Top storylines for Cardinals vs. Lions: O-line, Air Raid debut, WR rotation
Arizona Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury has been polite Bill Belichick this offseason.
In the nicest ways possible, he’s decided against sharing things with reporters. It quickly became apparent that was because he wants all the competitive advantages that being an NFL newcomer afforded him.
The covers come off the offense Sunday at 1:25 p.m. against the Detroit Lions, which will air on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.
The Cardinals will debut Kingsbury’s pro version of his Air Raid-style scheme, and the 16-game regular season journey will begin for a head coach with only college experience, a rookie behind center and youngsters being relied upon on the defensive side of the ball.
More than four storylines will dominate Arizona’s matchup against Detroit. But here are the ones most under the spotlight heading into the Cardinals’ 2019 opener.
Debut for a true Air Raid disciple
Why would an offense never been used before in the NFL succeed there? That was the question posed by a reporter to Kingsbury this week.
“Because it’s never been used before in the NFL,” the head coach responded. “I know (former Eagles and 49ers coach Chip Kelly) did a version of what he does. There’s only one way to find out. Nobody knows what we’re going to do or what it’s going to look like.”
Kingsbury didn’t mean that in an arrogant way.
He knows the concepts of the Air Raid offense have permeated throughout the NFL — winning teams like the New England Patriots, Los Angeles Rams and Kansas City Chiefs use elements of it. Kingsbury realizes, though, that he’s the first direct descendant from the Air Raid coaching tree that began with former Iowa Wesleyan coaches Hal Mumme and Mike Leach, whose offenses were part of a revolution in the high school and college ranks over the past decade-plus.
“As you talk about the Air Raid Air Raid or somebody from that tree coming to NFL and installing that offense, yeah, I guess it’s the first time that’s happened, but those concepts are all over the NFL,” Kingsbury said. “It’s just that I’m a guy from an Air Raid background if you will.”
Down on O-line against beefy Lions front
Right tackle Marcus Gilbert played only five games in 2018 with the Pittsburgh Steelers due to a knee injury, and he’s already about to miss another Sunday, his first with Arizona.
The veteran injured his knee Thursday, Kingsbury said, and the team ruled him and rookie guard/center Lamont Gaillard out against the Lions.
Kingsbury wouldn’t say whether the team needed an MRI on Gilbert and didn’t give a hint as to whom might replace him.
Backup guard/center Mason Cole said he would give it a go if asked to play right tackle. Physically, he might be behind, but mentally he is likely plenty capable.
Starting left guard Justin Pugh played his first two years as a right tackle for the New York Giants and could be another option, allowing Cole to slide in his regular role.
Or the Cardinals could roll with rookie seventh-round pick Josh Miles, or Justin Murray or Toth — they have only a week of preparation. Toth graduated two years ago from Army but didn’t play football last year. Murray has only two games of experience.
“I think picking up (Justin) Murray and (Brett) Toth, two guys we targeted and brought them in, they’ve picked it up quick,” Kingsbury said of the waiver-wire additions. “You know, if Marcus isn’t able to go, we’ll shuffle some bodies around, but we feel good about where we’re at there.”
Whichever replacement is in, Arizona faces a big task against a Lions from that includes 350-pound tackle Damon “Snacks” Harrison, 330-pound A’Shawn Robinson and ends Trey Flowers and Romeo Okwara, who each had 7.5 sacks last year.
“They got big boys across the front,” Cardinals center A.Q. Shipley said. “They got a lot of beef up front, they have a lot of talent up front.”
Personnel groupings and WR rotation
Finally, we get to find out how the Cardinals use their personnel.
Training camp’s open practices showed the intricacies of Kingsbury’s offense that stayed off the field in the preseason games, but it’s still hard to judge how often they will use certain personnel groupings.
If the 53-man roster said anything, it’s that receivers will be shuffled in and out quite a bit.
Four-receiver sets with one back and no tight ends (10 personnel) could be used often.
Expect Christian Kirk and Larry Fitzgerald to get their snaps. After that, there is mystery.
Will veteran Michael Crabtree, a late offseason addition, see the field often?
Who else does Kingsbury trust? KeeSean Johnson stood out over his rookie counterparts, Trent Sherfield was one of the most consistent players in camp, while Damiere Byrd quietly fought his way onto the roster.
Arizona general manager Steve Keim spoke highly of Byrd progression over the last two Friday’s while joining Doug & Wolf for his weekly radio appearance on 98.7 FM.
“It’s been a long process,” Byrd said Friday. “Learning to be critical of everything out there I’m doing, every route, learning to break down each route into a different segment and then being able to piece all of those together to look like a finished product.
“I think I’m more consistent. I think now I’m lining up with a plan and a decision pre-made and not reacting off the defense. I’m able to dictate the tempo.”
A tall test for the corners
Arizona carries four cornerbacks into the Lions game. Only one, 31-year-old Tramaine Brock Sr., has extended NFL experience.
Brock, rookie Byron Murphy and second-year pro Chris Jones will all play in nickel packages, and they face an athletically talented set of receivers in Week 1.
Kenny Golladay might be the biggest challenge. The 1,063-yard receiver from last year stands 6-foot-4 and weighs 214 pounds.
Detroit also features the 6-foot-2 Marvin Jones Jr., who tallied 508 receiving yards in 2018, and Danny Amendola, the Texas Tech product and shifty slot receiver who had 575 yards receiving for the Miami Dolphins a year ago.