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The Honolulu Blueprint: 5 keys to a Lions victory over the Panthers

Identifying the key things the Detroit Lions can do to secure a victory over the Carolina Panthers in Week 5.

Seattle Seahawks v Detroit Lions Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

The Detroit Lions are taking on the winless Carolina Panthers in Week 5, but both teams have something to prove, though in very different ways.

“This is another opponent who’s dying for a win,” coach Dan Campbell said of Carolina. “They’ve got a damn good coaching staff, they’ve got real good players and we all know what they’re capable of.”

The Panthers have indeed laid the foundation for their rebuild this offseason and have several ex-Lions coaches on their staff: Duce Staley (RB Coach), Shawn Jefferson (WR coach), Todd Wash (defensive line coach), Dom Capers (senior defensive assistant), and even Jim Caldwell (senior assistant).

But the Lions lost to the Panthers in their last meeting, and while neither are the same team they were last season, the Lions feel like they learned their lesson from that game and will enter this week with the right level of focus.

“This is the next one in front of us,” Campbell continued. “And to have a chance to win it, you’ve got to take it serious, you’ve got to have a good game plan, (the players have) got to be ready to execute, and they’ve got to have their motor running. That’s the focus.”

If they can keep that focus, and execute the keys in this week’s Honolulu Blueprint, they should walk out of this game 4-1 on the season.

The Lions opened the week as 8.5-point favorites and since then, the betting line has increased to Lions -10 points. You can check out the updated odds for this game courtesy of the folks over at DraftKings Sportsbook.

Panthers’ base schemes

Panthers offense is a mix of two coaches:

The Panthers' new offensive coordinator is Thomas Brown, who was most recently with the L.A. Rams holding roles as their tight ends and running backs coach in separate seasons. As a former NFL running back, he strives for balance in the offensive attack, and is slowly taking control of play calling duties from head coach Frank Reich—right now they reportedly split those duties.

Reich is a former offensive coordinator himself, coaching the Eagles’ offense during their most recent Super Bowl win. He has previously called plays as the head coach and still prefers the offense to resemble his foundational principles. For Reich, his offense is rooted in West Coast concepts, focusing on the short to intermediate passing zones, and pairs it with an outside zone rushing attack.

Panthers 34 base defense:

The Panthers’ new defensive coordinator is Ejiro Evero, who was most recently with the Denver Broncos as their defensive coordinator in 2022. Evero learned his foundational defensive principles during his stint with the 49ers (2011-2015) where he worked with Vic Fangio. Those core 34 beliefs and the “Fangio Shell” coverage scheme are staples in Evero’s defense.

The big difference between Evero’s 34 defense and traditional ones, is that the Panthers prefer to keep at least five defensive backs on the field at all times, and when they adjust from base to subpackage concepts, they either remove one of their defensive interior lineman or one of their two off-the-ball linebackers.

Here’s a look at the two different looks:

Key 1: Let’s get physical

According to the CBA, teams are only allowed 14 padded practices per season and they can only use three over the final six games. Last year, the Lions used up their padded practices early, and when the final weeks of the season arrived, they elected to not have a padded practice ahead of their game against the Panthers, and instead save it for their following game against the Bears.

The Lions were bullied by the Panthers from the first to the last whistle.

“I put that on me,” Campbell noted about that loss in Week 16 of last season. “That was not tweaks and defense—we were not ready.”

This time around, with the Lions having an extended break after playing on Thursday night, they moved their practice schedule up a day (to Tuesday) so that they could hold a padded practice where they could set the tone for the week.

“We’re going to approach practice just like we did for Atlanta, expect it’ll be more reps,” Campbell explained. “We backed off a little for Atlanta, but yet we padded up. We took it serious. We went after it. We’re going to go back and we’re going to press the issue. I owe it to these players to do that and so I’m going to do that.”

