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Lions vs. Panthers Week 16 preview, prediction: On Paper

A full statistical breakdown, preview and prediction for the Week 16 matchup between the Lions and Panthers.

Detroit Lions v Carolina Panthers Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Here we are. Meaningful Detroit Lions football deep into December. It’s been a while, but it’s a thrilling feeling going into this holiday weekend knowing this team has actual, real stakes on the line. Would you prefer the Lions have a little leeway to relieve some of the pressure of must-win situations every week? Sure, but let’s just enjoy what we have—and the improbable lengths it took to get here.

This week, the must-win opponent is the Carolina Panthers. They are in a similar situation. After a 1-4 start, the Panthers fired Matt Rhule and have been on a significantly less dramatic 4-5 run. They clearly aren’t a top team—like the Lions are playing like—but a near-.500 record shows that they’re capable of competing every week.

So are the Lions in danger of a let-down game? Let’s take a closer look in our Week 16 On Paper preview.

Lions pass offense (8th) vs. Panthers pass defense (21st)

The Lions passing attack continues to roll and there are a lot of reasons for it. Chief among them is Jared Goff, who has gone on the longest streak among any NFL quarterbacks without a turnover.

But Goff isn’t just avoiding turnovers, he’s making plays. Since Week 9, Goff ranks:

  • 8th in passer rating (101.5)
  • 10th in touchdowns (11)
  • 9th in adjusted yards gained per attempt (8.05)

Of course, the offensive line also deserves a ton of credit, because, over that time, Goff was sacked just six times (t-fifth most) with a sack percentage of just 2.51% (second best).

And, of course, credit goes to Detroit’s now-healthy set of receivers. Over this stretch of six games, Amon-Ra St. Brown has continued his Pro Bowl snubbed season, hauling in 50 catches for 575 yards and three touchdowns. In the past four games, DJ Chark has chipped in with 226 yards and two touchdowns.

In short, the Lions passing offense is a well-oiled machine right now, and even in a game where the Jets slowed them down, Detroit found a way to come up with a big play to win the game.

The Panthers pass defense really struggled early in the year, but they’re on a nice little streak here. Some of that has to do with playing some poor pass offenses recently, but they held some pretty bad pass defenses below their averages. As a result, Carolina’s pass defense ranks eighth in DVOA over the past five weeks.

Carolina has some playmakers on defense that could turn the tide in this matchup. Cornerback Jaycee Horn is allowing quarterbacks a passer rating of just 39.4 when targeted and ranks 23rd overall in PFF grade. Defensive tackle Matt Ioannidis is fourth in the NFL in pass rush win rate, and Brian Burns leads the team with 10.5 sacks—which ranks tied for 10th in the NFL.

That said, the rest of the Panthers secondary struggles. The team ranks 25th in PFF coverage grade, they’ve tallied just 52 pass breakups (t-25th) but their overall passer rating allowed ranks 10th (89.0).

Overall, I would call this pass defense about average, but with some playmakers capable of changing the trajectory of the game.

Player to watch: Matt Ioannidis. While Burns is the better pass rusher, the Lions’ duo of offensive tackles have done a good job shutting down elite pass rushers. Where the Lions have struggled, though, is protecting Goff from the interior. Ioannidis may only have one sack, but he is second on the team in pressures, while Detroit has struggled with interior pressure all year.

Advantage: Lions +1.5. This Panthers defense is trickier than they look, and the weather could also limit Detroit’s effectiveness. But don’t confuse this for the New York Jets defense. They aren’t that dominant, and even then, the Lions still managed to move the ball somewhat well.

Lions run offense (12th) vs. Panthers run defense (21st)

The Lions’ cold streak running the ball continues. Last week was a step in the right direction, but they are still very much missing the explosive plays that they were getting early in the season. Since Week 8, the Lions have just three rushes of 20+ yards, and one of them was a fake punt. By comparison, in the first 7 weeks of the season, the Lions had six 20+ yard rushes.

All that said, the Lions still identify as a run-first team, and the offensive line can physically dominate their opponents, as evidenced by their fifth ranking in Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yards (which, essentially, measures offensive line efficiency in the run game).

The Panthers run defense, like their pass defense, is average by most rankings. While they’ve allowed at least 100 rushing yards in 11 of 14 games, they’ve also held opponents below 4.0 yards per carry in eight of 14 games.

They’re pretty strong up the middle of the defense, with former first-round pick Derrick Brown plugging the middle of the line, along with linebackers Frankie Luvu (third in PFF run defense grade) and Shaq Thompson (t-fifth) filling gaps with excellent efficiency.

Carolina is a little vulnerable around the edges, though. And while that’s not exactly the Lions’ first preference when trying to run the ball, the athleticism of their offensive linemen—and speed of D’Andre Swift—could be on display this week.

Player to watch: Penei Sewell. If the Lions want to attack the edges, Sewell is their most capable weapon to do so. Take this quote from center Frank Ragnow this week:

“Penei Sewell is a tackle that we literally create gameplans for. He’s part of the gameplan. He’s a weapon for us.”

Advantage: Draw. I don’t really have a lot of faith in the Lions run defense right now, but it also hasn’t mattered much. If there was a game to unleash Swift, this may be it, but I’m not sure he has earned that trust from the coaching staff with his inconsistent vision.

