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Detroit Lions Week 11 report card: Defense, special teams rebound vs. Panthers

The Lions finally made some plays on special teams against Carolina.

NFL: Carolina Panthers at Detroit Lions Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s forego the intro and just get into it. Here are the positional grades for the Detroit Lions’ Week 11 performance against the Carolina Panthers.

Quarterbacks: B

It was an up-and-down day for Matthew Stafford as he shook off some early inaccuracies and communication breakdowns to finish strong. While his overall statline doesn’t look all that good, check out his second half stats: 10-of-17, 156 yards, 1 TD (108.9 passer rating).

That’s your difference in the ballgame.

Running backs: B

It’s tough to grade this unit as a whole, because on one hand, you have an A game from Kerryon Johnson. On the other hand, you have an F- from LeGarrette Blount.

Johnson looked like the Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate he was in the first six weeks of the season, rushing for 87 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries. The most impressive part is that every time Johnson ran the ball, you felt like he got every possible yard he could have on the play.

Wide receivers: B

Kenny Golladay was a human highlight reel on Sunday. Just look at this picture. LOOK AT IT.

Carolina Panthers v Detroit Lions Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

Say hello to your new wallpaper.

Golladay was phenomenal when he had to be, and the Lions even got some promising production out of Bruce Ellington, who could be a realistic slot option not just for the rest of the season but potentially even in 2019 and beyond.

Still, there was just a little too many drops in this game, and an overreliance on short passes. Just look at Matthew Stafford’s passing chart:

It’s clear they missed Marvin Jones Jr. in this game.

Tight ends: D

Another game, another day in which the Lions’ tight ends were irrelevant in the passing game. Sure, at this point in the season, it’s fair to assume the Lions know these guys just aren’t capable of being receivers, but unfortunately, they just aren’t very good at blocking, either. This entire unit is going to get another overhaul in the offseason.

Offensive line: A

Talk about a return to form. After getting outclassed in every way against the Bears and the Vikings, the Lions’ offensive line almost played a flawless game. Matthew Stafford had a clean pocket for most of his 37 passing attempts, and Johnson had real running lanes he could exploit.

This was the first time since T.J. Lang’s season-ending injury that the unit showed they can succeed together with Kenny Wiggins in the starting lineup. Obviously, the Panthers’ defense isn’t quite as good as Detroit’s previous two opponents, but it’s still good to see a solid performance from this unit.

Defensive line: B-

Pass rush was inconsistent again, and it nearly cost them on the final defensive play of the game. Cam Newton had all day on the two-point conversion, and while coverage was initially good, receivers eventually broke open and Newton missed them. That’s exactly the reason why this team’s lack of pass rush in contributing to their awful pass defense.

That being said, the Lions did sack Newton three times in this game, and, more impressively, they completely shut down the Panthers’ running game. Newton was not a threat on the ground in this game (2 yards rushing) and one of the most dangerous offensive weapons in the NFC—Christian McCaffrey—was held to just 53 yards rushing.

Linebackers: B

The linebackers, too, deserve a ton of credit for bottling up Carolina’s running game. Good Jarrad Davis showed up on Sunday, oftentimes spying on Cam Newton and preventing him from getting out of the pocket and making Detroit pay. He also picked up a huge sack on third down, allowing the Lions to hold Carolina to an early field goal attempt—which was promptly missed by Graham Gano.

Christian Jones had a mostly quiet game, but had a pretty impressive pass breakup. Overall, for a unit that has drawn a lot of criticism from yours truly, this was a huge step in the right direction.

Secondary: D-

Darius Slay had the play of the game by chasing down D.J. Moore 80 yards downfield. Tracy Walker had a seriously impressive interception to prevent the Panthers from scoring at the end of the first half. But that’s the end of the list of good plays from the secondary.

Pass coverage remains an absolute mess, as this team is desperately trying to find a No. 2 outside receiver. Detroit tried Teez Tabor, DeShawn Shead, Nevin Lawson and Mike Ford during this game, and all of them were exploited by Newton. Ford, an undrafted rookie just promoted from the practice squad, was probably the most promising of the group, but he was responsible for the big play by Moore that Slay saved.

While Ford and Walker provide a little optimism for the future of this secondary, it’s clear that big changes are still needed going forward. Expect this team to make big investments in the secondary this upcoming offseason.

Special teams: A+

I’m not going to give the Lions credit for the curse they’ve placed on opposing kickers, but the special teams unit was phenomenal on their own Sunday. Not only was Sam Martin pinning the Panthers inside their own 10-yard line nearly every time he punted the ball, but Detroit’s coverage units held Carolina to negative 1 yards on punt returns. On the Panthers’ kick returns, Detroit allowed just an average of 17.0.

Matt Prater was perfect, TJ Jones had a nice punt return and even (checks notes) Luke Willson had a decent ad lib return.

I’m not certain that firing Joe Marciano is the reason for this unit’s turnaround, but it certainly seems to have lit a fire beneath these players.

Coaching: A-

I have no issues with any of Matt Patricia’s in-game decisions. The only questionable moment was when the Lions lined up for a 58-yard field goal, only to take a delay of game penalty. My belief—and, granted, I don’t have any proof of this yet—is the Lions were trying to draw the Panthers offsides to get a more manageable field goal attempt. I am going to try to get confirmation on that from Patricia on Monday.

Either way, credit goes to Patricia for putting all the distractions of the week behind him and keeping his players motivated enough to compete against a good Panthers team.

Offensively, it was a little disappointing to see the team rarely challenge the Panthers deep, but there were also enough nice wrinkles—like that shovel pass to Theo Riddick—to keep the offense moving.

Defensively, I like that the coaching staff tried something new in the secondary. The play of Tabor and Shead is well past unacceptable, so I think it was a really smart move to put Ford out there early and often (he played in 50 percent of snaps). The coaches see problems and they’re actually trying to do something about it. That’s all you can ask.

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