Kyler Murray and Kliff Kingsbury set to make their highly anticipated NFL debuts
As the NFL's 100th season the kicks off this weekend, the league did a pretty good job of scheduling entertaining matchups for Week 1, such as the Arizona Cardinals hosting the Detroit Lions as part of Sunday's late-afternoon slate. Both the Lions (6-10 in 2018) and Cardinals (3-13) are hoping for better results as they look to end their respective postseason droughts. Detroit hasn't been in the playoffs since 2016, while Arizona's last appearance came in '15, although both teams finished with winning records in '17.
Both teams will try to play into January using different methods. The Lions possess a team full of veterans and are looking to prove that former New England defensive coordinator Matt Patricia (in his second year as head coach) can be a successful head coach in the NFL. The Cardinals, on the other hand, are breaking in a new head coach, a new offense and a new quarterback as they look to change the stereotypes of what a winning team can be. This game will be about which team bends — or breaks — first.
Detroit at Arizona
Kickoff: Sunday, Sept. 8 at 4:25 p.m. ET
Spread: Lions -2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. The NFL meets the Air-Raid
The NFL has been a pass-centric league for quite some time now. But the Cardinals are looking to take it to the next level by introducing the Hal Mumme-created, Sonny Dykes/Mike Leach-perfected "Air-Raid" offense to the league. Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury played in this offense for Leach at Texas Tech. His knowledge of Leach's playbook earned him the offensive coordinator jobs at both Houston (2008-11) and Texas A&M (2012) and six seasons as head coach at his alma mater (2013-18). Kingsbury did have a five-year professional career that saw him bounce around the NFL (2003-06) with brief stops in NFL Europe (2006) and finally the Canadian Football League (2007) before getting into coaching.
After being let go by Texas Tech, Kingsbury was initially hired to be the offensive coordinator at USC before taking the Cardinals job seemingly out of nowhere. And there are concerns about whether or not he can succeed in the NFL. He posted a losing record (35-40) at Tech, where the Raiders played in only three bowl games under his watch (2-1 in those games). The Red Raiders also gave up an average of 38 points per game during that stretch, and they struggled to recruit defensive talent. And as a quarterback, Kingsbury has only 17 NFL passing yards to his credit.
Tech did, however, score an average of 38 points per game under Kingsbury and averaged close to 500 yards each week as well. It's the offensive aspect that the Cardinals front office is most interested in, especially after the team posted fewer than 20 points in 12 of their 16 games in 2018. The big question will be whether or not this type of offense (the base package is four wide receivers with one running back) can succeed in the NFL, where the defensive talent is an upgrade from the collegiate ranks. Kingsbury will be under a very powerful microscope this season.
To this end, the team used this year's first overall draft pick on 2018 Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray to run Kingsbury's offense. Murray started his career at Texas A&M (post-Kingsbury) and transferred to Oklahoma after just one season in College Station (Kingsbury tried to recruit him to Texas Tech). Murray was a two-sport athlete and a highly scouted baseball prospect, and when he first got to Norman in 2017, he served as the backup quarterback to that year's Heisman Trophy winner, Baker Mayfield. Murray was drafted as an outfielder by Major League Baseball's Oakland Athletics in the 2018 MLB Draft and seemed destined for a baseball career until he posted 4,361 passing yards and 1,001 rushing yards and accounted for 54 total touchdowns last year, taking home the Heisman and leading the Sooners to the College Football Playoff.
Murray now looks to turn his college heroics into a successful rookie campaign. He won't have to do it on his own, as he has a pair of veteran wide receivers in Larry Fitzgerald (16,279 career receiving yards, 116 TDs), and Michael Crabtree (1,225 receiving yards and 11 TDs in the last two seasons combined) to throw to. He also has a solid tight end in Charles Clay (500 or more receiving yards in five of the last six seasons), a dependable running back in David Johnson (1,386 yards from scrimmage with 10 TDs last season), and some young wide receivers who played in similar offenses in college (Andy Isabella, KeeSean Johnson, Christian Kirk, Trent Sherfield).
On defense, Arizona is led by pass rushers Chandler Jones, Haason Reddick and Terrell Suggs (a combined 24 sacks last year), along with defensive linemen Rodney Gunter, Corey Peters and Clinton McDonald (126 tackles combined last season) and safety D.J. Swearinger (132 tackles, eight interceptions, 20 pass deflections for Washington over the last two years).
2. Detroit brings the experience
The Lions are a veteran, savvy team looking to use its experience to overcome the Cardinals' speed. Quarterback Matthew Stafford is back for another year after throwing for 3,777 yards and 21 touchdowns and completing 66 percent of his passes last season. Kenny Golladay (70 catches, 1,063 yards, 5 TDs in 2018) is Stafford's go-to receiver, and rookie tight end T.J. Hockenson (eighth overall draft pick) looks to be another downfield option for Stafford. An experienced offensive line needs to improve after allowing 40 sacks last year.
But what the Lions really need is a stronger rushing attack. They haven't had an individual 1,000-yard rusher since Reggie Bush in 2013. Detroit ran for 1,660 yards as a team last year, but only Kerryon Johnson (team-leading 641 yards) remains from last year's squad. Johnson, a second-year back out of Auburn, leads a youth movement at running back for the Lions this year that includes fourth-year player J.D. McKissic (197 career rushing yards in three seasons for Seattle), rookie Ty Johnson (sixth-round pick out of Maryland) and second-year fullback Nick Bawden (spent 2018 on injured reserve). Detroit's offense will need to chew up clock and try to keep Arizona's offense off the field.
The Lions defense will be tasked with making sure that Kingbury's offense doesn't succeed. Players to pay attention to on this side of the ball include defensive ends Trey Flowers (21 career sacks) and Romeo Okwara (7.5 sacks in 2018), linebackers Jarrad Davis (99 tackles, 6 sacks last year) and Christian Jones (69 tackles last season), cornerbacks Darius Slay (16 deflected passes last season) and Quandre Diggs (6 career interceptions), and safety Tavon Wilson (36 tackles, 1 sack last year).
3. Questions to answer
Can the Cardinals make their college-born playbook a success in the NFL? Can the Lions stop them? Can Detroit get its running game going, or will it be the Matthew Stafford show again? Can Arizona's defense bail the offense out if needed? All of these questions will be answered in some form or fashion on Sunday.
Home-field advantage could play a factor, but the Lions will put up a strong fight. The Cardinals will surprise some people, Kyler Murray will be fun to watch, and how the Lions use their running backs will be key. This game will be entertaining, but Detroit's experience takes them home with a close win.
Prediction: Lions 24, Cardinals 23
— Gabe Salgado is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He's a co-host of The Rewind Sports: 60. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.
(Top photo courtesy of azcardinals.com)