It’s been nearly 72 hours since the Detroit Lions suffered their most lopsided defeat in nearly two months. In the midst of winning six of seven games, the Lions have played their best football in five years, but on Christmas Eve, the Carolina Panthers absolutely took it to Dan Campbell’s football team—and they did it in a way that no one could have seen coming.
The Panthers punished the Lions on the ground, running for 240 yards by halftime and finishing with 320 total rushing yards in their convincing, 37-23 drubbing of the Lions. Detroit desperately needed this game to keep themselves well-positioned in the hunt for their first playoff appearance in six seasons, but was so outmatched against the Panthers rushing attack, it’s had to weigh heavy on Campbell considering a fundamental part of this team is their ability to stop the run. In the three games prior to Carolina, the Lions had allowed 167 rushing yards combined.
Enough from me, let’s have Dan Campbell set the table for this week’s deep dive into the signature stats from Pro Football Focus:
As we do every week for this Detroit Lions team, we have some data courtesy of Pro Football Focus that can help us better understand the football the Lions have played thus far—and how they’ll continue to play from here on out. Let’s take a closer look at the Lions by the numbers after their loss to the Carolina Panthers in Week 16.
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Something I highlighted in the scouting report I wrote up for this Carolina Panthers team was how their rushing game was predicated on their offensive line providing the push up front. Heading into this game, the Panthers were ninth in DVOA’s 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 offensive line.
RG #63 Austin Corbett with the smooth swim move feigning and climbing on the Panthers trap run pic.twitter.com/m00fBtpYdo— Nate Tice (@Nate_Tice) December 28, 2022
The Panthers just kept running trap and the Lions just kept getting caught up on blocks and missing tackles, especially the players in the secondary. Kerby Joseph, Ifeatu Melifonwu, Jeff Okudah, and Jerry Jacobs combined for eight missed tackles on Christmas Eve, and that directly translated into the Panthers running backs D’Onta Foreman and Chuba Hubbard racking up eight combined runs of 10+ yards.
In case you were still wondering how bad the Lions run defense was in Carolina, the Panthers made a habit of turning every run, even the ones where Detroit was able to get a defender on a ball carrier, into something more. Carolina runners averaged a whopping 4.21 yards after contact on their 43 rushing attempts. What’s even more impressive about the Panthers rushing attack was the way their top rusher D’Onta Foreman, NFC Offensive Player of the Week for Week 16, averaged 5.38 yards after contact on his 21 rushing attempts.
Detroit’s offensive line has been one of the better units in the NFL when it comes to keeping their quarterback clean and free of pressure. Before this game, the Lions were tied with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for the fewest sacks allowed in the NFL (19), but have since moved into second after the Panthers got home to Goff twice on Saturday.
As a unit, Detroit’s offensive line had one of its worst outings of the season. Evan Brown (5), Jonah Jackson (3), Penei Sewell (2), Taylor Decker (2), and Frank Ragnow (1) combined for 13 total quarterback pressures allowed against Carolina.
Granted the Panthers didn’t really need to pass the football to win this game, they still had Sam Darnold throw the ball 22 times to keep the Lions honest—and constantly scrambling on their way to allowing 37 points, the most points they’ve surrendered since their bye week.
Something the Lions defense has been able to do pretty consistently all season long is pressure the quarterback. With the fourth-highest blitz rate (32.3 percent), Detroit knows how to manufacture pressure. Against the Panthers, Lions defenders recorded just five total quarterback pressures, tied for the third-fewest pressures amongst defenses in Week 16. Aidan Hutchinson (2), Ifeatu Melifonwu (2), and James Houston (1) were the only three Lions defenders who registered pressures.
They couldn’t stop up the run, they couldn’t get after the quarterback, it was just an all-around bad performance the Lions will have to move on from with one of the league’s most dynamic players in Justin Fields on his way to Detroit on New Year’s Day.