Cardinals vs. Lions: What's the Game Plan for Arizona?

Jaime Oppenheim@JustOppFeatured ColumnistOctober 9, 2015

Arizona Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians watches warms up's prior to an NFL football game against the St. Louis Rams, Sunday, Oct. 4, 2015, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

Following a humbling loss in Week 4, the Arizona Cardinals are presented with an immediate opportunity to make amends against the Detroit Lions in the Motor City on Sunday.

Arizona turned in a sloppy performance against the St. Louis Rams and watched as its dream start to the season evaporated. If you could pick any team against which to return to steady football, the Lions would be near the top of the list. 

The Cardinals will have every opportunity to get themselves right against the winless Lions this Sunday. Here's a look at what they're up against. 

Offensive Game Plan

Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

For the second consecutive week, Arizona's offense goes up against a 4-3 defense whose identity is wrapped around its front four.

This week should be a great deal easier, however.

Led by Ziggy Ansah, the Lions boast a capable and relatively productive defensive line. Beyond that, there's not a whole lot to say about this defense.

DeAndre Levy's return will add a new dimension to a lackluster linebacking corps, but even he can't save the floundering unit. James Ihedigbo's been a menace in the secondary, forcing three fumbles, but they can't cover as a group, ranking in the bottom third in the league in passing yards allowed.

The Lions will blitz and play downhill, but they prefer to create pressure through the defensive line alone against pass-heavy teams (such as the Denver Broncos in Week 3). As long as he's patient, Carson Palmer should be able to pick apart Detroit's soft zone, with Larry Fitzgerald in line for another big day.

Chris Johnson should get the start and the majority of carries at running back, while Andre Ellington takes over for David Johnson as the "nickel running back." Statistically Detroit hasn't been bad against the run, although it struggled against the Minnesota Vikings, the only team to truly commit on the ground against the Lions this season.  

If Harold Goodwin has given his offense a key focal point this week, it'll be "protect the football." Arizona turned the ball over three times last week, and Detroit is tied for fourth in the league with nine takeaways. 

Defensive Game Plan

Given Arizona's struggles in Week 4, we're going to take a back-to-front approach here.

Looking back through last week's game, there were two big reasons why St. Louis was so easily able to gash the Cardinals defense in the second half. The first reason was the Rams offensive line simply pushed around Arizona's front seven. 

The second problem for Arizona is a bit more interesting. On several occasions, the Cardinals were undone by mental mistakes.

Here's Todd Gurley's first big gain of the day. By design, LaMarr Woodley is unblocked off the snap, and he takes a direct path for Nick Foles, leaving a huge lane for Gurley.

FOX NFL Broadcast

It gets worse. Here's the game-sealing third-down run on which Gurley could've scored with a little over a minute remaining. Justin Bethel and Jerraud Powers both pursue Tavon Austin on the fake end around, leaving Arizona short of numbers on the opposite side of the field.

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Whether it's a lack of discipline, composure or focus, these kinds of silly mistakes were a pattern against St. Louis. James Bettcher's going to have to tighten the screws on his defense if it's going to remain an elite unit. It's too hard to win in the NFL when players are constantly out of position.

The good news for Bettcher is that the Detroit Lions run an altogether more straightforward offense.

Through Week 4, the Lions are ranked 30th in total yardage, and there doesn't appear to be much reason to believe they are on the cusp of significant improvement. They've yet to establish any semblance of a running game (just 188 yards total), and the passing game is a shell of what it used to be.

Expect Patrick Peterson to shadow Calvin Johnson throughout the game, allowing the Cardinals to double-team Golden Tate. There shouldn't be much mystery as to why the Lions can't move the ball through the air; Johnson has lost some of his explosion through the years, while Tate hasn't been able to validate last year's breakout season.

If Bettcher wants to get creative with some blitz combinations, this could be the week to do it. Detroit has struggled picking up extra bodies near the line of scrimmage, with third-down running back Theo Riddick and tight end Tim Wright being strictly limited to receiving options.

In short, as long as Arizona remains disciplined defensively, there's little to fear when Detroit has the ball.

Key Players and Matchups

SEATTLE, WA - OCTOBER 05:  Ezekiel Ansah #94 of the Detroit Lions forces and recovers a fumble by Russell Wilson #3 of the Seattle Seahawks during the fourth quarter of their game at CenturyLink Field on October 5, 2015 in Seattle, Washington.  (Photo by
Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

Jared Veldheer vs. Ziggy Ansah

Ansah is probably Detroit's best player, and he's the one guy capable of disrupting Arizona's offense. It seems safe to assume Bruce Arians won't be providing much help for his left tackle, even if it means subjecting Palmer to 10 or more hits, so Veldheer will have his hands full on Sunday.

Theo Riddick

The second-year running back is second to Calvin Johnson on the Lions with 20 receptions. With tight end Eric Ebron out, Riddick could see an even bigger role in Detroit's passing game.

While Arizona will know to keep an eye on Riddick when he's on the field, the team will need to remain disciplined when he leaks out of the backfield. Matthew Stafford leans heavily on him on third down.

Arizona's Offense in the Red Zone

Despite the entire team's struggles against St. Louis, it would've won had it just converted on one of its first four trips into the red zone. There's no reason Arizona shouldn't be able to finish its drives against the Lions on Sunday.


After last week's momentum-sapping loss to the Rams, the Cardinals need to get back to basics. The trip to Detroit will provide them a good platform to do just that. 

The Lions might not be the league's worst team, but they haven't been very good this year, and they don't do anything around which the Cardinals need to game plan. Arizona can just play its own game. 

Expect Palmer to get back to playing smart, efficient football and letting his playmakers do the work. Efficiency will rule the day for Arizona's offense.

Meanwhile, opportunism will key Arizona's defense. It will be able to play Detroit's offense straight-up, with Tyrann Mathieu and Deone Bucannon primed to take advantage of any mistakes.

Arizona's going to improve its record to 4-1.

Final score: Arizona 27, Detroit 13


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