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Detroit Lions Week 16 scouting report: The Carolina Panthers have playoff hopes, too

For the Carolina Panthers, 2022 has been a season of change, yet, despite a 5-9 record, they remain in the hunt for a spot in the playoffs.

NFL: NOV 10 Falcons at Panthers Photo by John Byrum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

‘Tis the season to watch the Detroit Lions make a push for the playoffs.

After escaping from New York New Jersey with a 20-17 victory over the New York Jets, the Lions are one step closer to a wild card spot. Considering they started the season 1-6, a 7-7 record as we head into the home stretch of the NFL regular season is a reversal of fortunes only the most optimistic fan could have predicted. With both the Seattle Seahawks and Washington Commanders losing in Week 15, Detroit could find themselves holding onto a wild card spot by the time the dust settles on Week 16—as long as they get a little help from those teams losing again.

But any game in the NFL is far from a guarantee, and the Lions still have business they need to take care of before they can start talking about playoffs. Their next trip takes them to Carolina for a matchup with a Panthers team that is also playing for a spot in the playoffs—no matter how insane that sounds. At 5-9, the Panthers are still in contention for the NFC South title, sitting just a game behind the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-8). Despite that record, they’re still in the playoff hunt like Detroit, and neither team can afford to lose this game to keep their playoff hopes alive.

Carolina had a similar start to their season, dropping four of their first five games, but Panthers brass had seen enough of what then-head coach Matt Rhule had to offer. Carolina fired Rhule after a 37-15 shellacking from the San Francisco 49ers in Week 5 and turned to defensive passing game coordinator/secondary coach Steve Wilks to take over as interim head coach. Since Wilks took over, the Panthers are 4-5 and have been a more competitive team week in and week out.

Let’s dig a little deeper into who this Panthers team is in our Week 16 scouting report.

2022 Carolina Panthers

2022 season thus far (5-9)

Week 1: Lost to Browns, 24-26
Week 2: Lost to Giants, 16-19
Week 3: Beat Saints, 22-14
Week 4: Lost to Cardinals, 16-26
Week 5: Lost to 49ers, 15-37
*Fired head coach Matt Rhule, promoted Steve Wilks to interim head coach
Week 6: Lost to Rams, 10-24
Week 7: Beat Buccaneers, 21-3
Week 8: Lost to Falcons, 34-37
Week 9: Lost to Bengals, 21-42
Week 10: Beat Falcons, 25-15
Week 11: Lost to Ravens, 3-13
Week 12: Beat Broncos, 23-10
Week 13: Bye
Week 14: Beat Seahawks, 30-24
Week 15: Lost to Steelers, 16-24

Stats:

  • 24th in points scored (19.7 PPG), 15th in points allowed (22.4 PPG)
  • 28th in overall DVOA
  • 29th in offensive DVOA (30th in pass DVOA, 20th in run DVOA)
  • 20th in defensive DVOA (21st in pass DVOA, 21st in run DVOA)

Offense

Through the first five games of the season, the Carolina Panthers were 31st in offensive DVOA (30th in pass DVOA, 26th in rush DVOA). They were averaging 18.6 points and just 181.6 passing yards per game before Carolina decided to hit the reset button and move on from Rhule, but none of those numbers should be surprising. Carolina was suffering the consequences of throwing more resources at yet another reclamation project of a quarterback in Baker Mayfield after not being sold on Sam Darnold the season prior.

After moving on from Rhule, the Panthers have experienced a slight improvement on offense despite the revolving door at quarterback and trading franchise running back Christian McCaffrey to the 49ers. Since Week 6, Carolina ranks 25th in offensive DVOA, but their play has been a story of peaks and valleys. Against the Falcons in Week 10, the Panthers racked up an impressive 232 rushing yards, but then rushed for 36 yards on 17 carries against the Ravens the following week. In Week 14, Carolina ran all over the Seahawks for 223 yards on 46 carries only to see their production fall off the table last week against the Steelers—21 rushing yards on 16 carries.

