| Detroit Free Press
Can Detroit Lions get back to .500 at Carolina? Our guys break it down
Free Press sports writers Dave Birkett and Carlos Monarrez preview Sunday’s Detroit Lions game against the Carolina Panthers.
Detroit Lions (4-5) vs. Carolina Panthers (3-7)
The coaches: Lions: Matt Patricia (13-27-1); Panthers: Matt Rhule (3-7).
Last game: Lions beat Washington, 30-27; Panthers lost to Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 46-23.
Last meeting: Nov. 18, 2018: Lions won, 20-19.
Panthers WR Robby Anderson vs. Lions CB Desmond Trufant – Anderson has revitalized his career after four seasons with the New York Jets. He entered the week ranked in the top five in the NFL in both receptions and receiving yards, and his 64 catches is a team and career high. D.J. Moore is the Panthers’ deep threat; he has almost as many yards as Anderson, on about half as many catches. But with Teddy Bridgewater’s status in doubt, Anderson could be more valuable to the offense as a chain mover. Trufant’s advanced statistical numbers aren’t pretty; quarterbacks have a 121.6 passer rating when throwing his way, according to Pro Football Reference. But he played his best game in last week’s win over Washington, and finally seems to be over the hamstring injury that nagged him the first half of the season.
Lions RT Tyrell Crosby vs. Panthers DE Brian Burns – The Lions do not seem overly concerned about Matthew Stafford’s injured right thumb, but they can’t afford to have their quarterback playing under duress, either. Burns is Carolina’s best pass rusher, an outside linebacker who converted to left defensive end and has given blockers fits with his speed. He leads the Panthers with four sacks and presents a tall task for Crosby, who has solidified himself as the Lions’ starting right tackle ahead of Halapoulivaati Vaitai.
Lions run offense vs. Panthers run defense
D’Andre Swift’s absence due to a brain injury is a huge blow to a Lions team that finally had something going on the ground. Swift had 149 yards from scrimmage last week and is both the Lions’ most versatile and explosive back. He’s the only one averaging more than 4 yards per carry, and has a team-leading six touchdowns (four rushing).
Adrian Peterson and Kerryon Johnson will split backfield duties, with Peterson likely returning to a starting role. Peterson is a future Hall of Famer who runs with violence and purpose, but he has had one carry longer than 10 yards in the five games since the bye. Johnson has 38 touches all season, after leading the Lions in rushing the past two years. He should play, at a minimum, on third downs and in two-minute situations.
Carolina ranks 19th against the run at 124.5 yards per game and gave up a 98-yard touchdown run as part of a 210-yard rushing day by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last week. Rookie Derrick Brown, who the Lions considered with the No. 3 pick, anchors a young defensive line, but big plays have been an issue for the Panthers, as they’ve allowed eight rushes of 20-plus yards. Edge: Panthers
Lions pass offense vs. Panthers pass defense
The Lions’ injury concerns are not confined to the ground game. Stafford will play with an injured thumb on his throwing hand, and the Lions are beat-up at receiver Danny Amendola and Kenny Golladay are out with hip injuries, and Marvin Jones missed practice time this week with a sore knee.
Jones is coming off his best game of the season and could be in line for another big day against a shorthanded Panthers secondary that will be without top cornerback Donte’ Jackson. Look for T.J. Hockenson to be heavily involved, too. The Panthers have given up more yards to tight ends than all but four teams this season.
Carolina ranks last in the league in third- and fourth-down defense, though the Panthers have changed their approach in recent weeks to play more man-to-man defense on those downs. Rookie fourth-round pick Troy Pride should see more playing time in Jackson’s absence, but Carolina’s undermanned secondary needs more help from a pass rush that ranks 32nd in sack rate. Edge: Lions
Panthers run offense vs. Lions run defense
No team has been hit harder by injuries at running back than the Panthers. Christian McCaffrey, who led the NFL with 2,392 yards from scrimmage in 2019, has played three games this year because of ankle and shoulder injuries. He’s out again, which means Mike Davis will get the bulk of the snaps.
Davis is averaging a respectable 4.2 yards per carry and has 47 receptions, so the Panthers are featuring him in ways similar to McCaffrey. He’s nowhere near as explosive a player, though, and nowhere near as polished a receiver. Carolina will play receiver Curtis Samuel out of the backfield some to create mismatches, and if Teddy Bridgewater or P.J. Walker start at quarterback, they can be dangerous with their legs.
The Lions rank 30th against the run (141.6 ypg), though they held Washington to 89 yards on the ground in one of their best defensive efforts of the season. Reggie Ragland gave the defense a lift at linebacker and should continue to play ahead of Jahlani Tavai and Jarrad Davis. Edge: Panthers
Panthers pass offense vs. Lions pass defense
It is not clear who will start at quarterback for the Panthers. Bridgewater is a game-time decision because of a knee injury, and Carolina gave backups Walker and Will Grier equal reps in practice this week. Neither backup has much experience. Walker starred in the XFL before that league went belly up, and Grier threw four interceptions without a touchdown in four starts last season.
McCaffrey’s absence leaves Carolina without its most explosive weapon in the pass game, but the Panthers have a solid group of receivers. Anderson is approaching his first 1,000-yard season and catches most passes thrown his way, and Moore is the big play threat at 18.9 yards per catch. In his only game against the Lions two years ago, Moore had seven catches for 157 yards.
Lions coach Matt Patricia said he expects Bridgewater to start. Either way, the Lions will continue to rotate cornerbacks, with Amani Oruwariye and Jeff Okudah playing opposite Trufant. Romeo Okwara, who grew up in Charlotte, leads the Lions with six sacks and will be playing his first NFL game in his home town. Edge: Lions
If this game turns into a battle of long field goals, the Lions have the advantage. Matt Prater, though he has struggled from distance at times this season, is the most accurate kicker from 50-plus yards in NFL history and drilled a winning 59-yard as time expired last week. Carolina’s Joey Slye is 0 for 4 on kicks of 50-plus yards this season.
The Lions have an edge in the punting game, too, as Jack Fox continues to lead the NFL with a 47.7-yard net average. The Lions have controlled field position in most of their games because of Fox’s big leg and solid coverage units, and Sunday should be no different, though Trenton Cannon had a 98-yard kick return for Carolina last week. The Panthers prefer to kick touchbacks on kickoffs, so the Lions won’t have many opportunities in the return game. Panthers rookie punter Joseph Charlton has a respectable 43-yard net average. Edge: Lions
The Panthers remind me a lot of the Miami Dolphins last year. They are a well-coached team that, even with a 3-7 record, has outperformed their talent level. If Bridgewater ends up playing, I could see him willing Carolina to victory. But with Walker or Grier at quarterback, no McCaffrey in the lineup and few playmakers on defense, I don’t know how the Panthers win. Like Washington last week and Jacksonville last month, the Lions have a superior roster. Swift’s absence is a blow, and there’s always the chance Stafford’s thumb is worse than he has let on. But as long as he is playing and the Lions don’t implode with turnovers, they should enter Thanksgiving on a two-game winning streak. Pick: Lions 27, Panthers 21