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The Honolulu Blueprint: 4 keys to a Lions victory over the Panthers

Identifying the key things the Detroit Lions can do to secure a victory over the Carolina Panthers in Week 16.

Detroit Lions vs Minnesota Vikings Photo by Amy Lemus/NurPhoto via Getty Images

In Week 16, the Detroit Lions are taking on the Carolina Panthers in a game filled with playoff implications. Both the Lions and the Panthers have a lot to play for and this figures to be a fun one to watch on Saturday.

Let’s take a closer look at the key things the Lions need to do against the Jets in order to keep their winning streak going. Check out the odds for this game courtesy of our friends at DraftKings Sportsbook.

Panthers’ base schemes

Despite the coaching changes, interim head coach Steve Wilks opted to keep the Panthers' offensive and defensive schemes relatively the same after he took over in Week 5.

On offense, offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo is a name you may recognize from his days as head coach of the New York Giants. After being fired in 2017, he was out of coaching until 2020 when he took a job as the Jaguars quarterback coach. Moved on to Dallas in 2021 as an offensive consultant, before taking the Panthers OC job in 2022.

Not much has changed from McAdoo’s scheme over the years. He still prefers a run-first offense, where he will spread out 11 personnel (1 running back, 1 tight end, 3 wide receivers), keeping his quarterback in shotgun, and attacking the short and intermediate zones of a defense.

On defense, despite Wilks’ background being defense, interim defensive coordinator Al Holcomb calls the defense, and that is likely because of the pair's 10-year history together.

Wilks and Holcomb first connected in 2013, ironically with the Panthers, when Wilks was the defensive backs coach and Holcomb was the linebackers coach. The pair held those roles for three seasons and then in 2017, Wilks was promoted to defensive coordinator. In 2018, Wilks got the head coaching job with the Cardinals and he brought Holcomb with him to be his defensive coordinator. After one season, the Cardinals cleaned house and the pair moved on to the Browns with Wilks as the DC and Holcomb coaching linebackers. In 2020, Holcomb returned to Carolina to coach linebackers again, and two years later, Wilks joined on as defensive backs coach and passing game coordinator, before their interim promotions began in Week 5.

At its core, the Panthers run a 4-2-5 with a single-high safety, but hybrid players like defensive back Jeremy Chinn allow them to alternate looks and disguise their intentions. Here’s a look at their standard base:

One of the things the Panthers like to do is put five players on the line of scrimmage in order to force an offensive line to block their front 1-on-1 or to adjust and keep in a tight end or running back to block, thus having fewer targets available. Here’s an example of back-to-back plays from last week, where the Panthers put five on the line of scrimmage despite having different personnel groupings.

You can see the catalyst for this scheme flexibility is Chinn, as he lines up as a nickel in base, then at safety in the second picture, and EDGE in the third.

As an offense, it’s not as easy to play matchup football, because the Panthers won’t always give you a standard look in your standard formations (see pictures 1 and 3, where the Steelers give the same 11 personnel look, but the Panthers change up their approach). Therefore, as an offense, you can attack the Panthers’ defense by getting out of the huddle early and trying to find the matchup you like, or simply beat the man across from you—which is what the Lions will probably try and do.

Make them remember the offensive line

The Lions’ offensive line has been a huge catalyst for the team’s offensive success. They’re moving bodies in the run game (Run DVOA: 12th) and pass protecting at a high level (Pass DVOA: 9th) allowing Jared Goff to sit comfortably in the pocket and put points on the board.

They’re led by Pro Bowler Frank Ragnow at the pivot, but he will be the first to tell you, he’s not the only one deserving of that honor.

“Whether they’re in the Pro Bowl or not, to be able to play with three elite players (Penei Sewell, Taylor Decker, and Jonah Jackson) like that is just incredible,” Ragnow told the media on Thursday. “And to be honest, besides even the football part of them–part of the thing that I’ve been able to get through this year with all my injuries–is those guys and everybody else in that room. They’re my fricken backbone.”

