Lions vs. Cardinals: 10 Keys to the Game for Detroit
The Detroit Lions need a win.
The playoffs are long gone, the days of the financially ruinous top 10 draft pick are in the past and contrary to some of the more reactionary voices in the media, head coach Jim Schwartz's job should be in no danger between now and the 2013 season.
In fact, both the Lions and the Arizona Cardinals are playing this game for no other reason than just to win. There is zero chance either of these teams are relevant by January.
So why do the Lions need to win? Simply to prove that they can.
The Lions have lost five straight this season after a 3-1 stretch that saw them climb to 4-4. The most meaning the Lions have in their remaining games is simply to play spoiler and help Calvin Johnson make history.
But this is a chance for guys to show up and make a case for sticking around in 2013, and ending the season on a high note can change the entire offseason storyline.
So while the game may not carry any playoff intrigue, it's still one worth playing and winning. Here are the 10 things the Lions have to do to make that happen.
Care About It
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This one is simple and requires little explanation.
Jim Schwartz is the target of a great deal of criticism for his team's backslide this season, but the fact is, his team is still battling every week, even with the playoff chase a memory and a winning record impossible.
Keeping a team motivated to play out the string is not an easy thing to do, especially in a game like this, where the opposing team isn't especially intriguing, the team is on the road and there are no postseason implications for either team.
It sounds like a small thing, but it's not. Last week, the Cardinals appeared to give up, and the Seattle Seahawks (who the Lions beat earlier this year) jumped out to a 58-0 victory. Now, bad looks worse in Arizona.
The Lions can't afford a letdown like that in Arizona if they want to give things another shot with this core.
Throw to Non-Calvin Receivers
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To say Calvin Johnson is an incredible football player is a gross understatement.
But the nature of the NFL dictates that one man cannot receive every pass his quarterback throws.
Somebody else has to do something. With Nate Burleson, Titus Young and Ryan Broyles all gone for the season, and even Brandon Pettigrew uncertain (per the Detroit Free Press), Matthew Stafford is running out of targets fast.
The Arizona Cardinals are currently fifth in the NFL in pass defense, but considering they've lost nine straight, it may be possible to attribute part of that to teams not needing to pass to beat them. It's worth noting, in that same vein of reasoning, that the Cardinals are 30th in rush defense.
Also, defending against the pass gets a lot easier when Russell Wilson is the best quarterback in your division.
The Lions will certainly want to run the ball and control the clock, but that's not how they became the top-ranked passing offense in the league. At this point, the Lions may as well play to their strengths and see if any of the receiving targets on the team (aside from the obvious one) are worth keeping around.
But Don't Trust Non-Calvin Receivers Too Much
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Last week, Stafford threw an ugly-looking interception to Sam Shields because newly-added receiver Kris Durham didn't run his route sharply enough.
Stafford tried to force the ball in to Durham a few times, but trusting your receivers to make a play is a much safer proposition when you actually trust the receivers.
Stafford and Durham may have played together in college, but here at this level, they're practically strangers. The only receiving targets Stafford has on the team that he has at least a year of rapport with are Calvin Johnson and Tony Scheffler.
And even Scheffler made some mistakes last week.
So while Stafford certainly can't afford to ignore his other receivers, the fact remains that Johnson is the only guy he should truly trust in the clutch.
Contain Patrick Peterson
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Does anybody remember what the difference was between the Lions starting 1-3 and 3-1 to start this season?
That's right: return touchdowns. The Cardinals lost a game two weeks ago in which they scored only six points.
The Lions have lost a game this season in which they only allowed six points—offensive points, anyway. But they gave up two return touchdowns to Percy Harvin and the Minnesota Vikings in their fourth game of the season and lost by seven.
The Cardinals offense is a mess, but that doesn't mean they can't win this game. The Lions just have to make sure they don't make things easy on the Cardinals by losing track of one of the most underrated return men (and overrated cornerbacks) in the game: Patrick Peterson
Give Larry Fitzgerald the Calvin Johnson Treatment
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I'm not saying Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson are quite on the same level.
If anybody is close to Johnson in terms of sheer talent, it's Fitzgerald, but even Fitz himself has (modestly) deferred to Johnson as the bigger talent.
That's a classy thing for one of the most modest, likeable superstar receivers in the game to say about a man with most of those same qualities.
And right now, Fitzgerald and Johnson are similar in more than their incredible talents and personable demeanors. They're also their respective teams' primary—and very nearly only—offensive weapons.
That means that whenever Fitzgerald or Johnson are on the field, they will be the opposing team's priority one, two, and three to stop.
