Detroit Lions’ worst performance of 2022 reminds us rebuilds are hard

Detroit Free Press

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Blame it on the weather. No, not the cold — the Detroit Lions should be able to handle a little bite in the air.

I’m talking about the weather that forced the Lions south a day earlier than normal on a road trip. It knocked them off balance.

Had to, right?

They did a walk-thru at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, inside the campus recreation center, on a hardwood floor meant for volleyball and basketball, and how is an NFL team supposed to win after that?

They can’t. Obviously.

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SATURDAY’S GAME:Lions steamrolled 37-23 by Carolina Panthers, see playoff hopes flicker

How else to explain their worst performance of the season, a 37-23 loss to the Carolina Panthers on Christmas Eve?

How out of sorts they were inside Bank of America Stadium? Not just out of sorts, but out of rhythm, and out of place, especially the Lions’ front seven when Carolina ran.

All the Panthers did was set a franchise record for first-half rushing yards. Six times, they ran for 20 yards or more. D’Onta Foreman and Chuba Hubbard had 100 yards rushing apiece … by the half!

And when the Lions had a chance to reset the defense during the break, they couldn’t; they showed that on the first play in the third quarter. Foreman took a handoff, cut to his left and to the outside and ripped up the sideline for 15 yards.

No one was on the edge to stop him. No one set an edge all day, in fact, as Foreman and Hubbard had six-lane freeways available wherever they cut up the field.

Then it got worse as Sam Darnold began feathering passes to his receivers as if he were Tom Brady in his prime. As will happen when a team is setting franchise records running the ball.

Meanwhile, the Lions couldn’t run at all, revealing a struggle hidden in recent weeks because the team kept winning.

For a while, it didn’t look like they’d need their ground game. After the Panthers scored on their opening drive without a pass — five rushes for 78 yards — the Lions scored in eight plays with almost no rushing. And when Jared Goff hit Shane Zylstra in the end zone, well, the Lions looked as they’ve looked for the better part of the last two months:

Unshakable and unbothered.

They tied the game. Got a stop — aided by a Carolina dropped pass on third down — and began moving the ball again. This time for 82 yards, setting them up inside the 10 with a first down.

There, the game changed.

Goff and Frank Ragnow had a poor exchange at the snap; Goff dropped the ball and Carolina recovered. The Panthers marched 91 yards the other way and took a 14-7 lead, gouging the Lions’ run defense again.

If the Lions hadn’t fumbled and had taken a 14-7 lead instead, maybe it would have delayed the inevitable. Maybe the Panthers still score 34 points.

The Lions after all, gave up 320 yards on the ground. Let me repeat that: 320 yards. That’s the fourth-worst total in franchise history dating back to 1940.

Still, if not for the fumble, the Lions take the lead and the psychology changes and maybe they have a chance in a shootout. Maybe they don’t fall behind by 17 at the half and abandon the run — not that they could run anyway, and haven’t been able to for a month — and maybe Goff isn’t getting passes batted down and sacked.

Y’know, like he was twice on the second drive of the second half. That’s how the day went, too.

Their last chance — if we want to call it a chance, and we will, since it’s Christmas Eve, a time for charity — was when the Lions got inside the 10 with the opportunity to cut the lead to 14 with about 12 minutes left in the game.

Do that and who knows?

The Lions have earned that kind of optimism during this surge of six wins in seven games. They’ve also earned high expectations from their fanbase, and that base was hugely let down by the performance.

They thought the Lions were past this kind of stinkfest. Heck, they’d only had one this bad all year, at New England — and that game was weirdly personal considering Matt Patricia was calling the plays for the Patriots.

Other than that performance, though, the Lions have been competitive in every other game this season. Not just competitive; they’ve had a chance to win in every game.

They had none against the Panthers. And that’s disappointing.

The Lions had become NFL darlings over the past few weeks. They were even favored in Charlotte.

It’s hard to win four games in a row, no matter how good you are. But, still … this? It’ll leave a sour taste. Because the Lions didn’t look like they were ready, then didn’t adjust. Or couldn’t adjust.

And although every team throws up a stinker occasionally, it’s helpful to remember this is still a rebuild, and the Lions have far to go.

That rushing yardage — 320 yards! — is a harsh reminder of that.

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