Ragnow is not alone in thinking he plays with elite players around him. Here’s what New York Jets coach Robert Saleh on the Lions’ offensive line:

“Their O-line is arguably—you can go them and Philadelphia (as best in league)—just a really, really talented offensive line. They play with an edge.”

The Panthers have a couple of elite players of their own in edge rusher Brian Burns and nose tackle Derrick Brown, but they’ll match up with Detroit in strength-on-strength battles. Regardless of which side of the line Burns attacks from, he will get either Sewell or Decker (mostly Decker), while Brown typically lines up right over the nose, where Ragnow will be waiting.

With their confidence flowing—and maybe a bit of Pro Bowl snub fuel on the fire—the Lions will have a chance to win their battles and achieve their goals.

“It’s been a goal of ours and a continued goal of ours to be one of the O-lines that people remember,” Ragnow said. “Not just this year, but hopefully for years to come.”

Let Jared Goff cook

Outside of Jaycee Horn (more on him in a minute), the Panthers’ secondary is vulnerable and could be potentially susceptible to Jared Goff’s recent style of play, as long as the offensive line continues to do what it’s been doing.

“He’s done a really good job of taking those opportunities when they’re there, but also the ones that we haven’t thrown, he’s gotten quickly to the checkdown and found completions,” Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson said of Goff. “And it’s allowed us, particularly the Jacksonville and Minnesota games, we’re able to call more aggressive down-the-field plays, knowing that he’s going to find a completion if it’s there and keep us going.”

While Carolina’s defense can be more exotic, their efficiency is more in line with the Vikings and Jaguars, where the Lions put up points, as opposed to the Jets, who limited the Lions on offense.

Defense DVOA Ratings (Lions points scored in their matchup):

  • Jets: 6th (20 points scored)
  • Vikings: 19th (34)
  • Panthers: 20th
  • Jaguars: 28th (40)

Goff won’t need to be a hero in this game, he just needs to keep doing what he is doing and executing Johnson’s game plan. The points will follow.

Give Jaycee Horn the “Sauce” treatment

Look, this is pretty simple. Horn is an up-and-coming corner and the best player in their secondary. It’ll be worth it to identify where he is pre-snap and account for his whereabouts.

“Yeah, I think (Horn’s) playing really good football for (Carolina),” Johnson said. “Little bit different (than Sauce Gardner), I think just when you look at it, they’re a little bit less man coverage than the Jets were last week. Just overall, certain situations will dictate a little bit more of that and different style as well. Sauce was a little bit more press in your face and Horn will play a little bit more off man, but they’re very similar in terms of being sticky, ballhawks. And Horn has done a nice job finding that ball in the air. If you don’t put that ball out in front of the receiver, he tends to find a way to either get his hand on it or come down with the interception. So, we’ve got to be aware of he’s at on the field at all times.”

They won’t necessarily need to avoid Horn like they did Sauce Gardner last week, but at the same time, with weaknesses at other spots in the secondary, they probably don’t need to test him often either.

Defense has one job: Stop the run

Recently, Detroit News’ Justin Rogers wrote an article discussing the Lions' recent success stopping the run and noted an interesting fact about the Panthers' run-first offensive attack, since returning quarterback Sam Darnold to the starting lineup three weeks ago.

“During that three-week stretch, no one is running the ball more than the Panthers, who are keeping it on the ground 36 times per game,” Rogers wrote. “So, it’s clear that if you want to beat this team, the best way to do it is to bottle up their rushing attack.”

Fortunately for the Lions, their run defense has been the most improved area of the defense and they have held their last three opponents to an average of 55.6 team rushing yards per game, including holding their top rushers to:

  • Jets’ Zonovan Knight: 23 rushing yards
  • Vikings’ Dalvin cook: 23 rushing yards
  • Jaguars’ Travis Etienne: 54 rushing yards

“Well, that’s something that we talk about every week as far as stopping the run,” Lions’ defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn told the media on Wednesday. “I know that’s a cliché, everybody says that, but it’s true about what we are and who we are. I’ve talked about our identity for the past couple of weeks, so we know what they want to do, they know who we are and what we want to do. And man, this will be a good battle, this will be a good test of will of men out on that field. And our guys will be up for the challenge.”

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