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Dealing Cards: Defending Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford

Arizona Cardinals outside linebacker Markus Golden (44) rushes Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford (9) during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Oct. 11, 2015, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

TEMPE, Ariz. – Two years ago, the Arizona Cardinals embarrassed Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, picking him off four times in a 42-17 win in Detroit.

The performance earned Stafford a seat on the bench after the fourth interception on the first series of the second half.

Since that benching, Stafford has improved dramatically. The numbers tell the story: 50 touchdowns, 15 interceptions and a completion percentage of 66.6 in 27 games.

Last month, Stafford put pen to paper on a NFL-record $135-million contract.

“He got benched that day and he got a 100-million dollars now, so he got a hell of a lot better,” head coach Bruce Arians said Friday, laughing. “Matt’s one of the better players in the league. That was just one of those games.”

Perhaps no one knows Stafford better in the Cardinals locker room than linebacker Josh Bynes.

Released by the Lions after three seasons, Bynes makes his return to Ford Field on Sunday anxious to turn the tables on Stafford.

“He’s just a really good quarterback. He knows where to put the ball. He can make every throw possible. He just fits everything. He takes those risks and those risks a lot of times are coming up with rewards,” Bynes said. “You don’t pay a quarterback that much money and not think that he’s one of the tops in the league and he really is, and we’re looking forward to the challenge.”

Defensive coordinator James Bettcher this week pointed to Stafford’s control of the offense and decision-making as the biggest differences he’s seen from Stafford in the two seasons since that Week 5 matchup in  2015.

The key to beating Stafford and the Lions is to 1) stop the run and 2) win first down, according to linebacker Karlos Dansby.

The Cardinals, Dansby said, want to put Stafford in obvious passing situations.

“We just got to be on our P’s and Q’s and make sure we able to get up on some of these routes and get some turnovers,” he said.

The Cardinals have had success in that department when facing Stafford. In four games against the 29-year-old quarterback, the Cardinals defense has forced seven interceptions to just two touchdowns allowed.

And should Dansby make it eight interceptions, he would vault himself into exclusive company. Just four players in league history have collected 40-plus career sacks and 20-plus career interceptions. Dansby is one pick shy of becoming the fifth.

“That’s the gameplan. Let’s get (history) out the way,” he said. “I caught about 30 balls (Wednesday) off the JUGS machine because I know he throws it kind of hard. Hopefully, I can get two or three of them and really get it out the way, get it all the way behind me and just continue to help us get to that next level as a defense.”

Bynes, too, would like nothing more than to pick off Stafford, maybe even get his hands on him.

“You can’t touch him in practice, but it’ll be good to finally get a touch on him on Sunday,” he said, with a big grin across his face.

Fresh legs

If nothing else, running back David Johnson should be fresh for Week 1. No Cardinal regular played fewer snaps in the preseason.

“If anybody plays well, it should be him,” offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin joked.

Appearing in three of the five games, Johnson was on the field for 11 total plays, rushing for 19 yards on six carries with one reception.

“I don’t think I have any rust. I feel great, I feel ready to go, I’m excited to go,” he said. “I’ve been antsy this whole camp, especially since it was a longer camp. I’ve been ready to get the pads on and ready to come out and play and get excited for this game.”

Wanted: A fast start

As the saying goes, a team can’t win a division in September but they can most certainly lose it. Case in point: The 2016 Cardinals, who dropped their opener and started 1-3 on their way to a 7-8-1 record, missing the playoffs for the first time in three years.

History cannot repeat itself, according to cornerback Patrick Peterson.

“This first month in the season can be huge for us because the first (two) games are on the road,” he said. “There’s a lot riding on this first month of the season but as Coach alluded to this morning, there’s no excuses. We have to be ready for whenever the ball is teed up and wherever we’re called to play. We have to be ready to play.”

Following their trip to Detroit, the Cardinals visit Indianapolis.

“We got to start fast and finish strong,” Dansby said. “That’s our mindset.”

Mike Iupati, Robert Nkemdiche game-time decisions

Only dollar linebacker Deone Bucannon (ankle) has been ruled out for Week 1. Guard Mike Iupati (tricep) and defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche (calf) are considered questionable. They each have been limited in practice with Nkemdiche missing all of Wednesday’s work.

“We’ll see how it goes,” Arians said.

Should Iupati not be able to go or need to be replaced once the game starts, Arians said John Wetzel, and not Alex Boone would be the next man up. Boone was signed only this week, while Wetzel is beginning his second full season with the Cardinals.

“He’s a starter in my mind,” Arians said. “I mean, we won a lot of games with him starting at almost every position (along the offensive line) so no question for him.”

For the Lions, they list defensive end Ziggy Ansah (knee), wide receiver Kenny Golladay (ankle) and tackle Corey Robinson (foot) as questionable. All three were, once again, limited on Friday. Meanwhile, guard T.J. Lang and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata did not practice, though it was not injury related.

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