The 2013 season began much the same way the 2012 season ended for the Arizona Cardinals.
With a loss.
But while Bruce Arians’ squad blew an 11-point lead in the fourth quarter of its contest with NFC West foe St. Louis last weekend, there were plenty of positives to take away from the 27-24 loss.
For the first time since 2009, Arizona has a competent quarterback, as Carson Palmer threw for 327 yards and two touchdowns.
The receiving corps, despite its lack of depth, has the potential to be very dynamic with Andre Roberts and Michael Floyd coming into their own behind All-Pro Larry Fitzgerald.
And although they didn’t sack Sam Bradford, the Cardinals’ defense certainly was opportunistic, forcing two turnovers, one of which turned into a pick-six by defensive tackle Dan Williams.
With that said, Arizona comes into Sunday’s home opener with an 0-1 record and gets no favors having to face a much-improved Detroit Lions.
Jim Schwartz and Co. arrive Glendale fresh off a 34-24 win over the Minnesota Vikings and with a new-look offensive line and an added multidimensional threat in running back Reggie Bush, the Lions will give the Redbirds all they can handle.
Keys for the Cardinals offense:
1. Prevent the interior rush: Here’s looking at you Paul Fanaika and Daryn Colledge.
In Week 1, Levi Brown could not contain Rams defensive end Robert Quinn and it cost the Cardinals on multiple occasions.
Sunday, the onus will fall on the team’s two starting guards — Fanaika and Colledge — to protect Carson Palmer. The Lions’ pass rush is even more potent than the one Arizona faced last weekend, however its strength comes from the interior rather than the edge.
Fanaika, who is making just his second career start against Detroit, called the chance to go up against defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley a “barometer test.” If he doesn’t pass, it could be an extremely long afternoon for quarterback Carson Palmer.
2. Feed Mendenhall: In their 38-10 win over the Lions in Week 15 of last season, the Cardinals managed to score 38 points without a passing touchdown. Beanie Wells scored three times against Detrot’s run defense, and those same opportunities should be there for Rashard Mendenhall. He might not break off a 78-yard touchdown run like Adrian Peterson did at Ford Field last Sunday, but the former 1,000-yard rusher needs to get more carries than the 16 he had in Week 1.
3. Take focus off of Fitz: Larry Fitzgerald is listed as questionable for Sunday’s contest, but even if he does play the onus will be on the rest of the receiving corps and tight ends D.C. Jefferson and Jim Dray to carry more of the load in the passing game. Christian Ponder might not have tested the Detroit secondary that much, but Palmer will. In order to do so, though, he needs options down the field.
Noteworthy stat: Palmer’s 71.3 completion percentage against the Lions is the former Heisman trophy winner’s highest against any NFL team.
Keys for the Detroit offense:
1. Quiet the crowd:
The Lions have lost six straight on the road against the Cardinals, dating back 23 years.
In addition to that winless streak, they’ll be contending with a raucous University of Phoenix Stadium crowd given that it’s Arizona’s home opener.
A series of big plays or a long drive right off the bat could go a long way towards neutralizing those factors.
2. Keep Karlos in space: In the Cardinals’ three-point loss to the Rams, inside linebacker Karlos Dansby had eight tackles and a pass deflection. On the flip side, he had a lot of trouble staying with tight end Jared Cook (141 receiving yards and two touchdowns) in the open field. Detroit would be wise to test the 31-year-old, using Joseph Fauria and Brandon Pettigrew as complementary pieces in the passing game alongside Calvin Johnson and Reggie Bush.
3. Be big and ugly: Quarterback Matthew Stafford was sacked twice and hit eight times in last season’s 28-point blowout loss to the Cardinals. There’s no question the former No. 1 overall pick has plenty of capable weapons around him but that won’t matter much if he’s not given the necessary time to throw.
In Week 1, the Lions’ new-look offensive line — left tackle Riley Reiff, right tackle Jason Fox and right guard Larry Watford — kept Stafford upright for all 60 minutes. While Fox has been ruled out Sunday’s game, there’s no reason to think they can’t duplicate their protection success.
Noteworthy stat: In the Week 15 loss, Matthew Stafford threw more touchdowns to Arizona defensive backs (2) than to Detroit receivers (0).
Keys for the Arizona defense:
1. Tackle: Todd Bowles’ unit did a pretty decent job neutralizing the speed of Tavon Austin and Chris Givens in St. Louis. However, tackling was not at a premium. On multiple occasions — whether it was Jared Cook, Daryl Richardson, Brian Quick or Lance Kendricks — Arizona’s linebacking corps and secondary struggled to limit yards after the catch and it lead to extended drives and eventual scoring plays.
If that trend continues Sunday, Reggie Bush (191 total yards and a touchdown in Week 1) will have a field day. It’s as simple as that.
2. Be great: Patrick Peterson is one of the most-talented athletes in the NFL these days but is the third-year pro also one of the most-talented cornerbacks in the league? Sunday’s matchup with Detroit wide receiver Calvin Johnson could go a long way towards providing some clarity to that ongoing question. Last season, Peterson did record an interception against the Lions, however Johnson also had a big day with 10 catches for 121 yards receiving.
It might not be easy to limit the three-time Pro Bowler’s touches, but if Peterson wants to be great, he has to find a way to limit the Megatron’s receptions Sunday.
3. Sack Stafford: Sam Bradford looked like his old Heisman self in Week 1, because he had virtually all day to pass. Bowles’ scheme was supposed to afford Calais Campbell, Darnell Dockett and John Abraham more opportunities to get up the field in passing situations, but that never materialized against the Rams.
Abraham and Campbell vowed things will be different Sunday, and it better be if the Cardinals want to see the win column. If not, Stafford won’t be shy about throwing for 300-400 yards.
Noteworthy stat: Matthew Stafford has thrown a touchdown against every NFC team except for the Arizona Cardinals.
Keys for the Detroit defense:
1. Look for Levi: There’s no easy way to put this, but defensive ends around the NFL probably licking their chops right now if the Arizona Cardinals are on their 2013 schedule.
The attention Sunday will be on Fairley and Suh, but rookie Ezekial Ansah may be a key for Detroit. He’s still very much a raw product out of BYU, but the No. 5 overall pick is a bad matchup off the edge for Levi Brown. Whereas Quinn dominated Brown with speed and sheer strength last Sunday, Ansah’s advantage against the Cardinals left tackle might simply come from his freakish athleticism.
2. Be smart: Suh’s low hit on Vikings offensive lineman John Sullivan didn’t just cost the embattled defensive tackle $100,000 this past week. The dirty play also nullified an interception return for a touchdown by teammate DeAndre Levy.
In spite of its 10-point win, Detroit’s defense committed five penalties against Minnesota to go along with two others committed by the special teams unit.
That won’t cut it over the course of a season, so the Lions would be wise to buck that trend starting Sunday.
3. Avoid giving up the big play: Peterson’s 78-yard touchdown run made the highlight reels following the conclusion of Week 1, but it wasn’t the only chunk play the Lions gave up. In addition to the reigning NFL MVP’s long score, Detroit allowed pass plays of 20, 21 and 47 yards respectively to the Vikings.
With the notable trio of receivers the Cardinals will likely line up Sunday, if that number isn’t reduced, the Valley losing streak could easily be pushed to seven straight games for the Lions.
Noteworthy Stat: The Lions have allowed 30 or more points in each of their last three games at University of Phoenix Stadium.