Lions using every resource to prep for Cardinals' mysterious offense

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

Allen Park — In a Connecticut garage there are stacks and stacks of boxes, each filled with notebooks of handwritten notes. Lions defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni doesn't have an exact count, but with more than 40 years experience coaching at the college and professional level, you can imagine it's a lot. 

Each binder within the boxes contains all of his notes about a given opponent that particular season, from the game plan to postgame observations — his thoughts about what worked, what didn't and what he'd do differently the next time his team played that opponent. 

For years, Pasqualoni lugged the boxes around the country, from job to job. The notebooks were a research tool, a resource to help him with his weekly preparation. And they still are, but now they reside back home in Connecticut where they're referenced more during his offseason preparation. 

This offseason, Pasqualoni has consulted his notebooks for ideas for how to prepare for the unknown, Detroit's Week 1 opponent, the Arizona Cardinals. 

The Cardinals' offense is one of the NFL's big mysteries entering the 2019 campaign, led by a new coach expected to unleash innovative concepts on the professional game, and an uber-talented, dual-threat quarterback ready to stress defenses with his strong arm and lightning-quick feet. 

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Pasqualoni has never coached against Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury in college, and the Lions defensive coordinator didn't cross paths with quarterback Kyler Murray during a recent stint at Boston College. So the best Pasqualoni can do, beyond studying the vanilla schemes run by the Cardinals' personnel during the preseason, is supplement his game plan construction by studying his personal history of playing against the "Air Raid" offense Kingsbury ran at Texas Tech the past six years. 

"We did not play Texas Tech, but my years at Syracuse, toward the end, we played West Virginia, who is in this system more or less," Pasqualoni. "One year at Syracuse, we actually played (former Kentucky head coach) Hal Mumme and (then Kentucky offensive coordinator) Mike Leach in the Music City Bowl, when Hal Mumme was starting it, the Air Raid concept.

"We played them in those years, so we kind of got a dose of it in the inception of it. Then came back years later and played against it at West Virginia. And then my two years up at Boston College obviously we played against Clemson and we played against Virginia Tech, as in four-open-wide-receiver deal."

Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray

How much does that information, gathered 20-25 years ago, realistically help Pasqualoni now? 

"Right now, you use every resource you can get your hands on," he said. "You’re watching as much as you can watch, and you’re trying to write down and catalog anything that looks good. Anything anybody’s done, you don’t really care who’s doing it right now, but if it looks like it might work you’re considering it. You’re considering all options right now."

What's clear is this offense won't look anything like the Cardinals team the Lions shut down, 17-3, in Week 14 last season. And at this point, the Lions admit they aren't fully sure what to expect, or how much Kingsbury is going to attempt to port the scheme he ran at Texas Tech to the pros. 

At the very least, Pasqualoni is expecting a large number of shotgun snaps, plenty of three- and four-wide receiver sets and a unit that will aggressively push the tempo. 

"It’s a spread out deal," Pasqualoni said. "It stretches you this way, horizontally, and then they stretch you that way, vertically, just based on the speed of what they have and Kyler Murray’s ability to throw. He has such a strong arm to throw the ball deep. It’s a up-tempo. We expect them to be moving fast up on the ball."

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The Cardinals certainly stockpiled up on receivers this offseason, supplementing the returning tandem of Larry Fitzgerald and Christian Kirk with draft picks KeeSean Johnson and Andy Isabella and recent free-agent signing Michael Crabtree. Fourth-round draft pick Hakeem Butler landed on injured reserve to start the year.

The team also returns David Johnson, once the preeminent dual-threat running back in the NFL. All that, combined with the fleet-footed Murray, make for a potentially lethal combination wrapped in a blanket of unknowns. 

"Pace, tempo, line of scrimmage checks, different formations, different personnel groups, those are all things that will be in-game adjustments for us that are going to be really difficult especially playing in their stadium, where they are going to have full control of the communication," Lions coach Matt Patricia said. "There is not crowd noise they are going to have to deal with or anything like that. Defensively, it’s a big challenge. It’s really hard to get ready for that stuff.

"When you’re dealing with Kyler Murray and the type of quarterback that he is — in general with his athleticism, his arm strength, he makes quick decisions, he gets the ball out fast, and if a play breaks down then you have a bigger problem. I think the flat-out speed that he has that he can create big plays, is a major problem and we haven’t really seen that."

For Pasqualoni and Patricia, the focus is keeping the plan simple for the players, relatively speaking, and adjusting on the fly as necessary. 

"The trick is to not inundate everybody with too much information where you can’t just go out and perform," Patricia said. "That’s really the hard part of this week."

Lions at Cardinals

Kickoff: 4:25 p.m. Sunday, State Farm Stadium, Glendale, Ariz.

TV/radio: Fox/760 AM

Records: Season opener for both teams

Line: Lions by 2.5

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers