The Detroit Lions open their season at home on Sunday when they host the Arizona Cardinals. Even though the Cardinals finished the 2016 season with a 7-8-1 record, they still boast one of the best defenses in football and will be a tough opponent for the Lions on Sunday. They also have David Johnson, a player who many consider the best running back in the NFL. These are the strengths of the Cardinals and these are the factors that the Lions must overcome in order to emerge victorious on Sunday: the Detroit Lions keys to victory in week one.
Week One Detroit Lions Keys to Victory
1- Contain David Johnson
Stopping the Cardinals starts with stopping David Johnson. If he is contained, that offense falls flat. Carson Palmer and Larry Fitzgerald lead a passing attack that thrives off the success of the run. However, at 37 and 34 years-of-age respectively, they are shells of their former selves and cannot carry the offensive load if the ground game fails. John Brown is another weapon in the receiving game, however, he has proven inconsistent and has yet to unseat Fitzgerald as the team’s number one receiver.
Containing David Johnson is a tall order, but it can be done if a team has the right personnel on defense. The Lions will need to throw a variety of blitz packages at the Cardinals, leaving the receivers in single coverage. Luckily, Darius Slay and Nevin Lawson have shown that they are capable of handling single coverage and they should have no problem keeping up with Fitzgerald and Brown.
As for the blitz packages, they cannot be one dimensional. Johnson is just as lethal catching passes outside as he is running between the tackles, so a mix of outside and inside blitzes is necessary. The Lions may even want to dedicate one of their linebackers, probably Tahir Whitehead or maybe even Jarrad Davis, as a spy to ensure that Johnson is contained.
2- Win the Battle in the Trenches
The Detroit Lions greatly improved their offensive line this past off-season with the addition of Ricky Wagner and T.J. Lang. While the loss of Taylor Decker hurts, this unit should still be vastly improved. Going up against a pedestrian defensive line, the Lions offensive line should be able to win this battle handily. This is good news for the Lions because winning the battle in the trenches is a crucial starting point to overcoming Arizona’s stiff defense.
If the offensive line can buy Matthew Stafford enough time in the pocket to go through his proper progressions, he is the kind of quarterback that can make the Cardinals pay. The Lions have the weapons at the wide receiver position to keep the Cardinals secondary on their heels, but it is on the hopefully improved pass block to buy them enough time to get open. This is crucial because, against the Cardinals secondary, they will need all the time they can get.
3- Establish the Run
Winning the battle in the trenches is imperative because it directly impacts the Lions ability to achieve their third key to victory: establishing the run. The Arizona Cardinals are a top five defense against the pass and a top ten defense against the run. The truth is that there just aren’t many holes here than can be exposed. The best thing the Lions can do for themselves on the offensive end is to keep the defense honest, and that starts with establishing the run.
It’s no secret that the strength of that Arizona defense is in the secondary. The Lions cannot win this game by allowing them to drop back into zone coverage all afternoon. They will need to feed Ameer Abdullah the football early and often to keep the defense on their heels.
If the Lions can get an effective run game going early, they will start seeing some single coverage on the outside, and Stafford will quickly take advantage. However, an effective run game starts with solid run blocking. If the Lions don’t win the battle in the trenches, the final key to victory is dead on arrival.