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Detroit Lions Week 16 rookie film breakdown: Young defenders take step back vs. Panthers

Examining how the Detroit Lions 2022 rookie class performed in Week 16 of the regular season.

Detroit Lions v Carolina Panthers Photo by Eakin Howard/Getty Images

After a stretch of seven weeks where their only loss came at the hands of the Buffalo Bills on Thanksgiving Day, the Detroit Lions had plenty to play for in their Week 16 matchup with the Carolina Panthers. And despite only having five wins before beating the Lions 37-23, the Panthers had a lot on the line as well, as they are firmly in the hunt for an NFC South championship. Still, it was tough to tell that both teams were fighting for their playoff lives, when only Carolina seemed to show up—especially in the first half.

Uncharacteristically, the Lions came out flat against the Panthers and never managed to find their footing on a cold day in Charlotte. Similar to how the Lions rushing offense was bludgeoning teams in the early stages of the season, the Panthers hit the Detroit defense with a myriad of concepts on the ground. Misdirection. Trap. Wham.

Coach Dan Campbell broke down some of the concepts Carolina was utilizing during his post-game media availability.

“There were a number of things they were doing. Two tight ends, and we were going to stay in nickel. We had been good in nickel,” Campbell said. “They motioned down and forced your force player to be late to the party—which means he has to be that much quicker to get to it. We just weren’t hitting on all cylinders.”

It was all working for Carolina early, as they broke off big run after big run. The Lions’ run defense had been stout for several weeks, but bad habits within the front seven began to rear their ugly heads against the Panthers.

Defensive linemen were getting washed down the line, leaving alleys and cut-back lanes for ball carriers. Linebackers were jumping out of their gaps, or doing too much, and putting other teammates in a bind as a result. And as Campbell said—force players were being put in a bind, and to put it politely—did not handle the pressure well.

As part of our ongoing series, let’s take a closer look at how each member of the Lions’ 2022 draft class fared in their Week 16 loss to the Panthers.

Aidan Hutchinson, DL

52 snaps (76% of total defensive snaps) — 6 special teams snaps (21%)
PFF defensive grade: 57.4

Like it was for most of the defense, it was a forgettable day for Hutchinson. As mentioned before, the Panthers came out firing on all cylinders, and the Lions’ defense didn’t settle in until it was way too late.

First series of the game, and Carolina starts off with a banger. Watch Hutchinson here on the right edge. The first thing that makes this tough is the motion going away from the side where the ball is going to be ran. Hutchinson’s initial steps down the line are a result of him seeing the offensive line and running back moving that way, but by the time the running back has put his foot in the ground to run towards Hutchinson’s edge, it is too late. Tight end Ian Thomas is already outside of Hutchinson, and ends up picking off cornerback Jeff Okudah, springing running back Chuba Hubbard for a big gain.

Then, after a false start by Carolina, the next snap they hit Detroit with another early gut punch. This time it is a perfectly executed trap that creates a running lane for Hubbard. After the snap, left guard Brady Christensen gets a nice block on defensive tackle Alim McNeill, allowing right guard Austin Corbett to completely wall off defensive tackle Isaiah Buggs. From there, right tackle Taylor Moton gets a hat on linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez and it’s off to the races for Hubbard.

Adding another challenge was the Panthers’ incorporation of some read-run concepts with quarterback Sam Darnold. Because they were getting gashed all over on the ground, it made life even harder on the Lions’ edge players. Yet again, Buggs gets washed down the line too far, leaving Hutchinson the chore of trying to squeeze down, while also attempting to keep an eye on Darnold. And say what you will about Darnold as a passer, but as a runner, he can move pretty well.

To sprinkle in a bit of positivity, here is a good example of Hutchinson being aware and keeping Darnold in his sights as he rolls out to look for an open receiver.

Jameson Williams, WR

11 (17%)
PFF offensive grade: 53.0

It was another slow day for Williams, as the Lions appear to be playing it safe with their prized rookie receiver. His lone target was on a comeback route that quarterback Jared Goff ended up short-hopping at Williams’ feet.

With only two weeks left in the regular season and the Lions in a “must-win” situation, I expect they work on getting Williams more involved in the offense.

Josh Paschal, DL

13 (19%)
PFF defensive grade: 33.4

We saw this time and time again against the Panthers. The concepts they were running were putting edge defenders in a bind, and as a result, the Lions were often caught hesitating.

Kerby Joseph, S

68 (100%) — 12 (41%)
PFF defensive grade: 47.6

Again, like the majority of his teammates, Joseph had his share of struggles against the Panthers—particularly when it came to tackling. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that Joseph was paired with second-year safety Ifeatu Melifonwu, rather than veteran DeShon Elliott. Either way, it has been a rough couple of weeks for Joseph, and he will be looking to get back on track this week as the Lions host the Chicago Bears for their final home game of the 2022 season.

James Mitchell, TE

19 (29%) — 10 (34%)
PFF offensive grade: 88.5

One small silver lining from the loss in Charlotte? It looks like James Mitchell could be a real factor in this offense in the future—both as a receiver and as a blocker.

Nice route here from Mitchell and an even better job of turning up-field and turning into a runner after the catch.

One thing I have noticed as Mitchell gets more reps is that he executes plays like these as if he were a seasoned veteran at tight end. Little chip on the edge defender to allow the linebacker to overcommit, and runs right to the opening between the hashes. Excellent work from the rookie.

Malcolm Rodriguez, LB

42 (62%) — 4 (14%)
PFF defensive grade: 43.1

There were flashes of competency from the Lions’ rookie linebacker, but overall, it was a day Rodriguez and the rest of the defense is going to have to learn from in order to take the next step as a unit.

A couple of things happen here that lead to another big run for Carolina. Defensive linemen John Cominsky and McNeill are running a slant to the right, where they are charged with running down the line to disrupt and occupy gaps. Instead of occupying gaps, both defenders are washed down the line, creating running room for the ball carrier. With those two slanting towards the center, Rodriguez is responsible for working outside and settling down in the gap previously occupied by Cominsky. But because they worked themselves out of the play, there is too much space for one defender to control. Couple all of this with the fact that linebacker Alex Anzalone also overran the cutback lane, and it is yet another chunk play on the ground for the Panthers.

Despite the gaudy numbers, the Lions’ run defense did settle down somewhat in the second half—at least when compared with the video game-like statistics that Carolina racked up in the first. They needed more of it earlier in the game, but it was good to see Rodriguez make a handful of plays like the one below.

This is another snap from the second half, and again, night-and-day when compared to how ugly the run-fits were in the first half. Great job by Rodriguez of stacking and shedding the blocker on his way to a tackle near the line of scrimmage.

Lastly, we have Rodriguez at his best—getting downhill and using his instincts to make a play in the opponent’s backfield.

James Houston, LB

14 (21%) — 15 (52%)
PFF defensive grade: 87.0

In contrast with the other clips in this article where Carolina ran this kind of concept, Houston actually does a fantastic job. No hesitation or second-guessing—just an athlete reading and reacting.

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