Phew. It’s here. It’s finally here. After waiting what felt like an eternity, the 2017 NFL football season is upon us.
To open the year, the Detroit Lions will host the Arizona Cardinals at 1 p.m. Sunday on FOX.
This will be the first real action that quarterback Matthew Stafford sees since becoming the highest-paid NFL player in history, a deal that Lions fans had very mixed feelings about. Fans, along with the organization, are going to want immediate results because $27 million is a lot of money.
Stafford will have his hands full against a stout Cardinals defense. Arizona gave up 305 yards per game last year, second best in the league, and were the fourth-best passing defense.
With players like safety Tyrann Mathieu and cornerback Patrick Peterson, the Cardinals have plenty of ways to shut down the Lions’ passing attack. Peterson will be stalking receiver Golden Tate all game, which will likely lead to Stafford leaning more on receivers Marvin Jones Jr., Kenny Golladay and tight end Eric Ebron.
In order for Stafford to be productive, he will need good protection. Newly acquired right tackle Ricky Wagner will be put to the test having to contain outside linebacker Chandler Jones, who had 11 sacks in 2016.
Outside of Jones, the pass rush is fairly weak. Rookie linebacker Haason Reddick will be intriguing to watch. He’s lining up as an inside linebacker for the Cardinals, but can still bring some pressure. Reddick had 9.5 sacks his senior year at Temple.
If the O-line can keep Stafford up and give him some decent time, Stafford can dissect the Arizona defense. That is if Stafford can return to his 2016, pre-middle-finger-injury self and if the running game can become somewhat relevant.
The Lions were tied for dead last in rushing attempts and third to last in rushing yards in 2016. Luckily for the Lions, it had a scapegoat: Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick’s health. Rushing for a lowly 458 yards on 110 carries and one rushing touchdown between the two of them in 2016, the Lions are hopeful they can produce a little more in 2017. Both will be back and 100 percent healthy. Both can be effective not only rushing the ball, but also in the passing game and the red zone.
This will be a good test for the run game, seeing that the Cardinals gave up just under 95 yards a game last year on the ground. The Cardinals did lose 2016 second-team All-Pro defensive tackle Calais Campbell, which should make rushing up the middle a little easier.
Flip over to the other side of the ball, the Lions’ front seven must play well in order to contain running back David Johnson, who took the NFL by storm last season. The first-team All-Pro back rushed for 1,239 yards and 16 touchdowns, along with 879 receiving yards on 80 receptions and an additional four touchdowns in 2016. Johnson is going to be a menace, and all eyes will be on rookie linebacker Jarrad Davis to step up and stop the run.
Cornerback Darius Slay Jr. will take on the task of covering the uncoverable Larry Fitzgerald, while the rest of the group will have to deal with the speed of J.J. Nelson, Josh Brown and Jaron Brown. It may seem like a tough task, but their impact relies on quarterback Carson Palmer.
Palmer is 37, and while age doesn’t seem to affect quarterbacks as much as it does to running backs, Father Time is starting to catch up with him. Palmer’s 24 touchdowns last year were the least he’s had in three years, and his 14 interceptions were the most in that time frame. Where Palmer struggles the most is pocket presence and awareness. Palmer was sacked 40 times in 2016, and the Cardinals gave up 48 sacks, the most in the NFL. If Ezekiel Ansah can re-establish himself and return to his 2015 form, he could easily have a field day on Sunday.
Keys to the Game
Keep Stafford upright and establish a run game early to open up the passing game. If the running game is non-existent, Stafford and the Lions will struggle to put points up.
The Lions need to contain Johnson. Easier said than done, but if the team can prevent him from breaking out 20-plus yard runs, the team will be in good shape. The front seven is going to have to put together a great performance.
Pressure Palmer and force him to make mistakes. The Cardinals’ offensive line is atrocious, and with consistent pressure, this game will be over quick.
This game will come down to quarterback play. Stafford has the better offensive line and is an overall better quarterback than Palmer. Much like all of the 2016 games, it will be a back-and-forth battle, but the Lions will come out on top.
Lions 24, Cardinals 17