TEMPE, Ariz. — It hasn’t generated the same number of keystrokes or level of hype as the highly anticipated one-on-one matchup between two of the league’s elite players — cornerback Patrick Peterson and wide receiver Calvin Johnson — but the showdown between the Arizona Cardinals’ pass rush and the Detroit Lions’ new-look offensive line could have a pivotal role in deciding the final outcome at University of Phoenix Stadium Sunday.
“I think every game is decided up front and in the trenches,” Cardinals defensive end Calais Campbell said. “Offensive line against the defensive line, whoever wins that battle consistently wins the game.”
That was certainly the case in Arizona’s 38-10 blowout win over Detroit in Week 15 of last season.
The Cardinals defensive unit dominated the line of scrimmage en route to an absolute mauling of starting quarterback Matthew Stafford. On the afternoon, the former No. 1 overall pick completed less than 50 percent of his passes (24-for-50), threw two pick-sixes and was sacked or hit 10 different times.
“I think it was more one of those things where we did what we wanted to do with them,” said Campbell, who had eight tackles — four tackles for a loss — and a sack in the 28-point win. “It wasn’t like they were just bad. We just had a good day on defense that day and took it upon ourselves to play great.”
But that was then, and this is now.
Heading into their Week 2 matchup against the Cardinals, the Lions’ front five barely resembles the beleaguered corps that got manhandled the last time the two teams met in Glendale.
This offseason, Riley Reiff replaced Jeff Backus — who retired in March 2013 — at left tackle. Jason Fox (ruled out for Sunday’s game) took over for Gosder Cherilus — who departed for Indianapolis in free agency — at right tackle. And third-round pick Larry Warford beat out veteran Dylan Gandy for the starting right guard position in camp.
Although the recently assembled line has just a single regular season game under its belt, the results were rather instantaneous in the team’s home opener last Sunday.
In a 34-24 victory over the Minnesota Vikings, Detroit’s offensive line kept Stafford upright (no sacks and three total quarterback hits) against the likes of Jared Allen, Brian Robison and Everson Griffen. In turn, with plenty of time and space to throw in the pocket, the former Georgia standout had a huge day, to the tune of 357 yards passing and two touchdowns.
“I think they are solid,” Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians said of the Lions’ offensive line. “I think they’re more than capable. Riley Reiff is a good left tackle and it always starts there. (Dominic) Raiola has been a good player for a long time. I think they’re tough and good.”
That’s not necessarily positive news for the Cardinals.
Arizona underwent its own fair share of changes on the other side of the ball this offseason, starting with a philosophical shift under new defensive coordinator Todd Bowles.
In theory, Bowles’ 3-4 scheme — although not all that different from the one previously put in place by Ray Horton — was supposed to create more playmaking opportunities for linemen like Campbell and Darnell Dockett. However, that was far from the case in the team’s Week 1 loss in St. Louis, as Arizona’s defense failed to record a single sack on Rams quarterback Sam Bradford.
“(The lack of a pass rush) was just a product of Bradford getting the ball out of his hands fast,” said Campbell. “It was also the product of it being our first game and just trying to get a feel for each other.”
That feeling out process might not be such a simple task for Campbell and the line in the early portion of 2013. Another change the Cardinals are still learning to adjust to is the vacancy left by Pro Bowl inside linebacker Daryl Washington, who is currently serving a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy.
Without Washington’s presence in passing situations — he recorded seven tackles, two tackles for a loss and a quarterback hit against Detroit in 2012 — for another three contests, the onus largely falls on the NFL’s active sack leader, John Abraham, to pick up some of the slack.
“We have to get to the quarterback. It’s the same thing it is every week,” Abraham said when asked what the focus was for Sunday’s game. “We didn’t have many good opportunities to get a pass rush (against St. Louis) like we wanted to, but this week it’s definitely going to be there. So, we definitely have to show up.
“With me, Calais, Dockett and my linebacking crew, we’ve got to get there. Outside and inside linebackers, we have to get there.”
Historically, at least, the 14-year veteran has performed quite well against the Lions. In four career appearances, Abraham has a combined 12 tackles, four sacks and one tackle for a loss.