Five things to watch: Lions at Cardinals

Detroit News

Rod Beard
 
| The Detroit News

Lions fans have been frustrated by their inability to build a sustained winner, or even a contending team that can make the playoffs consistently. The years under coach Jim Caldwell were deemed a failure, with the thinking that the Lions could do better than the 9-7 record those teams boasted.

Turnarounds aren’t quick or easy and most teams in the NFL go through their iterations of contending and rebuilding. The NFL is set up that way — where teams should be able to improve through the draft and add pieces in free agency and normal development.

The Cardinals look to be a fine example, with four straight seasons at .500 or below and now looking like one of the better teams in the league, with a hot 2-0 start. They’ve done it with drafting quarterback Kyler Murray with the No. 1 overall pick last season and a shrewd trade to acquire DeAndre Hopkins from the Houston Texans.

Their high-octane offense, engineered by second-year coach Kliff Kingsbury, is still jelling and their top-10 defense can keep them in games even when their offense isn’t clicking on all cylinders.

After losing in the Super Bowl in 2008 and making the conference championship game in 2016, they’re building toward making another run toward relevance in the NFC.

The turnaround can happen, in short order, if it’s done right.

Here are five things to watch as the Lions travel to the desert to take on the Arizona Cardinals at State Farm Stadium on Sunday (4:25 p.m., Fox, 760):

1. IT’S A GOLLA-DAY

After missing the first two games because of hamstring issues, receiver Kenny Golladay looks good to go for his season debut. The Lions’ offense looked to be dialed back in some of their play calls in the first two games, without Golladay, their deep threat. Matthew Stafford needs his full complement of receivers and though T.J. Hockenson had the big game last season, Golladay did have four catches (on nine targets) and a touchdown. Just having Golladay back should make Stafford and the rest of the offense more comfortable.

2. THE GROUND GAME

The Lions are averaging 127 rushing yards in the first two games, up from 105 in the first two games last season. They have a nice rotation with varied skills sets from Kerryon Johnson, Adrian Peterson and D’Andre Swift, but they’ll count on establishing a ground game to maintain possession and keep the Cardinals’ offense off the field. Offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell has done a good job of distributing the runs well among the three, citing their ability to run and catch out of the backfield as strengths.  

3. OKUDAH, TAKE 2

In his debut, cornerback Jeff Okudah had some trouble keeping up with the Packers’ receivers. It’s going to be multiplied in going from Davante Adams to DeAndre Hopkins. Okudah will have to learn on the fly, with game reps giving him the best experience in dealing with all the looks that some of the league’s best receivers can give him. Cornerback is one of the hardest positions to learn as a rookie and Okudah will have to be a quick learner.  

4. CONTAINING MURRAY

Even with little pressure on quarterbacks in the first two games, the Lions will do well to get to Kyler Murray this week. Murray is more mobile than Mitch Trubisky and Aaron Rodgers, so even getting pressure in the pocket won’t necessarily be a measure of success. When Murray gets into run mode, he can be more dangerous, drawing comparisons to a punt returner because of his acceleration and shiftiness. It’ll be an alert for all levels of the defense, in keeping an eye on where Murray is. Joe Webb, a new acquisition this week, possibly played the role of Murray so the defense could practice in dealing with his athleticism.

5. LIKE A FOX

It’s not ideal to highlight punter Jack Fox as one of the standouts this season but with an average of 52 yards per punt, he’s been just that. When the offense isn’t working moving the ball, there’s some solace in knowing that Fox can bail them out and get the defense some field to work with. “He’s kicking the crap out of the ball,” special teams coordinator Brendan Coombs said. “He’s doing a great job in that phase.”

Rod.Beard@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @detnewsRodBeard

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