Can Cards Recover From Lions Loss?
NFL Week 15 - There's a human element to the game of football that can seldom be accounted for on paper. This conversation has been the argument du jour on Football Twitter in recent days, but that has mainly centered around situational decision-making on fourth downs and two-point conversions. I'm talking about one whole matchup between two different teams. No matter how many times you run the simulation between the Arizona Cardinals and Detroit Lions—two teams that stood on polar opposite ends of the conference standings heading into this week—the Cardinals are expected to come out on top. That's why Detroit has a 20.7% win probability to win this game before the ball is even kicked off. On paper, even with their injuries, the Cardinals are expected to win this game four out of every five times it is played.
Simulations and computers have yet to figure out the human element to this game, though. There's certainly a way to account for the statistical difference coming off a loss or losing a top player to injury. But there's no numerical measurement to gauge the motivational levels of a team that has gone .500 over their last six games after starting off 7-0, the demoralization of going on the road on a short week after losing to a division rival on national television, or the emotional toll suffered by some players after losing a locker room leader for the rest of the season. On the other hand, there's no way to judge how a team will perform when playing with reckless abandon, fueled by a charismatic leader for a head coach that has captured the minds and hearts of his team. This game is the result of what happens when a team with nothing to lose catches a team stuck in limbo.
Offensively, the Detroit Lions weren't afraid to take what the Arizona Cardinals defense was giving them. Detroit's two first-half touchdowns came on drives of 93 and 97 yards. All throughout the first half, Arizona's defense prevented the home-run shot by sitting back and leaving the underneath options open. Jared Goff worked with that. Most of the Lions offense's chunk plays in the first half either came from checkdowns or horizontal routes that finished just underneath where the distant cornerbacks stood pat. Finishing the day 21-for-26 for 216 yards and three touchdowns, Goff went 16-for-19 on passes less than 10 yards downfield.
That only happens because of the big cushions the Cardinals secondary afforded Lions receivers. Josh Reynolds and Amon-Ra St. Brown, Detroit's two leading receivers on the day, had average cushions of 7.7 yards and 7.3 yards respectively, per NFL Next Gen Stats. That created opportunities like Detroit's first touchdown of the game. Second-and-4 from Arizona's 37-yard line, Detroit sends their two outermost receivers on vertical routes. Arizona's Mike linebacker and strong safety, originally covering the middle of the field, see this and start to bail. This perfectly sets up St. Brown on a leak route down the left sideline, with the free safety cleared out of the play and the linebacker now responsible for St. Brown left chasing after him. Goff hits St. Brown in stride, and it's off to the races.
The Cardinals defense didn't do themselves any favors either. After Arizona's offense failed to convert on fourth-and-goal, Detroit took over on downs at their own 3-yard line with 1:59 to play before halftime. The Lions offense got a 30-yard boost thanks to two different roughing the passer penalties getting tacked onto completed passes. That moved the ball from Detroit's 19-yard line to their 34-yard line, then from Detroit's 48-yard line to Arizona's 37-yard line. The drive wasn't all on Arizona, though, as the Lions brought some great play design to pick up a fourth-and-1 to keep the drive alive.
Detroit line up St. Brown up in the backfield to the left of Goff with a tight trips bunch out to the right side. The Cardinals have 10 of their 11 defenders within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage. Just before the snap, St. Brown motions behind Goff, and Goff finds him in the flats after handling the snap. The three receivers in trips lead block for St. Brown, cleaning up four Cardinals defenders as St. Brown easily picks up the first down.
The next play, Goff hits a diving Josh Reynolds in tight coverage for a touchdown and an 14-0 halftime lead.
On the other side of the ball, the Arizona Cardinals offense could never really find their stride in the passing game. Kyler Murray had his worst performance of the season on several accounts. His 56.1% completion rate, 6.3 yards per attempt, and 7.9 quarterback rating all stand as season-lows for the third-year quarterback.
Part of that can be chalked up to not having DeAndre Hopkins, but Detroit also managed to do a great job disrupting Murray's timing without center Rodney Hudson in the fold. Hudson was ruled out of this week's game in Detroit after being placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list the Friday prior, and his absence was noticeable. The Lions only managed to sack Murray twice, but Detroit was able to consistently create penetration rushing four. That created enough pressure to get Murray scrambling and throwing off-target, leading to a handful of throwaways and missed balls on Murray's behalf.
Where the Game Swung
|Qtr||Time||Down||To Go||Location||WP Change||Play|
|3||8:30||2||8||ARI 46||+15.5%||Kyler Murray intercepted by Amani Oruwariye, returned to Arizona's 6-yard line|
|3||9:01||1||10||ARI 47||-11.0%||Godwin Igwebuike fumbles at the line of scrimmage, recovered by Byron Murphy|
|2||15:00||2||4||ARI 37||+10.6%||Jared Goff connects with Amon-Ra St. Brown for a 37-yard touchdown|
|2||0:24||1||10||ARI 22||+9.7%||Josh Reynolds hauls in a 22-yard touchdown reception|
|2||1:58||4||3||DET 3||+8.3%||Kyler Murray fails to connect with Antoine Wesley, turnover on downs|
The two most impactful plays by win probability practically canceled themselves out. At least that's how I read it in my mind considering they happened within 30 seconds of each other. The fumble recovery by Byron Murphy looked to be the play Arizona needed to get back in the game.
