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Arizona vs. Detroit: Cardinals’ secondary prepares for potent Lions passing attack

TEMPE, Ariz. — The Detroit Lions will come into Arizona Sunday with the NFC’s leader in receptions and yards.

They will also be bringing Calvin Johnson.

Between Johnson, who is aptly nicknamed “Megatron,” and Golden Tate, who has 909 yards on 66 receptions this season, the Lions boast one of the most dynamic and dangerous receiver duos in the NFL.

Fortunately for the Cardinals, they have an equally dynamic and dangerous defensive backfield, one that head coach Bruce Arians described as “solid” and “a strength of our defense.”

The group, which consists mainly of cornerbacks Patrick Peterson, Antonio Cromartie and Jerraud Powers along with safeties Rashad Johnson, Tyrann Mathieu, Deone Bucannon and Tony Jefferson is the backbone of Arizona’s defense, with its versatility allowing defensive coordinator Todd Bowles to mix and match as he sees fit.

On the season, Arizona leads the NFL with 14 interceptions, 11 of which have come from members of the secondary.

And in last Sunday’s win over the St. Louis Rams, the secondary came up big to the tune of three interceptions, one fumble recovery and two touchdowns, with Peterson and Cromartie doing the damage.

“Guys are stepping up. Coach always says our five-star players are playing like five stars, and that’s what we need,” Jefferson said. “(Quarterback Carson Palmer) went down so it’s just going to be another opportunity for us to excel and come together and take the next step.”

“I think we’ve still got some growing to do, but it’s good that we’re starting to find that stretch and starting to gel during the second half of the season rather than gelling too early,” Powers added. “I think guys are starting to come around. Cro is having a great stretch of games; Patrick is having a great stretch of games.

“Everybody in the secondary really is starting to play well, starting to compete for the ball with each other trying to get as many turnovers as we can, so I think it’s good that we’re all gelling around the same time during a crucial stretch of the season.”

While Arizona ranks 27th in the NFL against the pass, that number is less of a reflection on the secondary than it is the pass rush, or lack thereof. Arizona’s 14 sacks are tied for 27th in the NFL. The run defense, which is the league’s third-best, is buoyed by how often the team’s safeties are up in the box in run support. They can do that in large part because of the cornerbacks.

According to ProFootballFocus.com, Cromartie has been the fourth-best corner in the league, Powers the 38th-best and Peterson 72nd. However, Peterson has played very well of late, and his resurgence is a big reason why the secondary has seemed to reach a new level.

“At the end of the day, you could say what you want to say, but I believe — and you can ask guys as well — I believe the secondary goes as I go because I have those responsibilities of guarding the team’s No. 1 receiver,” Peterson said. “So if I shut those guys out we have a pretty good opportunity of coming out, as a secondary, having a successful day.

“But if I don’t play well it’s going to be pretty tough for us to be successful as a unit.”

That’s probably true, and the theory is going to get an excellent test Sunday against the Lions.

Because while Tate is playing well and has the statistics, you quite simply don’t stop Johnson. He stands in at 6-foot-5 and 236 pounds, and he’s been clocked at 4.35 seconds in the 40-yard dash. A matchup nightmare if there ever was one, he’s likely to be matched up with Peterson for much of the afternoon.

Last season against Peterson and the Cardinals, Johnson caught six passes for 116 yards and two touchdowns, one of which went for 72 yards.

The season before, in 2012, Johnson caught 10 passes for 121 yards against the Cardinals.

“The way he goes after the ball is very different,” Peterson said of Johnson. “How big he is is just unreal to be playing receiver running that fast and doing some of the things that he does. It’s unreal.

“He’s a great athlete; I believe I’m a great athlete. It’s going to be a battle of the best at their position and I can’t wait for it to happen. We’re going to give the fans a great show and I hope they’ve got their popcorn ready.”

Indeed, this is setting up to be a doozy. On one side you have the Cardinals’ secondary, and on the other you have a passing attack that can be one of the league’s best.

“You definitely look forward to a matchup like this,” Rashad Johnson said. “They’ve got great weapons; they’re going to throw the ball, we know that they’re going to throw the ball, so it makes it a lot of fun for us. It means we’re going to go out, we’re going to get a lot of action. An opportunity to get our hands on a lot of balls as well.

“So we’re excited about that aspect. We’ve been coming along as late and everybody is getting their hands on the ball, making interceptions and making plays. So I can only just think that that’s going to continue and transition into this game as well.”

Things to Watch For

– One of the Cardinals’ primary concerns with regards to Detroit’s passing game is how they will fare when QB Matthew Stafford scrambles out of the pocket.

“I think that’s where a lot of teams get in trouble,” Jefferson said. “Once they start scrambling guys start looking back at the quarterback. Especially with these guys, you’ve got to keep your eyes on your man because Stafford can throw it wherever he wants to throw it, however far it is.”

– If he totals at least eight receiving yards Sunday, Cardinals WR Larry Fitzgerald would become the second-youngest player in NFL history, at 31 years and 77 days, to reach 12,000 career receiving yards. He would trail only Randy Moss, who reached the milestone at 30 years and 306 days.

– All three of Drew Stanton’s touchdown passes this season have gone to rookie wide receiver John Brown.

– Sticking with Stanton, much has been made of his willingness to slide and avoid big hits. Keeping him healthy is of the utmost importance, and while running is part of his game, look for him to be a bit more judicious and careful on the field.

– Stanton will make his first start as “the guy,” and it just so happens to come against one of his former teams. In fact, prior to this season, Stanton’s last NFL pass had come in a 23-20 win for the Lions over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2010. He completed 23-of-37 passes that day for 252 yards with one touchdown.

– Like the Cardinals, Detroit has made a habit of coming back late in games to pull out victories, having done so in each of their last three wins.

“They’re playing extremely the same way we are,” Arians said. “It’s almost a mirror copy. They’re finding a way to win it at the end. So it should be a heck of a ballgame.”

– Lions running back Reggie Bush is listed as “questionable” for the game. Incidentally, he exited last year’s matchup between the teams with an injury.

– The Cardinals have won the last five meetings between the team, four of which have been in Arizona.

– The interior of the Cardinals’ offensive line has come under fire recently, especially after the Cardinals mustered just 28 yards on 22 rushing attempts last week against a very stout Rams defense. Things do not get any easier this week, as the Lions feature one of the best defensive lines in the game. However, the Cardinals do catch a break, as defensive tackle Nick Fairley is out with a knee injury.

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