Over the last two games, the Lions have been the bullies on both sides of the ball, especially in the trenches. Look for them to keep this mentality fresh in their mind and to try and push the Panthers around throughout the game.

Key 2: Continue to shut down the run

The Lions run defense was exposed last season by the Panthers, to the tune of 320 rushing yards, as Detroit had no answers for Carolina’s attack. This season, things couldn’t be any different.

Not only are the Lions ranked third in run defense by DVOA through four weeks, but they have also only allowed 60.8 rushing yards per game—the fewest in the NFL. So what has led to this dramatic change?

“We’re more mature, we’re a little bit more developed and we’re a little bit better with talent,” Campbell said of the Lions' improvement in run defense. “And (Defensive Coordinator Aaron Glenn) AG’s doing a hell of a job.”

Glenn was quick to brush off Campbell’s praise, saying their recent success was all about the players and their work ethic and determination to improve.

“Players playing well,” Glenn said of the team's defensive success against the run. “Players understanding exactly what we’re doing. And players have pride and for the most part, I give all the credit to those guys.”

The Panthers offense has averaged 95.3 rushing yards per game this season, good for 22nd in the NFL and just 26th in DVOA. On the stat sheet, this looks like a major advantage for the Lions, but they’ll need to keep their focus and be relentless with their physicality if they want to control this game.

Key 3: Don’t let Bryce Young to Adam Thielen beat you

The Panthers traded up to select Bryce Young first overall in the 2023 NFL draft and he looks like he could be a strong foundational piece for Carolina’s organizational future.

“He processes really, really well,” Glenn said of Young. “It’s hard for a rookie quarterback in this league, especially off the jump, coming in and starting. But you see the talent, you see him process, you see him make full-field reads. And I’ll tell you what, he’s an impressive young man. It’s the reason why he did the things he did in college and you can see him being a top-flight quarterback as the years go by. So, he’s doing some really good things.”

Young has the skills set and was certainly electric at Alabama in college, but he has been operating with training wheels so far this season.

Young is simply not pushing the ball down the field very often. Per Next Gen Stats, Young’s Average Intended Air Yards (how far he is targeting players downfield) is just 5.2 yards per throw. His completed passes only average 2.7 yards of production. While he is only being aggressive with the ball on 6.8% of his passes. All three of those stats rank dead last in the NFL.

Let's take a closer look at how he distributed the ball last game against the Vikings:

Of Young’s 32 passes, 13 were thrown behind the line of scrimmage and he never threw a pass beyond 20 yards downfield.

With this short-to-intermediate approach, Young has leaned on veteran slot receiver Adam Thielen to be his workhorse. So far, Thielen has caught 27 passes this season, more than any two other Panthers wide receivers combined. On the season, Thielen sees about 23% of the passing targets, but last week, he saw 44% against Minnesota.

“Very smart, dependable, trustworthy,” Glenn said of Thielen. “You really see that with the quarterback and Thielen. Even though you can say the skills have diminished, the mentality and the smarts have continued to rise. That’s why he’s having the success that he’s having. So, he’s a guy that we have to pay attention to because he’s a really good player.”

Because teams aren't scared of the deep ball, they’re loading the box to stop the run and pressure Young. Last week, the Vikings loaded the box on almost every play and forced the issue by blitzing 18 times and sacking Young five times.

The Lions have been able to generate pressure without needing to blitz often, generating 93 pressures over four games and led by Aidan Hutchinson, who tied for a lead-leading 27 pressures. Some of those pressures have come off the edge against a right tackle, while others have been when he kicked inside on obvious passing plays.

The Panthers' right tackle Taylor Moton has not given up a sack in 2023, but he is responsible for 12 pressures, the 18th most in the NFL. Things aren’t any better on the inside, where rookie guard Chandler Zavala has given up a whopping 28 pressures over four games, the most of any player in the league.

If the Lions can continue to get pressure without the blitz, it will allow them to drop more players into coverage and in turn, have more bodies waiting for those quick passes to Thielen.

