DETROIT — Matthew Stafford agreed to the richest contract in NFL history last week. He’ll start earning some of that money in the season opener Sunday at Ford Field against one of the league’s premier defenses.
The Detroit Lions quarterback, who received a five-year, $135 million extension, faces an Arizona defense that has given him fits in the past. The Cardinals have won their last seven games against the Lions, a streak that dates to 2006.
Stafford was benched after throwing three interceptions in a 42-17 home loss to the Cardinals two seasons ago, the last time the teams met.
Arizona allowed the second-fewest yards and topped the league with 48 sacks last season.
“They’re unique in their scheme,” Stafford said. “The guys in the secondary, they’re ballhawks out there. No. 21 (cornerback Patrick Peterson) and 32 (free safety Tyrann Mathieu) have done it for years and some of the other guys that are new to the team or their role are playing really well, too.
“And then they have guys who can really rush the passer up front. So they do a really nice job. Traditionally, they’ve been a very good defense and I don’t expect to see anything different.”
The Lions reshuffled their line during the offseason to provide better protection for Stafford and open more holes in the running game. They signed right tackle Rick Wagner and right guard T.J. Lang during free agency, then traded with the Los Angeles Rams for left tackle Greg Robinson when Taylor Decker suffered a shoulder injury during minicamp.
Ameer Abdullah returns as the starting running back after playing only two games last season because of a foot injury. Pass-catching specialist Theo Riddick, who was limited to 10 games because of wrist injuries, will back him up.
“When we’re healthy, we’re obviously better,” Stafford said of the running game. “Those two guys are a big part of what we do, as are most backs in this league.
“We have talented guys that can take a handoff and go the distance and make people look pretty foolish trying to cover them in the pass game, too. The more those guys can touch the ball and we can get them in space, the better.”
Stafford engineered a series of fourth-quarter comebacks last season that allowed the Lions to reach the postseason as a wild card. Seattle made their postseason stay a short one.
The Cardinals came into last season as one of the favorites to reach the Super Bowl but didn’t qualify for the postseason, finishing at 7-8-1.
Arizona got off to a 1-3 start last season and plays its first two games on the road this year. It heads to Indianapolis next weekend.
“We’ve got to get off to a good start,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said. “There’s no excuses about 10 a.m. (Pacific time start) and all that (nonsense). We all know the schedule. So yeah, we’ve got to get off to a good start and we’ve got to get off to a good start in those games. You don’t want to get behind on the road in a domed stadium, for sure.”
Carson Palmer is back behind center, but the Cardinals’ biggest weapon is running back and fantasy football darling David Johnson. He scored a combined 20 touchdowns a year ago while rushing for 1,239 yards and catching 80 passes for an additional 879 yards.
“I’ve always said, he’s the closest thing I’ve been around to Marshall Faulk,” Arians said. “Marshall could start at wide receiver and probably on defense as a safety or corner. They’re very smart guys. If a guy isn’t real smart, you overload him to where he can’t play fast if you put a bunch of things on his plate. Obviously, David’s very bright and it’s good to see Andre (Ellington) back healthy because he can do a lot of things like that, too.”
Ageless Larry Fitzgerald remains Palmer’s top target.
Defensively, the Cardinals will be without linebacker Deone Bucannon, who underwent offseason ankle surgery. Rookie Haasan Reddick is expected to start in his place. Defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche is dealing with a calf injury.
Detroit’s top pass rusher, Ezekiel Ansah, is expected to play despite missing the preseason with a knee injury. Rookie wide receiver Kenny Golladay has been limited in practice with an ankle issue but is also expected to play.
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