Panthers pass offense (30th) vs. Lions pass defense (22nd)

* Games started by Sam Darnold

The Panthers’ pass offense has been terrible all season, as the Panthers shuffled between Baker Mayfield and PJ Walker through the first three months of the season. However, after finally getting healthy, the Panthers turned to Sam Darnold in the past three weeks, and he’s been alright. We aren’t exactly talking explosive numbers here, but he’s been relatively efficient, and, like Goff, he’s avoided turnovers and negative plays. Here’s his stat line so far this year:

39-of-66 (59.1%), 509 yards, (7.7 Y/A), 3 TDs, 0 INTs, 98.6 passer rating,

His PFF grade of 70.9 would rank a respectable 21st in the NFL for the season, and his QBR of QBR of 47.2 is just below average.

The offensive line has been average in pass protection. Advanced statistics are all over the place. They rank 18th pass block win rate, sixth in PFF pass blocking grade, fourth in pressure percentage allowed, and 23rd in adjusted sack rate.

The Panthers simply don’t throw the ball very often. They rank 29th in pass attempts, and Darnold is throwing the ball even less, averaging 22 pass attempts per game—well below the team’s 27.4 average for the season.

Perhaps we were a bit hasty in declaring the Lions’ pass defense fixed. After a five-game stretch of finally getting the unit under control, the last two weeks have been terrible, specifically for the secondary. Over those two games, the Lions have allowed 14 pass plays of 20+ yards. You could excuse that performance against Kirk Cousins and Justin Jefferson, but it’s much harder to ignore last week’s performance against a horrible Jets passing offense.

However, the one unit that continues to perform increasingly better is Detroit’s defensive line. The Lions’ pressure numbers continue to steadily rise as they get healthier and healthier on that defensive front. The Lions now rank 11th in pressure percentage, 23rd in PFF pass rush grade, and 26th in pass rush win rate after being at the bottom of the league in those stats for most of the year.

Still, coverage on the back end continues to be the biggest concern, and this week they’ll be without starting safety DeShon Elliott. While Elliott hasn’t been lock-down in coverage, he is a veteran and a solid communicator. He will be replaced by two safeties: one (Ifeatu Melifonwu) is a second-year player who basically has zero meaningful snaps at the safety position after moving from cornerback this offseason. The other, C.J. Moore, is mostly a special teamer and has just one career start.

Player to watch: D.J. Moore. The Panthers’ No. 1 receiver has been Darnold’s favorite target. In the past three games, he has nine catches for 176 yards and two touchdowns. Darnold has not been afraid to push the ball deep to Moore, and he’s connected on a couple of explosive plays with him.

Advantage: Even. It’s hard to have much faith in the Lions pass defense right now after what happened last week and considering they’ll be trotting out an inexperienced safety this week. That said, the Panthers aren’t likely to rack up 300 yards like the Jets did, as they have only crossed the 200-net-yard threshold three times this season.

Panthers run offense (20th) vs. Lions run defense (19th)

The Panthers rushing attack is their most inconsistent unit—but also the one they rely upon the most. Despite trailing in most games, Carolina ranks 13th in rushing attempts. Ironically enough, after they traded Christian McCaffrey following the Rams game, they really upped their emphasis on the running game.

As you can see from the chart, the results have wildly swung from week to week. They’re capable of putting up 150 yards or more—as they have in five of their last eight weeks. But in those other three games, they’ve totaled just 121 yards combined.

The Panthers’ primary back, D’Onta Foreman is averaging 4.1 yards per carry, but his big, physical rushing style can sometimes be a challenge to defenders. His 15.7 rushing attempts per broken tackle rank t-13th in the NFL.

The Lions run defense has been much better over the past couple months. In fact, over the past five weeks, the unit ranks 10th in DVOA.

Truly, the only thing that has given the Lions fits since the bye week is a mobile quarterback (or even the threat of a mobile quarterback). When it comes to more standard rushing attacks, the Lions have shut down the last four in a row (Packers, Giants, Vikings, Jets).

Player to watch: Alim McNeill. After a quiet start to the season, McNeill has really started to come on as of late. Since Week 11, McNeill ranks 13th out of all defensive tackles in PFF grade. Last week against the Jets, he was instrumental in stopping their run game, tallying five tackles and three “stops.”

Advantage: Lions +1. The Panthers are certainly capable of winning this matchup and their offensive line is good enough to give Detroit a challenge. But the Lions have the more consistent unit right now and they’re playing with a lot of confidence. This matchup is absolutely key, as the Panthers are likely to run it early and often.

Last week’s prediction:

I feel pretty good about last week’s 17-13 prediction. I didn’t get overconfident in the Lions offense and rightfully gave the Jets defense a lot of respect. What I missed most on was the Lions pass defense, which had a concerning day and almost allowed for a Jets victory. That has obviously been adjusted this week.

In the comment section, I expected someone to nail the prediction with such a plain score of 20-17. Unfortunately, there were no direct hits. But there were three people who came within a point, including two people on staff: Jerry Mallory and Morgan Cannon both predicted 20-16, as well as commenter Arendtsure. When a staffer wins the On Paper challenge, they get to choose the photoshop of the week. Here was Jerry’s choice:

A pic of Tom Brady hoisting the Lombardi trophy but replace Tom with you and the trophy with a mozz stick

I’m not here to kink shame. I’m just here to make dreams come true:

This week’s prediction:

The Lions come out with a +2.5 advantage, which may not be as big as you’d expect, but it’s likely why the line hasn’t moved much since opening at Lions by 3. The Panthers are certainly playing better football than they have in the past, and their playmakers on defense could slow the Lions a bit.

That said, I don’t really see anywhere in this matchup where the Panthers have a clear advantage. But because of Detroit’s shaky secondary play, I don’t think the Lions exactly run away with this one. Lions 31, Panthers 24.

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