Key 4: Continue to disappoint fantasy “experts”

While the Panthers' offensive line is struggling, their defense line is also finding it challenging to be effective on a consistent basis. This season, the Panthers have allowed an average of 136.3 rushing yards per game, which is the 27th-worst yardage output in the NFL. But their DVOA efficiency scores are even worse, as they rank dead last there.

Some of this is due to opponents getting a lead and running the ball a lot in the second half as they drain the clock. But the defensive scheme is also a culprit. The defensive line is struggling to hold its ground against rushing attacks, and running backs are running through gaps far too easily. Couple that with the fact that the Panthers often operate with just one off-the-ball linebacker, and he has a near-impossible task of covering multiple gaps and is getting exposed.

The Panthers have struggled against power backs in gaps and that’s where David Montgomery shines.

“Yeah, there is a physicality factor to it, but for such a big guy, he has some of the best feet I’ve been around,” offensive coordinator Ben Johnson said of Montgomery. “He finds a way to make these jump cuts and get skinny really quickly and accelerate through small holes and he finds some cracks that way. So, he’s got a nice balance between the two.

The Panthers are also vulnerable to outside zone concepts, where Jahmyr Gibbs can make a lot of noise, and should early in the game. But if the Lions jump out to an early lead, as they did last week in Green Bay, it will likely result in a lot of power run concepts for Montgomery—and another week of fantasy “experts” complaining about the Lions running back usage.

Key 5: Bust the shell with Jamo, open things up for Sam LaPorta

The Lions are going to take it slow with Jameson Williams’ return to the field, and while they are leaving the door open to him not playing this week, the odds seem to be that he will get a handful of snaps.

If/when, Williams does play, expect the Lions to put him in on very specific plays with a few designated assignments.

“We’re intentional about getting everyone involved in doing things that they’re capable of doing,” Johnson said of Williams’ potential usage. “Whether the play gets called, or whether the coverage dictates the ball going to them, that’s a different story. But here’s what I’ll say about Jamo, if he’s active this week, then he will have plays in for him this week. It’s like that with all of our skill guys.”

Williams’ skill set lends itself to a variety of specific roles. We have seen him used on quick outs, sideline stretches, end-arounds, and more. But his biggest asset against the Panthers defense—and specifically their “Fangio Shell” coverage—is that he can run right through it. Adding a player with Williams’ speed into the equation against a zone coverage team results in two outcomes. The ball goes deep for the speedster, or the zone stretches and it opens up the middle of the field—where the Lions’ top pass-catching options operate.

Amon-Ra St. Brown has not practiced this week, and there is some speculation that he may miss this game. Though it’s worth noting that he said his goal was to play, and it’s hard to doubt that man. But even if he can’t go, the Lions have another player who feasts in the slot: rookie tight end Sam LaPorta.

While LaPorta is dismantling the myth that rookie tight ends can’t be productive in their first year in the NFL, it’s worth remembering that he hasn’t been fully unleashed and is still developing.

“He needs to keep up what he’s doing to be quite honest with you,” Johnson said of LaPorta. “I mean, we’re putting him into some challenging situations and he’s coming through in a good way, positive way for us, so we’ll continue to work him. We don’t go into a week feeling like we have to cap him in any capacity. He’s able to do everything we’re asking out of that position room and we feel really good about his progress right now.”

The Panthers have done well versus the tight end this season, only allowing 45 yards to the position per game (middle-of-the-road average in the NFL) but their overall success really depends on who is in coverage.

When the Panthers can use defensive back Jeremy Chinn (Carolina’s version of Brian Branch) to cover the slot option, he typically finds success. But if the Lions can occupy him with another slot option (St. Brown or even Kalif Raymond), that would match up LaPorta with a linebacker, where he has a distinct advantage.

Run Jamo through the shell, occupy Chinn with St. Brown/Raymond, and let Laporta go to work.

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