5 things to watch: Lions at Cardinals

Detroit kicks off the regular season later today with a road battle in Arizona against the Cardinals.

Today is the beginning of a tough stretch to the schedule for the Lions, as they play three playoff teams last year – Los Angeles (Chargers), Philadelphia and Kansas City – the next three weeks before having a bye, and then having to play on Monday Night Football in Green Bay against the Packers Week 6. Detroit would no-doubt like to kick off that stretch 1-0 against the Cardinals today.

As the regular season kicks off, let’s take a look at five things to keep an eye on in today’s opener:

STAFFORD AND OFFENSE

Quarterback Matthew Stafford didn’t play a ton in the preseason, and coordinator Darrell Bevell didn’t show a lot of his new offense. Because of that, there’s a little bit of an unknown for the Lions on offense today. How much will they try to feature the run game? How big of a role will the tight ends play? How will carries be distributed?

Stafford is coming off a down year statistically that saw him have to battle through injury. Is he poised for a bounce-back year?

Arguably one of Detroit’s biggest question marks heading into the season is upfront along the offensive line. Last year’s first-round pick, Frank Ragnow, has moved over to his more natural center position after an up-and-down rookie year playing guard. That’s shifted veteran Graham Glasgow from center to guard. Joe Dahl is expected to make the start at left guard after being mostly a reserve player his first three years in Detroit.

The stability upfront for Detroit comes at tackle with Taylor Decker and Rick Wagner assuming their left and right tackle duties, respectively.

Detroit finished the 2018 season ranked 16th among the 32 offensive lines across the league by Pro Football Focus. The projections for 2019 have been about the same.

Everything on offense starts upfront. If that part of the operation isn’t good, the rest of it will likely struggle too.

“AIR RAID” CARDINALS

The difficulty Matt Patricia and Paul Pasqualoni had in preparing Detroit’s defenders to face Arizona’s “Air Raid” offense this week is that there’s simply no pro tape on it or rookie quarterback Kyler Murray.

Pasqualoni said this week he’s expecting a lot of spread looks with three, four and sometimes even five receivers on the field. How will Arizona incorporate Pro Bowl running back David Johnson into the mix?

Patricia said the key Sunday for Detroit’s defense is to play fundamentally sound at all levels, and for the coaches to be good when it comes time to make in-game adjustments.

CONTAINING MURRAY

Murray, the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s draft, joined DeShaun Watson as the only players in college football history to throw for at least 4,000 yards and rush for 1,000 yards in a single season. Murray did it last year at Oklahoma, and it helped him win the Heisman Trophy.

Since joining the NFL after a terrific career at Clemson, Watson has become one of the top duel-threat quarterbacks in the league.

Murray has a strong and accurate arm, but his ability to be a runner and playmaker when plays break down is something that has Patricia and Pasqualoni concerned.

“I think it’s really difficult. A guy like Kyler (Murray) with his ability and his speed and athleticism – and I would say really just his quick decision-making,” Patricia said this week.

“One of the things when you watch him run that’s really impressive, is the way that he sets up the blocks in front of him. He does an outstanding job of kind of attacking the angles of the tacklers. Whether it’s the guys in the secondary or the linebackers – those angles, those approach angles that they’re coming at, he can freeze those guys.

“He will get them to cross over, he’ll get them to flatten out and then he’s got this amazing ability to dip-in and dip-back-out at top speed and get outside to the edge. At that point a lot of the pursuit gets collapsed inside, the receivers do a good job of covering those guys up on the outside from the outside-in, and then he gets to the sideline and he’s gone. It’s really his running skillset and the way that he attacks the defenders as they’re approaching him to tackle him. It’s like a running back. It’s a high level.”

D-LINE PLAY

On paper, Detroit looks to have one of the deeper and more talented defensive line groups in the league, but we haven’t seen much of that unit together this summer because of injuries.

Today will be the first time we see defensive end Trey Flowers and defensive tackles Damon Harrison Sr. and Mike Daniels on the field together in live action. Flowers sat out most of camp and all the preseason rehabbing a shoulder injury.

It remains to be seen if Da’Shawn Hand will play today with the elbow injury he suffered early in camp. He’s listed as questionable to play.

Flowers, Harrison, Daniels, A’Shawn Robinson, Romeo Okwara, Hand and the rookie Kevin Strong offer Detroit a lot of versatility upfront. It will be fun to see that group in action for the first time.

ROOKIE WATCH

Today marks the beginning of what rookie players across the league hope is a long and successful NFL career.

A few rookies in Detroit are expected to be key contributors right away, starting with tight end T.J. Hockenson. Detroit’s first-round pick, and the No. 8 overall selection, had a good training camp and should play a big role both as a pass catcher and blocker on the edge. Specifically watch for him in the red zone, an area he and Stafford hooked up a lot in during camp.

Pasqualoni said he’s not going to feed second-round linebacker Jahlani Tavai to the wolves and put more on the rookie’s plate than he can handle, but with MIKE linebacker Jarrad Davis nursing an ankle injury and his status for today questionable, Pasqualoni might not have a choice. He’s likely to use both Tavai and veteran Jalen Reeves-Maybin in the MIKE spot, if JD can’t go.

I expect safety Will Harris to see the field on special teams and some potential sub-package roles on defense. The Lions use three safeties on the field often on defense, and coaches like Harris’ size, speed and skillset.

Other rookies could get into the mix on special teams and in reserve roles.

It’s always interesting to see how rookies adjust to their first regular-season game, when both the speed and intensity pick up from what they experienced in the preseason.

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