A year ago, the Lions were 2-7, overlooked, still a punchline and well on their way to another lost season. They would drop all the way to 2-10 before taking the NFL by storm and defeating the Packers, Bucs, Dolphins and Vikings. That late season run gave the Lions a taste of winning important games against opponents fighting for playoff spots and experience winning on the road.
The Lions now sit at 6-3, they are erroneously crowned the bad boys of the NFL and they are well on their way to their first non-losing season since 2000. They also are at a crossroads. This team has displayed Super Bowl caliber ability at times, overcoming two huge road deficits and crushing inferior opponents. They have also displayed a propensity for poorly timed penalties, turnovers and maddening bouts of inconsistency which all played a huge role in building the deficits and their three losses.
The Lions face a Panthers team that has less talent, nothing to play for and facing a raucous Ford Field crowd. This is a game that is an easy W on paper. However, the Lions are 0-2 in their last two home games, just got blown out on the road by a very evenly matched Bears team and is dealing with a rash of injuries. The Lions need this win to get back on track and keep up with the suddenly close playoff race. 6-3 is an improvement and even if they miss the playoffs this season is still a step in the right direction, but after starting 5-0 progress isn’t enough anymore.
I have made no bones about my dislike of the Lions’ offensive gameplans this season. I have felt the coaches have not put the players in the best position to win in almost every game this year. I understand the team is built around an explosive passing game to build a lead, and then unleash the Brute Squad on opposing quarterbacks as they have to try to keep up. It’s a great strategy except for one issue. Everybody knows the plan. Opponents have willingly shown the Lions seven man fronts and thin coverages underneath. They have dared the Lions to run and beat them with the short to intermediate passing game and the Lions can’t do it.
The Panthers have lost two starting linebackers this season, they have the worst defensive tackle group in football and they are giving up 361 yards of offense a game. They do have two very good defensive ends that rush the quarterback well and they have an underrated secondary that plays very physically. The Panthers are vulnerable against the run and short pass, but they don’t give up much deep because of their pass rush and secondary.
If the Lions use their usual gameplan, they play right into the Panthers’ strength, and sadly there is no reason to think that they won’t. There is a reason the Lions look so bad in the first half every week, it’s because everybody knows how to defend them. They have done a decent job adjusting in the second half to counter what the defense throws at them, but for some reason don’t do it to start the game.
The Lions two best offensive performances came against the Broncos and the Chiefs when they were balanced on offense and kept the defense off balance with unpredictable play calling. Despite winning those game by a combined score of 93-13, they have gotten away from those gameplans.
Matthew Stafford’s finger is fractured, Jahvid Best is out and Calvin Johnson is banged up. The three players most heavily leaned on for explosive plays are not at 100%. Nate Burleson, Tony Scheffler, Brandon Pettigrew and Maurice Morris are fine. They are the grinders that can pick up 4 yards on first down and get tough yards over the middle to keep the chains moving. Stafford is deadly when he gets into a rhythm and quarterbacks don’t get into rhythm by throwing downfield. They get in the groove chewing up yardage in small chunks, setting the stage for shots downfield once the defense is reeling. The Lions spent draft picks and money on building a supporting cast to help Stafford, Best and CJ. It’s time to use them, otherwise this offense is one-sided, predictable and easily contained.
Cam Newton has had a much better rookie year than anybody could have expected. The Panthers have tailor made an offense that combines an NFL foundation with a lot of the concepts that Newton was familiar with in college. It would be accurate to say that he has taken the NFL by storm, however it would also be accurate to point out how ordinary he has been against good defenses. In three games against the Cardinals, Redskins and Vikings Newton has completed 64 of 95 for 968 yards, 6 Tds, 1 Int with 11 sacks and a quarterback rating of 117.4. Against the Packers, Jaguars, Bears, Saints, Falcons and Titans he has completed 133 of 232 for 1,637 yards, 5 Tds, 9 Ints with 11 sacks and a 70.3 quarterback rating.
The Lions have one of the better pass defenses in the league and they have gotten better each game. The Lions were forced to play a lot of zone coverages in the past because of a weak cornerback group, but the Lions have been mixing in a lot more man to man to keep offenses off balance. The man to man defense gives them more flexibility in bringing blitzes as well as allowing Stephen Tulloch the opportunity to shadow mobile quarterbacks.
Tulloch has excelled at keeping opposing quarterbacks in check when spying them. He has a great feel for pursuit angles and he’s an aggressive tackler in the open field. The Lions will definitely deploy him in the spy role against the dangerous Newton.
The Panthers have a great running back tandem who have immense talent, but limited productivity for various reasons. The Lions have been burned by run first teams all year and Carolina has a three headed monster with Newton, DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. The two backs have struggled with injuries and their numbers are down from previous years, but they have the ability to take over games when they get hot. Newton is the most dangerous red zone runner in the league right now, but the Lions have been almost impossible to run on in short yardage.
Steve Smith poses the biggest threat for the Lions. The Lions have an aggressive defense that has struggled to limit big running plays. That makes them susceptible to play action passes and Smith has the speed and Newton has the arm to take full advantage of that aggressiveness.
The wild card in this game is Scott Linehan, truth be told he might be the wild card for the rest of the season. If the Lions try to attack the Panthers deep early and often, while exposing Stafford to the pass rush they will sputter offensively. That will let Carolina deploy the three headed run game and keep the game close. If Linehan mixes up the play calls with runs, short passes and lots of protection for Stafford the Lions can abuse the overmatched Panther defense’s most vulnerable positions.
I am taking a huge leap of faith and predicting the Lions bounce back. They have gotten punched in the mouth in three of the last four games and if that doesn’t open their eyes I don’t know what will. This game has all the makings of a trap game though. The Lions coming off an embarrassing loss wanting to erase the stench of the Bears game, a losing team that has been able to hang with better teams and a huge nationally televised game four days afterwards.
I’m going to roll the dice with a second prediction as well. If the Lions lose this game, they will miss the playoffs and be lucky to finish the season at 8-8.