Generally speaking, these guys should both get used to seeing two defenders (at least) on every play, and still to see the majority of their quarterbacks' targets.
Don't Let the Cardinals Find a Quarterback
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The Lions have had a bad habit this season of letting shaky quarterbacks get comfortable.
The only time they had an opportunity to truly rattle a quarterback, and did it successfully, was when they got in Blaine Gabbert's face in Jacksonville.
Granted, the Lions pass rush has been good and getting better in recent weeks, but it hasn't resulted in wins, or a major impact on opponents' passing games.
Jake Locker and Christian Ponder both had strong games (and wins) against the Lions, but neither has been particularly successful this season in general.
The unholy trinity of attempted quarterbacks masquerading at the position is, collectively, the worst quarterback the Lions have faced all season (yes, even worse than Gabbert). But even one of them could make something happen with time to throw, and Larry Fitzgerald as a target.
Luckily, the Cardinals field what is quite possibly the worst pass-protecting unit in the NFL, which should translate into not having time to throw. But the Lions have to complete that equation by putting in the work to get to Ryan Lindley, who was named the Cardinals' starter earlier this week.
All signs point to this being an ugly game for Lindley, but the Lions secondary isn't exactly a league-leading unit. If Lindley finds a comfort zone, this game could get needlessly difficult.
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It doesn't matter who the opponent is, trips out west are draining for teams east of the Mississippi River.
The jet lag for the Lions, who are coming off a tough, emotionally-draining Sunday night away game against the Packers, might be enough to put the Lions into the kind of listless play that has marked key moments of their losses.
This is the longest road trip the Lions have had to endure this year, and so the simplest preparation the Lions can take to be ready for this game is just to make sure they're rested, even if that means taking away from prep time.
In this game, energy might be even more important than crisp execution.
The Offensive Line Must Play Big
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With Brandon Pettigrew's status uncertain and three of the Lions' top four receivers out of the mix, Matthew Stafford is going to need all the legitimate targets he can get out running patterns.
That means Tony Scheffler is going to be out running patterns, not staying in blocking. (Scheffler isn't exactly a viable replacement for Pettigrew's blocking abilities, anyway.)
The running backs will be responsible for a certain amount of blocking as well, but the gameplan is ultimately going to revolve around giving Stafford an ample number of targets to throw to.
That means the Lions offensive line isn't going to get a whole lot of help with extra blockers. It's going to be expected to take on—and win—one-on-one battles.
That starts with making sure Calais Campbell's up-and-down season doesn't have an "up" chasing down Stafford all day.
Play Aggressive on Both Sides
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Funny thing about teams with losing records: They tend to be mistake-prone.
Last week, the Cardinals fumbled a punt into the end zone for a touchdown, and Matthew Stafford slipped a phantom pass over his back shoulder for a Packers touchdown. Both teams are 4-9, so that trend holds true here.
Aggressive play is ultimately a risk/reward proposition. It's effectively a gamble that your opponent is more likely to make a mistake than you are. So the Lions should go deep, blitz, jump routes and take other calculated risks throughout the game.
It might result in the Cardinals making a little more noise than they would normally, but it will also result in things like turnovers, sacks, defensive pressure, big plays and a disruption of the Cardinals' rhythm.
The Lions won a lot of games in 2011 playing with reckless abandon. In 2012, they've been more controlled, more restrained and the result has been less penalties and less wins.
Maybe it's time to see if the old style still works. I'm not advocating that the Lions play to take penalties, but there was something functional in playing on the edge of control last year. Maybe this is a chance to isolate what that is.
Go for the Record
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It may be cold comfort for a team that had playoff aspirations less than two months ago, but this is the only way the Lions are going to make this season anything other than forgettable.
Calvin Johnson needs 302 yards to break Jerry Rice's single-season record for receiving yards. He has three games to go, and he has been playing such dominant football that NBC gave Tramon Williams a game ball for "limiting" Johnson to 10 catches for 118 yards.
So if Johnson is "limited" to the same output over the next three games, he'll be "limited" to perhaps the greatest season for a wide receiver in NFL history.
This isn't a fluke season for Johnson, who has existed squarely in the "elite" category of receivers for at least the last three seasons. He is a humble, team-first player who would almost certainly trade his own personal glory for a playoff chase.
But that's not the situation the Lions find themselves in right now. At 4-9, getting Johnson the record is one of the only positive things the team has left to really accomplish, aside from winning for pride.
This doesn't have anything to do—directly, at least—with beating the Cardinals, but it's a worthy pursuit for a worthy player, and chasing that record is perhaps the best way for the Lions to end their season on a high note.