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Lions vs. Panthers report card, grades: Defense gets coal in their stockings

The Lions defense didn’t show up to a pivotal game against the Panthers. So we hand out some not-so-flattering grades.

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NFL: Detroit Lions at Carolina Panthers Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

For the past week, Detroit Lions fans were begging for a Christmas miracle. After a 1-6 start to the season, the Lions could have found themselves in a playoff spot by the time the calendar hit December 25. Everyone else did their job: the Giants lost, the Commanders lost, the Seahawks lost. Heck, even the Eagles lost!

But the Lions failed to take care of their own business. In fact, they barely showed up to work at all. The Carolina Panthers took it to them from the opening whistle in what was—in Dan Campbell’s own words—”an absolute ass kicking.”

While there were a few standouts on Saturday, I mostly agree with Campbell assessment. This was a thorough beating. Let’s take a closer look with our Week 16 report card.

Quarterback: B+

Hard to put much of any blame on Jared Goff for this one. With no running game to help take the pressure off of him, Goff completed 25-of-42 passes for 355 yards and three scores. He was able to effectively push the ball downfield and connected on a couple of deep shots. His 8.45 yards per pass attempt was seventh highest of the week and third highest among quarterbacks who threw more than 25 times.

That said, the botched snap turned out to be extremely costly. The Lions had an opportunity to take an early lead, which could have certainly changed the trajectory of the rest of the game. Whether it was the fault of Goff or center Frank Ragnow is up for debate, but it’s still ultimately up to Goff to make sure that ball doesn’t hit the ground.

Still, this was overall a very solid game from Goff, who showed toughness by taking on some big hits, continued to have solid pocket presence, and he accomplished all of that while bucking his cold weather narrative.

Running backs: D

Jamaal Williams and D’Andre Swift combined for 23 yards on 11 carries and both were essentially non-factors in the receiving game.

The Lions rushing attack has been, more-or-less, dead for several weeks now, and while the offensive line certainly isn’t helping the situation, Detroit’s backs are not running confidently, nor are they breaking any tackles. In fact, for the entire season, the Lions rank tied for 26th in yards after contact per rush (1.4) in the running game.

Simply put, the Lions need more out of their backs—a lot more.

Tight ends: B+

Shane Zylstra is one of maybe two or three players who can hold his head high with his performance on Saturday. In just 29 snaps, Zylstra hauled in five passes for 26 yards and three touchdowns—becoming just the second Lions tight end of all time to catch three scores in a game (Joe Fauria). Rookie James Mitchell also threw in a career-high 31 yards, including a nice catch-and-run for 22 yards.

But the tight ends struggled mightily blocking, which continues to be a big problem with this unit.

Wide receivers: B

DJ Chark made several explosive plays, but Josh Reynolds’ drop (and pass interference) late in the game basically sealed the Lions’ loss. Amon-Ra St. Brown continues to tough it out, taking a couple of big hits but still holding onto the ball. Even Kalif Raymond got loose in the Panthers secondary for a big 56-yard gain.

However, one has to wonder when the Lions are truly going to let first-round pick Jameson Williams loose. He’s been active for a month now, but he only played in 11 snaps in this game, despite the Lions needing explosive plays to keep pace with Carolina. I understand taking him along slowly, but these are big games now. If he’s as good as the amount of draft capital spent on him suggests, start building a game plan around the guy. Maybe this deserves to go in the coaching section.

Offensive line: D

Considering all of the obvious passing downs the Lions found themselves in, I actually thought pass protection did okay despite the two sacks and seven quarterback hits (many of which happened on the final drive of the game). That said, the Panthers also had four passes batted at the line.

Of course, the main failing of the Lions offensive line was another game where they were physically dominated in the run game. Detroit’s longest run by a back was 4 yards.

For a unit that talked all week about being snubbed in the Pro Bowl and using that for motivation, this was an extremely disappointing performance.

Defensive line: D-

In the first half alone, the Panthers rushed for 240 yards and three touchdowns. By the end of the game, Carolina set a franchise record for total yards and rushing yards in a single contest with 570 total yards and 320 rushing yards.

Per PFF, the Panthers had 139 rushing yards before contact, meaning the Lions defensive line wasn’t even getting a hand on these guys until it was far too late.

The only reason this isn’t an F is because things did settle down a bit in the second half. The Panthers “only” rushed for 80 yards on 21 carries (3.8 YPC) in the final two quarters.

Linebackers + Secondary: F

We’re just going to lump these two together, because it was on them to hold rushes to 5-10 yards instead of allowing explosive 15+ yard plays on the ground. Mission: Failed. The Panthers had eight rushes of 15+ yards throughout the game.

The back seven was consistently out of position due to misdirection, and in the rare occasion they were playing gap-sound football, they were missing tackles left and right. Even players who are typically sound tacklers, like cornerback Jeff Okudah, were some of the biggest culprits on Saturday.

Per PFF, D’Onta Foreman and Chuba Hubbard combined for nine broken tackles on 39 carries—or one every 4.3 carries or so.

It didn’t get much better in coverage. Sam Darnold chewed up the secondary for 250 yards on just 22 passes (11.4 yards per attempt). The Lions were, once again, vulnerable to deep shots, allowing completions of 47, 43 and 36 yards.

Special teams: B

Nothing really of note happened in special teams, which is a good thing when it comes to punt and kick coverage.

Justin Jackson was fine as a kick returner, averaging a solid 28.0 yards per return on four opportunities. Michael Badgley made both of his kicks. But Kalif Raymond didn’t even get a punt return opportunity because of how bad the Lions defense was.

Coaching: F

Nothing about what the Panthers did on Saturday was a surprise. In fact, all week the coaching staff all week talked about the exact thing they needed to do.

Campbell on Tuesday:

“They run after the ball, and offensively, they have an identity. They want to run the football. They want to play-action pass. This (Panthers T Ikem Ekwonu) left tackle comes off the rock. This O-line comes off the rock. They’ve got a stable of backs that are aggressive, downhill.”

Defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn on Wednesday:

“That’s something that we talk about every week as far as stopping the run. 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.”

Fair to say, the Lions were not up for the challenge. Obviously, some of the blame goes to the players themselves, because the coaches knew what the Panthers would be throwing at them. But at the same time, the Lions’ game plan was also not up to snuff defensively.

The Panthers threw a lot of heavy looks at the Lions, but Detroit stubbornly stayed in a lot of nickel packages, hoping that their secondary would step up and help in run support. But with Okudah not at his best, and DeShon Elliott was replaced by an inexperienced (and ineffective) Ifeatu Melifonwu, that was clearly not the play this week.

Offensively speaking, I could do some nitpicking about play-calling here and there, but the biggest issue facing that side of the ball has been the unit’s inability to get the running game going for a full two months now. Personnel shouldn’t be the problem with a decent offensive line and somewhat capable runners. Yet Detroit hasn’t seen any progress here and seem to be getting worse.

If this team wants to truly compete in December and January football, performances like that are completely unacceptable.

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