of the run game without the likes of D’Andre Swift and Jamaal Williams.

In the comment section, we had a couple of score predictions that were actually quite close to the final. But none were closer than ATL Lion, whose winning prediction of 35-9 came a few weeks too early, as the Lions take on the Falcons next week. Anyways, here’s your prize, ATL Lion. Since you’re (presumably) from Atlanta, I’m giving you a Falcons-related prize. Here’s a brand-new Kyle Pitts jersey that I definitely didn’t yoink from a co-worker.

This week’s prediction

The Cardinals come out with a +6 advantage, and the worst part about it for the Lions is that if Arizona capitalizes on some of these mismatches, it will render the Lions’ one hope—the running game—useless. The only way this works for the Lions this week is if the running game is humming and they’re keeping Kyler Murray off the field.

That would require Detroit to run the ball successfully for all four quarters, which is something we haven’t seen this season. I think the Cardinals run away with this one. 38-14 Cardinals.

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