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Lions vs. Panthers bold prediction: Lions get home to Sam Darnold for the holidays

The Lions will need to mimic last week’s defensive strategy against a stout Panthers offensive line.

NFL: DEC 18 Lions at Jets Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Last week was an ugly win for the Detroit Lions, but a win nonetheless. It was a long day for the defense, with one of the better improvisers in the league in Zach Wilson picking on the secondary all afternoon. He was helped a lot by the Jets’ offensive line, who have the lowest sack rate in the league entering this weekend. The Lions had to get creative in ways to find pressure, and they did, just enough to skirt by with a win Sunday. This week, they’ll have to go right back to that strategy.

Bold prediction of the week: Lions sack Sam Darnold 4+ times

The Jets have the lowest sack rate in the league right now. The second-lowest? You guessed it, the Carolina Panthers. Aaron Glenn had to stray from the usual defensive look to find pressure against the Jets, and he’ll have to do it again this week.

The Lions brought lots of pressure from the second level of the defense to force Zach Wilson into uncomfortable positions in the pocket, led by Alex Anzalone. From Week 15 key PFF stats:

In Week 15 against the Jets, Anzalone had seven pass rushing snaps and generated five quarterback pressures (outproducing his entire 2021 season), had a 35.7 pass rushing productivity mark (a PFF formula that combines sacks, hits and hurries relative to how many times they rush the passer), and 42.9 win percentage (percentage of “wins” vs blocking on non-penalty pass rush snaps). In Week 15, Anzalone was first among all qualifying linebackers in those pass rushing statistics.

While Anzalone wasn’t able to get home for any sacks, he generated a lot of pressure along the interior to open things up for guys like Romeo Okwara, who made a triumphant return to the stat sheet with two sacks. Anzalone’s seven pass rushing snaps on the day almost doubled his per-game average from 2021, and I would expect an equally high number against the Panthers.

Most quarterbacks the Lions have played against would be bad matchups for that strategy. However, with Wilson coming off of a recent benching, the Lions felt comfortable in loading up the box. That meant they were daring him to throw, and when he did do so, they were daring him to do so from a place of discomfort. Here are some numbers from Jets X Factor to put it into perspective:

Across the Jets’ 22 rushing attempts, the Lions had an average of 7.18 defenders in the box, per NFL Next Gen Stats. That was the fifth-highest mark of any defense in Week 15. The league average this season is 6.79.

Here’s a simpler way to communicate the Lions’ commitment to stopping the run: Detroit had at least 7 defenders in the box on 81.8% of the Jets’ rushing attempts (18 of 22), which was the third-highest mark of any defense in Week 15. That is significantly higher than the 2022 league average of 59.0%.

The strategy worked against the Jets, and the Lions will likely ramp it up even more against the Panthers. Sam Darnold, the Panthers’ third starting quarterback this year, might be one of the few starting quarterbacks in the league worse than Zach Wilson. He’s certainly bad enough that the Lions will dare him, too, to throw. Luckily for the Lions, Darnold does not have anywhere near the mobility Wilson does, which means equal amounts of pressure will likely lead to even more sacks. Hence, I take last week’s four sacks against the Jets, and raise you five against the Panthers this week.

The caveat? The Panthers have the fourth-fewest passing attempts in the league. The Lions won’t be able to get home for sacks if the Panthers aren’t passing, so this bold prediction is just as much about the offense performing as it is the defense. If we get the usual taste of Lions offense and they get up early, then we could be in for a fun Sunday, with the Lions defense getting home to Sam Darnold just in time for the holidays.

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After winning their first NFC North title in 30 years, the Lions have unfinished business this offseason. Stay updated with Jeremy Reisman through Pride of Detroit Direct, our newsletter offering up exclusive analysis. Sign up with NFCNORTH30 to get 30% off after your free trial.