We've said before that the Cardinals receivers hold a match-up advantage against any collection of defensive backs in the NFL. This is especially true in Sunday's game against the Lions, since Detroit's cornerbacks are undersized and overmatched against the larger, more physical receivers of Arizona.
Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin, and Bryant Johnson average 6'2" and 220 pounds, while Detroit's top three cornerbacks Dre Bly, Fernando Bryant, and Stanley Wilson average 5'10" and 180 pounds. The NFL game is more complex and has better athletes, but the game isn't fundamentally different than a pick-up game between teenagers. The kid that hit his growth spurt early is going to be able to catch passes over the shorter kids that haven't developed yet. Coaches talk at length about "catching the ball at its highest point" when their defensive backs are faced with a size disadvantage, but the fight for the ball starts and ends with who is bigger and stronger.
As a unit, Detroit's starting secondary has a total of four interceptions on the year, they have given up too many big plays, and lose out on too many jump balls. Safeties Kenoy Kennedy and Terrence Holt are journeymen that haven't been able to establish themselves as consistent playmakers in the secondary.
The bad news is that Matt Leinart has struggled mightily the last three games, completing fewer than 50 percent of his passes and throwing only one touchdown pass against five interceptions. He will find open receivers on Sunday, given the mismatch of Arizona's receivers against Detroit's secondary.
The only question is whether or not he's going to be able to successfully complete passes to those open receivers. And, of course, whether or not the line will be able to protect him.
The Lions hired former Tampa Bay defensive line coach Rod Marinelli in the off-season to be their head coach. Not only is Marinelli a renowned disciplinarian (something Detroit was desperately lacking the last few years), but he specializes in coaching up the talent he has to work with along the line. You may have heard of some of the men he coached in Tampa.
Detroit has an undersized line that has done surprisingly well this season (except for last week against San Francisco) despite the fact that they face a serious size disadvantage. Jared DeVries, Cory Redding, Marcus Bell, and Kalimba Edwards aren't exactly facing the '66 Packers on Sunday, so the difference in the game will likely come down to coaching. This works pretty heavily in Marinelli's favor.
Detroit's run defense has been sporadic and inconsistent all year, but they won't need to bring their "A" game to slow down Arizona's anemic rushing attack, which is ranked dead last in the NFL. However, since Detroit hasn't been able to muster much of a pass rush this season, the Cardinals will be best served using their size advantage at the line of scrimmage and in the passing game to set up the run.
The return of Milford Brown for Sunday's game comes as good news, in that he can't be any worse than the players the Cardinals have rolled out to play guard thus far this season. Perhaps the fact that Brown has fresh legs coming into the game will make a difference in the line's overall play.
The best news out of all of this is that Edgerrin James will not need to stay back as a blocker in the passing game, which will maximize his effectiveness.
Dennis Green mentioned earlier this week that he was intending to "push the envelope" for the rest of the season. Here's hoping that "pushing the envelope" means handing the ball to someone besides Edgerrin James, as well as getting Edge involved in the passing game.
Marcel Shipp has officially been elevated to #2 on the depth chart. As a bigger back that is more of a north-to-south runner, Shipp would provide an excellent change of pace from the shiftier James. It's time the Cardinals tried something different. Handing the ball to Shipp and seeing what he can do could be just what the doctor ordered.
In addition, handing the ball to James doesn't appear to be working for the Cardinals through the first nine games. And, given his track record of success in the NFL, you have to assume that it's not him. Therefore, the Cardinals need to get Edge involved in the passing game, running more screens and check-downs to him, getting him the ball in space, and seeing what he does with it.
After all, it can't get any worse than it's been thus far. Can it?
The bright side of this game, even if it is a grudge match between two teams with three wins between them, is that the Cardinals don't have to come into the game with a special plan or any high-minded ideas that they need to execute flawlessly and "think outside the box" in order to be successful.
Given the mismatches on the perimeter, the size advantage that Arizona holds over Detroit at the line of scrimmage, and the fact that, if Green chooses to give Shipp some touches, the Lions may be bewildered enough to give up some big plays, the Cardinals don't need to deviate at all from their base offense. They simply need to line up, run the plays that are called, and execute them to the best of their ability.
They need to come out throwing the ball, running the standard patterns that they've run all year, with short and intermediate passes to Boldin, Fitzgerald, and Johnson to get the ball in the hands of their playmakers. While Detroit's corners are not pushovers (especially Dre Bly), they do give up 4 inches and 40 pounds on average to Arizona's wide receivers. The receivers need to win those physical match-ups, use their hands, get good body position, and pray to God that Leinart can deliver the ball to them in a timely and accurate fashion.
Hopefully, they have early success moving the ball through the air, which will loosen up the defense and give Edge and Shipp at least decent rush lanes. However, no one should expect a performance from either back like the one Frank Gore turned in last week. The Cardinals simply do not have the power up front to open up holes like the 49ers did last week against this small front four, and neither James nor Shipp has been a big play threat throughout the course of their careers.
The key is going to be balance on offense for the Cardinals, which will keep Detroit's defense off balance. It's true that Marinelli has instilled a great deal of discipline and fight into his charges, but this is still a 2-7 team. If Arizona is able to have early success throwing the football (and, by proxy, running the ball), the Lions defense will fold up the tent and mail in the rest of the game.
Provided, of course, the Cardinals don't find a way to screw it up.