The stretch run to the end of the season kicks off for the Detroit Lions and Arizona Cardinals today at State Farm Stadium in Arizona.
For the Lions, it marks an opportunity to snap a two-game losing streak and start the last quarter of their season off on a good note.
For the Cardinals, last week’s upset in Lambeau Field over the Packers was a nice win they’d like to validate with another one today.
Here are five things to look out for in today’s matchup:
DECIMATED CARDINALS FRONT
Arizona head coach Steve Wilks said this week that in all the years he’s been in football he’s never seen one unit hit with as many injuries as the Cardinals’ offensive line has had to deal with throughout the course of this season.
Six linemen have gone on IR and the Cardinals are set to start three rookies upfront against the Lions. Wilks said all they can do is prepare with a next-man-up mentality.
Arizona is facing a Detroit front that’s playing some pretty inspired football right now led by Pro Bowl candidate Damon Harrison. He, A’Shawn Robinson and the rookie Da’Shawn Hand have been pretty disruptive since Harrison’s arrival via trade in late October. They’ll hope to continue that today against a cast of rookies and backups upfront for Arizona.
ANOTHER ELITE PASS RUSHER
The Lions squared off against the NFL sack leader Aaron Donald (16.5) last week and lost, both on the scoreboard and in the box score. Donald recorded two sacks and hit quarterback Matthew Stafford four times. Stafford was hit 11 times total by the Rams’ defense.
This week the Lions will square off against another good pass rusher in Arizona’s Chandler Jones, who is currently third in the NFL with 12.0 sacks. Last week the pressure was on the interior linemen facing off against defensive tackles Donald and Ndamukong Suh. Jones brings pressure from the edge, so Detroit’s tackles will be tested this week, particularly left tackle Taylor Decker.
Dating back to 2016, when he was acquired via trade by the Cardinals, Jones leads the NFL in sacks (40.0) and tackles for loss (55).
WHO STEPS UP?
With no Kerryon Johnson for a third consecutive game, the Lions are again severely shorthanded at their skill positions. LeGarrette Blount will likely take over the main running duties again, and Kenny Golladay is the No. 1 receiver, but who steps up beyond those two?
Bruce Ellington has caught 19 passes the last three weeks, but for just 115 yards. Tight end Levine Toilolo had a big game last week vs. the Rams (four catches for 90 yards), but that was an outlier to his normal production this year. Can he or another one of Detroit’s tight ends step up again? Can Theo Riddick break a couple big gains in the passing game?
Arizona’s defense ranks 23rd in points allowed (25.8), fourth against the pass (220.4) and 29th against the run (140.9). Who steps up and makes a play?
FACING ANOTHER GREAT BACK
It was only two seasons ago Cardinals running back David Johnson earned first-team All-Pro honors after recording more than 2,000 combined rushing and receiving yards and 20 touchdowns.
He lost all of last season after being injured in a Week 1 defeat in Detroit.
His numbers are down this season (761 rushing & 328 receiving), but he does have eight total touchdowns and is more than capable of going off on the Lions' defense if they lose track of him.
Detroit doesn’t have a great track record this season against elite backs. Both Ezekiel Elliott and Todd Gurley had big games against Detroit.
The Lions will have to be very conscious about not letting Johnson beat them.
It’s been a down year for Stafford statistically. He’s been knocked around and is missing a lot of his weapons at the skill positions, but if the Lions are going to win on the road today for just the second time this season, Stafford has to be better.
He’s turned the ball over in the fourth quarter twice in each of the last two weeks, both close games at the time. Stafford’s turned the ball over eight times total in the fourth quarter of contests this season.
It’s hard to watch Stafford stand there and wait for players to come open that often times never do, but the 10-year vet has to figure out a way to get it done and take better care of the football in the process.