Running back D’Onta Foreman assumed the lead back duties after the McCaffrey deal, rushing for 4.2 yards per carry and four touchdowns on 145 carries since Week 7. While the running game has run hot and cold, the offensive line is ranked highly when it comes to the ground game. The team ranks 15th in ESPN’s run block win rate, but their two starting guards, Brady Christensen (eighth) and Austin Corbett (seventh) are among the top 10 guards in the metric. By DVOA, the Panthers are ninth in adjusted line yards (4.61), but just 22nd in open field yards (0.64) which illustrates how much of their success on the ground is because of their guys up front.

As far as the Panthers passing attack, there hasn’t been much to write home about that prong of their offense either since Wilks took over as head coach. Carolina is 22nd in pass DVOA since Week 6, averaging 164.4 passing yards as they’ve placed Mayfield, P.J. Walker, and now Sam Darnold under center. Darnold has done a good job protecting the football in his three starts this season, committing no turnovers and completing 59 percent of his passes with only one turnover-worthy play per PFF.

D.J. Moore leads the way for the Panthers' pass-catchers, but 2022 hasn’t lived up to the expectations for Carolina’s No. 1 receiver. Of course, you can’t ignore how the Panthers parade of quarterbacks has played a part in Moore’s lackluster season, but 51 catches for 678 yards and five touchdowns is a far cry from his 2022 projections: 99 catches, 1,276 yards, and six touchdowns. Carolina’s No. 2 receiver is... Christian McCaffrey, who hasn’t played for the Panthers since October 16. For those players still part of the Panthers organization, last year’s second-round pick Terrace Marshall Jr. is Carolina’s outside receiver opposite of Moore, sporting an impressive 18.0 yards per reception on his 22 catches this season. Shi Smith, another 2021 draft pick for Carolina, operates out of the slot, but hasn’t made much of an impact in 13 games this season: 17 catches for 201 yards and one touchdown.

In pass protection, the Panthers offensive line is 24th in Football Outsiders’ adjusted sack rate (8.2 percent, 32 sacks) and ranks 18th in ESPN’s pass block win rate which helps further explain why Carolina wants to prioritize running the football. Rookie Ikem Ekwonu, the sixth overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft, had a rough start to the season giving up 3.0 sacks and seven pressures in his first two games but he has cleaned up his play and shown growth in his first year playing left tackle. Opposite of him, Taylor Moton is one of the best right tackles in football. Moton has allowed just 19 quarterback pressures in 14 games this season, tied for 13th across all tackles in the NFL. Along the interior, the Panthers are on their second center this season after starter Pat Elflein suffered an injury in Week 6 that put him on injured reserve. His replacement, Bradley Bozeman, has been serviceable in Elflein’s absence, but with the way Detroit’s front-seven has played as of late, Carolina is in for a test come Christmas Eve.

Defense

In 2019, 2020, and 2021, the Panthers invested heavily into rebuilding their defense, spending their first-round picks in those consecutive drafts on Brian Burns, Derrick Brown, and Jaycee Horn respectively. In fact, the Panthers spent all seven of their draft picks on defensive players in 2020, Rhule’s first year as the team’s head coach. If you remember the start of the 2021 season, the Panthers were 3-0 and riding high on the play of their defense (first in defense DVOA—first in pass DVOA, second in rush DVOA). The regression from then to the beginning of this season had to play a part in the decision the organization made about Rhule, and why they might have chosen Wilks—a former defensive coordinator—to be the team’s interim head coach.

Since Wilks took over, the defense hasn’t made huge strides, but they’ve allowed fewer points per game (24.4 ppg in Weeks 1-5, 21.3 ppg in Weeks 6-15) and improved their run defense from 19th in DVOA over the first five weeks to 14th in DVOA since then. Carolina’s linebackers, Frankie Luvu and Shaq Thompson are two of the top run defenders in the NFL, each recording 28 stops a piece in run defense per PFF, tied for the sixth-most stops among qualifying linebackers. And Derrick Brown has finally come into his own this season as the run defender he was advertised to be coming out of Auburn, recording 25 stops in run defense—good for seventh out of all interior defensive linemen. EDGE defender Yetur Gross-Matos is seventh in run stop win rate among players at his position per ESPN, and has 16 stops in run defense per PFF, good for 15th among EDGE defenders.