The Cardinals managed to get themselves on the board with a field goal on the opening drive of the half, then stopped a driving Detroit offense around midfield. Two plays later, though, this happens:
Going through the film. Harris deserves a lot of credit on Oruwariye's interception. Cards had hit Lions a couple time with quick outs/bubble screens early. They show that trying to set up a deep route, but Harris doesn't bite on stutter and go, forcing QB to look back for Green. pic.twitter.com/ODfOUNE7MV
— Justin Rogers (@Justin_Rogers) December 21, 2021
I'm still not sure if Murray just never sees Amani Oruwariye on this throw or if he just doesn't expect him to be able to re-position himself in a way to make a play on the pass. Regardless of what the quarterback thought, Oruwariye makes a Herculean effort to get back on this ball and return it an extra 50 yards. In just two plays, a forced turnover at midfield becomes a goal-line stand.
There's another moment of duality in this chart, but this time, both plays go in favor of the Lions. I already explained the second half of this equation (the 97-yard touchdown drive culminating in the Josh Reynolds touchdown) in the first section of this article. That doesn't happen without the Cardinals offense going 0-for-4 in goal-line situations. On their final drive of the second quarter, Arizona took over with a short field (their own 39) and got as close as they would get to the end zone in the first half, finishing the drive with a fourth-and-goal failure at the 3.
The Cardinals' first three attempts consisted of long-developing plays that really didn't seem to go anywhere. The second-and-goal quick pass to Christian Kirk got quickly snuffed out by Detroit for a 3-yard gain. By the time Murray found A.J. Green in the corner of the end zone on their third-down play, the receiver's momentum was dragging him out of bounds to the point where he couldn't secure the touchdown while staying in bounds. Their last attempt saw A.J. Parker break up a shallow end zone pass to Antoine Wesley. The Cardinals had two more red zone trips the rest of the game, one resulting in a field goal and the other coming in the closing seconds of the game.
By the DVOA
This was far and away Detroit's best performance of the season by DVOA. It set a new high for the Lions' single-game total DVOA, offensive DVOA, and defensive DVOA. Their special teams DVOA unfortunately falls in the middle of the pack, otherwise it would have been a clean sweep.
Also, hats off to Jared Goff. I mentioned during this week's Audibles at the Line that this was far and away Jared Goff's best performance in a Lions uniform. DVOA backs that up, too. The Lions' 106.5% offensive passing DVOA is the best single-game passing performance for Detroit since Week 9 of 2017, when Matt Stafford went 26-for-33 for 361 yards and a pair of touchdowns en route to a 30-17 win over the Green Bay Packers.
On the flip side, this is also one of the worst games of the season for the Arizona Cardinals. The Cardinals' Week 10 game against Carolina (when Colt McCoy started in place of Kyler Murray) stands as the worst games by total DVOA and offensive DVOA, but this was Arizona's worst defensive showing of the year. The Cardinals haven't defended the pass this poorly in the last decade. Their 89.0% defensive passing DVOA is their worst single-game showing since Week 4 of 2010 against the San Diego Chargers.
I should also note that the Arizona defense that surprised everyone at the start of the season has come back down to earth in recent weeks, especially since the loss of J.J. Watt. Here's their defensive DVOA performances since losing their top defensive offseason acquisition:
Thrown Out of the Nest
The Cardinals would have clinched a playoff berth with a win this week. That obviously didn't happen. The Los Angeles Rams now have a chance on Tuesday night to tie the Cardinals in the standings, though the Cardinals would hold the tiebreaker because of in-division record. Still, Arizona's hold on the NFC West is suddenly looking particularly precarious. They have already lost hold of the one-seed in the NFC to the Green Bay Packers. How much further can they slip?
This is the time of year where every team is plagued with injuries and absences, but the Cardinals have been hit with some losses to their most important players. I already touched on how the midseason loss to Watt has impacted their defense. He may return by the playoffs from his bicep injury, and Rodney Hudson should return from the COVID-19 list sometime soon.
Arizona looks to be without Hopkins for the long haul, though. ESPN's Adam Schefter reported that after tearing his MCL on Monday Night Football against the Rams, Hopkins "could be back" for the NFC Championship Game or Super Bowl if the Cardinals make it that far. Expecting him back any earlier has been deemed "unrealistic." The Cardinals have a deep roster of offensive weapons, but the combined receiving efforts of A.J. Green, Christian Kirk, Rondale Moore, and Zach Ertz do not make up for what Hopkins brings to the table—his ability to draw top defensive assignments, his skill to get up and catch balls, not to mention the special connection he's formed with Murray. Losing Hopkins the rest of the way takes a lot of wind from the sails of what looked like the improbable emergence of an NFC contender.
Now, without their top offensive weapon, Arizona has two top-10 defensive opponents to face off against. The Cardinals head home to host the Indianapolis Colts, currently the eighth-ranked defense by DVOA. Arizona then travels to Dallas to take on the Cowboys, whose defense ranks third in total defensive DVOA and first against the pass. The Cardinals season closes with a Week 18 matchup at home against Seattle, and the Seahawks have a habit of playing weird games. If the Cardinals want to keep their playoff hopes alive, they need to look more motivated than they did against Detroit.