Dave Birkett and Bob McManaman share thoughts, predictions on Detroit Lions vs. Arizona Cardinals, coming Sept. 27, 2020, in Glendale, Ariz. Filmed Sept. 22.
Detroit Free Press
Matt Patricia fielded a tough question a few days ago. A reporter asked the Detroit Lions coach if he saw light at the end of the tunnel for his struggling defense.
Patricia smiled. He paused for a few seconds. Then he answered. Reporters are paid to ask hard questions, and this was one was hard. It put Patricia in a tight spot, because what was he going to say?
“I think you have to,” Patricia said finally. “… If you’re a person that walks around without seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, then, man, that’s probably not a good day.”
Patricia has to see light in all this darkness because he has no other option. And this week, we might just start to see that faint glimmer in the distance, that beacon of hope that finally emerges.
It might be hard to believe the Lions’ defense is close to showing improvement after what we’ve seen the first two games, and especially with a potent challenge this week against dynamic dual-threat quarterback Kyler Murray and the Arizona Cardinals.
But I think Patricia is right. I think there’s a chance we start to see improvement this week.
It’s actually not that far-fetched.
Let’s start with Murray. He’s the key to the entire offense. He’s a tremendous talent and he has been playing well while leading Arizona to a 2-0 start.
But there’s a problem with Murray. The entire offense goes through him and the biggest asset to his game is his ability to scramble. He’s great at reading pressure, stepping up in the pocket and breaking loose up field like a punt returner.
But running isn’t Murray’s option. He’s rightly judicious about running. The Cardinals don’t design many run plays for him out of the run-pass-option scheme and he’s very quick to slide to avoid a hit.
So how do you stop Murray? Well, that’s why defensive coordinators get paid the big bucks. But I’ll take my shot at being a bargain-basement DC.
The Lions have played mobile quarterbacks Mitchell Trubisky and Aaron Rodgers in the first two games and neither has hurt them with their legs. Murray is a much more lethal runner, but the Lions have been talking all week about containing him. And when the Lions and Cardinals played to a tie last year, the Lions held Murray to three rushes for 13 yards.
I also think the 3-4 base defense the Lions play, with a lot of versatility in the back seven, works better against RPO schemes than the traditional 4-3 schemes the Cardinals have faced the first two weeks against San Francisco and Washington.
I went back and carefully watched the Cardinals’ first two games and my two main takeaways were that if you use a spy or some other containment method to keep Murray from using his legs and breaking loose out of the backfield, you can severely limit the offense. Kenyan Drake is a good running back, but even with elite receivers such as DeAndre Hopkins and Larry Fitzgerald, Murray only ranks 26th with a 5.1-yard average length of completion. It’s not hard to see why, either. In his first two games, Murray wasn’t accurate on the few deep shots he took.
Then there’s the Lions’ evolving defense. The defense has had three big problems. It started the season with five new starters, plus a new coordinator. The defense sustained two key injuries the first game. And COVID-19 kept the defense from having a true offseason to build communication and cohesion.
“All those guys have got to come together,” Patricia said recently. “Defensively, it’s very different than the other two phases where everyone’s got to be on the same page and everyone works together and everyone – communication is critical and all of those things on top of fundamentals and technique, which take a long time to work on and make sure that you execute at a high level.”
Normally, the defense would have had more time to get acclimated to all the changes, including four preseason games. And it’s not just the Lions’ defense. All NFL defenses are struggling in church-mouse quiet stadiums that have allowed offenses to produce historic scoring.
The Lions’ defense, of course, has been worse than most. The lack of pressure on the quarterback, struggles against the run and mental mistakes have been costly. The Lions and the Texans are also the only two teams without a takeaway.
But it’s not all about Murray and the Lions’ defense. The Lions’ offense, which has been jumping to leads and playing decently even without Kenny Golladay, will have something to say about this. So will the specialists, including impressive rookie punter Jack Fox and somewhat shaky Arizona kicker Zane Gonzalez.
And then there’s dagger time. I know, I know. (Insert your own joke here.) But dagger time had its origins in last year’s come-from-way-ahead 27-27 tie. The Lions haven’t done much this year to show they can hold leads and close out games.
But payback can be a wonderful motivation for a football team.
For as much as coaches love to say yesterday doesn’t matter, it’s matters. Last year matters. Even if it took some strange plays — like Sam Martin having a blocked punt travel 11 yards — for the Cardinals to rally, no Lions coach or player who suffered last year’s humiliation will forget it.
The Cardinals look like a good team. Not great, but good. The Lions have proved so far they aren’t a good team. It’s hard to pick the Lions to upset Arizona at home.
But then again, tunnels themselves are improbable feats of engineering. Like a sprawling metropolis that rose out of the sand. Is it so impossible to think the Lions can travel to such a place, finish what they started last year and help us all begin to see the light?
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