Lions vs Cardinals : Kerryon Johnson will miss his third straight game Sunday because of a knee injury, but the Lions have had two of their four best rushing games this season in the past two weeks. LeGarrette Blount has 149 yards rushing in that span, and should shoulder the workload once again.
The Lions’ improved rushing attack has coincided with a bigger commitment to the run overall. They’ve averaged 24.8 carries per game since the Golden Tate trade, and have had to play more ball-control football with a struggling passing attack.
The Cardinals have the league’s 29th-ranked rushing defense at 140.9 yards per game, though they held an opponent under 100 yards last Sunday for the first time since Week 2. Big plays have been an issue, as Arizona has been gashed for 15 rushes of 20 yards or more. And the Cardinals have allowed more rushing touchdowns (17) than any team in the NFL.
Matthew Stafford’s struggles have been well documented of late. He’s committed four turnovers in the fourth quarters of his last two games, he’s on pace to take a career-high in sacks, and if he’s not careful he might miss out on throwing for 4,000 yards for the first time since his injury-shortened season of 2010.
That’s not to say Stafford is entirely to blame for the Lions’ disappearing passing attack. He has few weapons to throw to outside of Kenny Golladay now that Golden Tate and Marvin Jones are gone, and the Lions have taken the air out of his arm because of their deficiencies in pass protection.
The Cardinals have one of the league’s best edge rushers in Chandler Jones, and they’ve been strong against the pass overall (fourth in the NFL). Patrick Peterson is a perennial Pro Bowler at cornerback, though he seems a bit miscast in Arizona’s zone-heavy scheme. The Cardinals will mix up their pressure packages, but they rank near the bottom of the league with just six interceptions.
The Cardinals have one of the best all-purpose backs in the NFL in David Johnson, yet they rank 31st in the league in rushing at just 86 yards per game. Johnson was severely underutilized early in this season, before Arizona changed coordinators, and the Cardinals can’t get anything going on the ground now as their offensive line is in shambles with three rookie starters.
They’ll have their work cut out to run the ball Sunday against an improving Lions defense. Damon Harrison has been a wrecking ball up front in his six games as a Lion, and he’s flanked by another sun-blotter in A’Shawn Robinson.
The Lions have the league’s fourth-best run defense over the past month (74.3 ypg), and they shouldn’t have much trouble against a no-dimensional Cardinals offense Sunday.
Rookie quarterback Josh Rosen will make his 10th start of the season Sunday, and it’s been a learning experience for the 10th overall pick. He’s taken a lot of hits behind a beat-up offensive line, and he will be down his leading receiver after rookie Christian Kirk went on IR this week with a foot injury.
The Cardinals have two primary weapons in their passing game. Johnson is one of the more accomplished receiving backs in the NFL. He can split wide like a receiver or run routes out of the backfield. And future Hall-of-Famer Larry Fitzgerald plays primarily out of the slot, but still has some of the best hands in the game.
The Lions know the kind of patience the Cardinals want to on offense because they’ve done the same thing themselves the past two weeks. Nevin Lawson should draw the assignment on Fitzgerald, and Mike Ford has played well as the Lions’ No. 3 cornerback. The Lions are dealing with some key injuries as top cornerback Darius Slay (ankle) and leading sacker Devon Kennard (hip) missed practice time this week.
It’s taken a while, but the Lions are finally starting to come around on special teams. They’ve cut back on penalties and limited big returns, and they’ve gotten solid performances in recent weeks from kicker Matt Prater and punter Sam Martin. Prater hasn’t missed a field goal since Week 5 and remains one of the most reliable legs in the NFL. The Lions don’t offer much game-breaking ability in the return department, but they nearly came away with a punt block last week using Ziggy Ansah on their rush team.
The Cardinals have been similarly unspectacular in the return department, though that could change if they use Peterson regularly on punt returns now that Kirk is out for the season. Arizona had some coverage lapses early in the season, but punter Andy Lee is netting 41.7 yards per punt, his best average since 2013. Zane Gonzalez made both field-goals attempts, including the game-winner, in his first game with the Cardinals as an injury replacement for Phil Dawson last week.
This game isn’t exactly appointment viewing as the Lions and Cardinals have combined for seven wins 13 weeks into the season and have two of the most listless offenses in the NFL. Arizona is the lowest-scoring and worst passing team in the league, and there’s no reason to think they’ll get going Sunday with Kirk out and their offensive line on cinder blocks. The Lions haven’t exactly lit the world on fire without Tate, Jones and Johnson — or with them, for that matter — but they’re the better, more complete team. Historically, the Lions haven’t fared well in Arizona. But they’re trying something different this year, traveling to town on Friday and bringing an improved run defense with them. That should be enough for Matt Patricia to get his fifth win as head coach.
Contact Dave Birkett: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett. Download our Lions Xtra app for free on Apple and Android!
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: