Allen Park — “I’d rather play Eastern Michigan.”
With that quip, Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin wasn’t looking to insult the local program that played its way into a bowl game last season for the first time in 20 years. He was simply harkening back to his time as a college coach, where plenty of powerhouse programs open the year with a cupcake or two to work out the kinks and generate some early momentum.
There are no such pushovers in the NFL, not even the lowly Cleveland Browns. But some challenges are stiffer than others, and a season-opening visit from the Arizona Cardinals will serve as a clear barometer for what kind of team the Lions can be this season.
The beauty of the matchup is the Cardinals will put several of the Lions’ weaknesses to the test.
Can Greg Robinson, the plug-and-play replacement for the injured Taylor Decker, hold up his end of the bargain and slow Chandler Jones, one of the NFL’s premier pass rushers? Will Detroit’s nickel defense get worked over by Larry Fitzgerald in the slot? And will the ground game have any success against a stout Arizona front, which held opponents to a paltry 3.6 yards per carry last season?
With Robinson, the Lions have done everything they can to get him up to speed in the short time they had to do it. Acquired via trade on the final day of mandatory minicamp in June, the former No. 2 overall pick spent training camp and the preseason learning a new playbook and blocking technique.
Now he’ll be matchup up against Jones, who had his way against Robinson, then with the Los Angeles, in two meetings last season.
“You know, I could care less what happened to him with the Rams. That’s not my issue,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell said. “For us, the only thing that really counts is what he does when he’s here, with us, from this point forward. And at this point now, this guy’s working extremely hard and trying to do the best that he absolutely can.”
With Fitzgerald, the veteran is entering his 14th season, but showing no signs of slowing down. He’s averaged 108 receptions the past two years, largely operating out of the slot. That’s a problem for Detroit, which struggled to cover the middle of the field last year.
Quandre Diggs, the presumed starting nickel, allowed 34 receptions on the 38 passes where he was targeted. He should be better with another year of experience, but the Lions have already said free-agent addition D.J. Hayden is going to get playing time after a strong preseason. That might come lined up across from Fitzgerald.
As for Detroit’s ground game, the team is pinning its hopes to Ameer Abdullah being the solution to the long-standing problem. Before an early-season injury last year, he averaged 5.3 yards per carry, providing reason for the optimism.
The Lions haven’t finished in the top half of the league in rushing since Barry Sanders retired. They’d settle for averaging 4.0 yards per carry and 100 yards per game, given quarterback Matthew Stafford has proven capable of shouldering the rest of the load.
The Cardinals only allowed opponents to top those two benchmarks six times last season, but they’ll look a bit different this year, after All-Pro defensive tackle Calais Campbell bolted in free agency. Still, the front should still be formidable. If the Lions’ backs, led by Abdullah, can be effective against this group, optimism for the season rises rapidly.
Those are just three questions the Lions will have an opportunity to answer. There are plenty of others in this matchup. Can they generate a pass rush? Will the return game be adequate? Can the secondary prevent the Cardinals from connecting on their inevitable home-run shots?
These aren’t the Eastern Michigan Eagles coming to town. Nothing is going to come easy for the Lions on Sunday, but it’s the test they need to prove what kind of team they can be.
LIONS VS. CARDINALS
When: Sunday, 1 p.m.
Where: Ford Field, Detroit
TV / radio: Fox / 760 WJR
Line: Cardinals by 1.5