Carolina’s pass defense boasts a couple of high-profile names, but the supporting cast helps tell the story of why the Panthers are one of the worst teams in the NFL at stopping the pass. Pass rusher Brian Burns brings consistent pressure off the edge, totaling 60 pressures on the season (tied for sixth amongst EDGE defenders). His 10.5 sacks are tied for 10th among all players and you’re starting to understand why the Panthers chose not to move him at this year’s trade deadline. In the secondary, the Lions will face one of the best young cornerbacks in the NFL for the second week in a row, Jaycee Horn. Horn has the league’s best passer rating against in coverage (39.4) and has allowed the fewest receptions (23) among qualifying cornerbacks this season. Though he rarely gets challenged—Horn has the second-fewest targets against in the NFL—he’s tied for third amongst corners in interceptions.

As for the rest of the pass defense, outside cornerback Keith Taylor—who stepped in for the now-injured Donte Jackson—is prone to giving up big plays: in 164 coverage snaps, Taylor has allowed 19 receptions on 24 targets for 14.4 yards per reception. In the slot, Jeremy Chinn and Myles Hartsfield have allowed a 77 percent reception rate at 10.7 yards per reception (610 total yards) and four touchdowns this year. In addition to their spotty coverage, the Panthers secondary as a group aren’t the surest of tacklers: Horn, Taylor, Chinn, and Hartsfield all have missed tackle rates above 10 percent.

According to ESPN, the Panthers pass rush win rate is 18th in the NFL, and while a lot of that has to do with Burns contributions, interior defensive lineman Matthew Ioannidis (30 pressures) has been an effective pass rusher for them, too. He ranks fourth out of all defensive tackles in ESPN’s pass rush win rate at 17 percent ahead of players like Dexter Lawrence and Jonathan Allen, but his 22.5 missed tackle rate is second-worst among qualifying defensive tackles per PFF. Derrick Brown gets after the quarterback a bit as well, he’s third on the team in pressures with 29, but the Panthers ultimately lack depth along their defensive front from a pass rushing standpoint.

Injuries

  • IR/PUP/NFI: CB Donte Jackson (IR), C Pat Elflein (IR), K Zane Gonzalez (IR), LB Brandon Smith (IR), QB Matt Corral (IR)
  • Other injuries: CB Jaycee Horn (shoulder), LB Joel Iyiegbuniwe (hamstring), TE Ian Thomas (thigh), C.J. Henderson (ankle)

Jaycee Horn has two limited practices under his belt with a shoulder injury, but he said on Tuesday he expects to play. Carolina’s second-string tight end Ian Thomas has logged over 400 snaps this season, but a thigh injury has kept him limited this week so far.

Strength and Weaknesses

Biggest strength: Run defense

Carolina has two of the best run defenders at linebacker with Thompson and Luvu patrolling, so it’ll be important for the Lions offense to get to that second level to have success on the ground. Center Frank Ragnow has missed two practices this week with a toe injury that’s been bothering him all season long, but having him hold down the middle of Detroit’s line against run stuffer Derrick Brown would be ideal.

Biggest weakness: Third-down efficiency

The Panthers offense wants to move the ball on the ground, but their passing offense is seriously limited in terms of quarterback play and pass catchers. Carolina has the 30th-ranked offense in third-down efficiency, completing just 29.2 percent of their third downs. If the Panthers get off schedule and need to pass the ball to keep drives going, they’re going to struggle to find points.

The Lions improved run defense could very well keep the Panthers in check, and their pass rush personnel could earn a lot of opportunities to get after Darnold. Over Detroit’s last three games, the Lions defense has stepped up on third down, allowing just 38.9 percent of third downs to be converted as compared to 48.2 percent over the entire season.

Vegas line for Sunday: Lions by 3

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