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High Alert: Cardinals Prepping For Strong Lions Passing Game

After solid start, defense will be tested by Matthew Stafford in Week 3

Arizona Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson in coverage against the Washington football team on September 20, 2020.
CB Patrick Peterson in coverage against Washington.

If the 2020 NFL season was a jet ski ride, the Cardinals' pass defense spent the first two games in the no-wake zone.

On Sunday, the water could get choppy.

The Cardinals were fortunate to face a 49ers team in Week 1 that was without receivers Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk. In Week 2, they matched up against inexperienced Washington quarterback Dwayne Haskins.

The Lions are a different story, as they boast the talented Matthew Stafford at quarterback and are expected to have a full complement of receivers provided Kenny Golladay (hamstring) continues trending in the right direction.

"In my opinion, this is the best pass offense we're going to see in the first three weeks," defensive coordinator Vance Joseph said. "They have no problems moving the football at all. We are on high alert."

The Cardinals' biggest weakness a season ago was defending the pass, as they were in the bottom-five leaguewide in yards (281.9 per game), touchdowns (38) and net yards per attempt (7.0) allowed. They gave up a passer rating of 109.9, the equivalent of Pro Bowl production on a weekly basis.

The pass defense has improved across the board through two games in 2020, and there are reasons to be encouraged about the overall product, but a better gauge will come after Sunday.

Stafford threw for 385 yards and three touchdowns without an interception in last year's 27-27 tie against the Cardinals and has some of the best arm talent in the NFL.

"Matthew Stafford, in my opinion, is one of the best quarterbacks in the league," said outside linebacker Devon Kennard, who was with the Lions in 2018 and 2019. "Playing with him last year, if you looked at what he was doing before he got hurt, you could argue he was on his way to an MVP-type of year. That's the kind of player he is."

Joseph winced when he turned on the tape of last year's defensive struggles against Detroit, but was encouraged once he started comparing the current state of the defense to that iteration.

Cornerback Byron Murphy Jr. made his NFL debut in that game and is now much more comfortable with a year of professional experience under his belt. Linebacker De'Vondre Campbelllooks like the answer against opposing tight ends after the Cardinals were torched by T.J. Hockenson in last year's matchup.

Patrick Peterson will be on the field this time after missing that contest due to suspension.

"It was a new scheme, and a bunch of young players playing," Joseph said. "It was hard to watch, but it had to happen last year, so we can look at our defense this year and (realize it's) vastly improved."

Even though the back seven tends to get the credit or blame for pass defense numbers, pressure up front also plays a critical role. Outside linebacker Chandler Jones was a monster last season, finishing with 19 sacks, but didn't have much help.

On Sunday against Washington, four players not named Jones had sacks for the Cardinals, and the Cardinals will need to get varied pressure on Stafford.

"If they can sit back there and have four, five seconds to throw the ball, nobody can cover that long," said defensive tackle Jordan Phillips, who had a strip-sack last week against Washington. "That's more on us than it is them."

The Cardinals' defense has been the most effective unit on the team through two games -- a mild surprise considering the firepower on offense – but has been buoyed by favorable matchups.

Joseph knows the Lions will present a formidable challenge which his group must be prepared to combat.

"If not," Joseph said, "it can get bad quickly."

Images from practice at the Dignity Health Training Center heading into Sunday's Week 3 matchup against the Lions.