The Carolina Panthers lost their starting running back to injury prior to the game and deactivated their starting defensive end shortly before kickoff. In the game, they lost their starting fullback to injury and later their only remaining running back on a special teams injury. This means they had only a single RB in the game. They were still able to blow out the Detroit Lions, who did everything they could to prevent themselves from winning. What went wrong? What didn’t? Frankly, it’s easier to look at the second question because the answer is shorter, but we’ll look at all of it.
Bad Matt Makes His Return
Matthew Stafford was amazing in his 2014 debut, putting on a passing clinic and, aside from some timing issues with his rookie tight end, was nearly flawless. He started off this game the same way, finding Calvin Johnson, Golden Tate, and others to drive down the field early. As mistakes started to mount and the game got out of hand, bad Matthew Stafford returned and started to force passes to his top target, Calvin Johnson.
This led to his first interception of the season on an underthrown deep pass to Johnson that was tipped. Stafford’s footwork issues were back by the half and by the end of the game he was throwing off his back foot even when he had a clean pocket. Clearly not a premiere performance, even if his issues were not remotely the worst on the team.
Joique Bell Gets Benched
A fan favorite, Joique Bell was atrocious to start out this game. He wasn’t very good until late in the game against the Giants, but throughout the Panthers game he was far from on point. Bell couldn’t find holes and made poor choices in his lanes, and that wasn’t even taking into account his near fumble that he was lucky to get away with as only a drop and another fumble he lost to the Panthers.
For those keeping count at home, that’s one drop and two fumbles for Joique Bell, while Reggie Bush has 0 in either category. Bell was able to pad his receiving numbers with some garbage time catches, but this was one of if not the worst game in his pro career.
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Darius Slay was a bright spot against the Giants and he continued that strong performance against the Panthers. Fans continue to berate the Detroit Lions secondary, but starters Darius Slay and Rashean Mathis have been pretty stellar so far. Slay couldn’t come up with a turnover, but his good plays far outweighed the bad. It wasn’t a perfect game for him, as he was picked pretty badly in the end zone late in the game, but it was an overall good game. Good enough that his injury scare was terrifying, but thankfully it was only a scare.
The Lions lost their starting SS during the preseason, their starting RT and nickelback in game 1, and their starting DE (George Johnson) in today’s game. They also lost Nevin Lawson to injury in this one, meaning the Lions have only 3 healthy CBs. Nickel was a weak spot with Bentley, but Lawson looked promising coming into this game and was playing okay there.
Cassius Vaughn, however, was easily the worst secondary player on the field when he was called upon to play the nickel and the Lions should absolutely be seeking out nickel help before their plane even lands in Detroit. Travis Lewis was surprisingly kept on the active roster, but he’s made his case for his roster spot by strong special teams play. He also left the game with injury.
Tulloch the Double Edged Sword
Stephen Tulloch had an excellent game as long as you weren’t watching him in coverage. Against the run and rushing the passer, Tulloch was playing at a pro bowl level, but when asked to turn and run against Greg Olsen or drop into a zone, he was easily exploited. The Lions have been searching for a long-term replacement to Tulloch, whose career is probably on it’s back half, but it might be time to start taking him off the field on third downs and making him a two down player.
Interior Rush Dominates
CJ Mosley, elite rusher? The oft forgotten 3rd man in the Lions DT rotation notched two sacks in the game while neither starter could make the same claim. That isn’t to take away from the pressure that Ndamukong Suh and most notably Nick Fairley were causing, as both were active in creating the pressure that others were able to capitalize on. The Panthers were able to mitigate that interior rush by exploiting a mismatch on the outside where Ziggy Ansah was having a tough time and George Johnson left with injury. Jason Jones and Devin Taylor were non factors in the game once Johnson left, leaving the big guys in the middle to do all the work.
DeAndre Levy, Defensive MVP
DeAndre Levy had an All Pro year in 2013 but largely went under the radar. He continued that play today and was involved in nearly every play positively. The only time he was out of place was when he overran a run up the middle and came up with air. On nearly every other play, Levy was active and involved. Remember two years ago when fans were upset that it was Levy and not Durant that was re-signed? Good times.
Jed Making a Statement
With all the troubles the Lions had, you would have thought one of their offensive weapons would reach the end zone. As it was, the only one to do so was fullback Jed Collins, who caught a short pass, lowered his shoulder, and bulldozed All Pro Luke Kuechly into the end zone for a score. It would be the Lions only points of the game, but it is nice to see a fullback getting involved.
Nate Freese won the kicking job handily in the preseason, but has made fans and likely coaches question that win ever since. Freese had two opportunities from 49 and both were nowhere near good. Both had the distance, but neither were accurate. This is surprising considering he was perfect last season in college, but whatever the Lions did to improve his leg strength has clearly affected his accuracy. We aren’t in panic mode just yet, as Jason Hanson started his career with similarly shaky numbers, but Lions need to start looking at their options.
Ross Blows His Big Day
Jeremy Ross was off to an excellent start to the season and throughout most of the game was making a case for being a bigger part of the offense. His punt returns were stellar, but when he was finally able to find a returnable kickoff he made the biggest mistake you can make as a returner (Aside from kneeling at the 5). Ross fumbled the ball away, bringing up ball control issues that got him cut from the Packers last season. He is a dangerous returner, and showed some nice hands and moves in the passing game, but you can’t make mistakes like that for very long.
Tate’s Too Successful Cloaking Device
Golden Tate was making plays against the Giants like he had a cloaking device preventing the DBs from seeing him until he had the ball. He started off the game well, putting some nice moves on the Panthers defense and getting some YAC the Lions desperately needed. And then he turned it up a notch and disappeared altogether. He wouldn’t appear again until the final drive of the game in garbage time, and that’s not what the Lions need from their #2 receiver.
Ebron Moves the Chains
When Eric Ebron played only 20 snaps in the Lions opener and failed to make much of an impact, fans were upset. There’s not much to find negatively from the rookie’s game today as he caught three passes for 38 yards, all first downs. Ebron showed he’s every bit the playmaker, but the Lions inexplicably managed his snaps in the game and he didn’t see increased action.
Bad Hands, Bad Memories
The Lions have been one of the worst teams in the league for catching the football the past few seasons, with huge drops problems. Those seemed to be gone against the Giants, with zero drops, but they returned with a vengeance. Calvin Johnson dropped a TD, Joique Bell dropped a short pass that, if caught, would have been a fumble, and Brandon Pettigrew dropped an easy dump pass. I’m sure those weren’t the only drops, but they were the most obvious ones. Matthew Stafford was clearly frustrated with his receivers by halftime, and that frustration didn’t help get better when balls were hitting the dirt on well thrown passes.
I’m sure I could go on for a while on what went wrong, what went right, but it really came down to finishing. This is one of Coach Caldwell’s biggest items he preaches, finishing. The Lions couldn’t finish at all in this one. Drives stalled due to penalties, drops, and turnovers. Defense played good as a whole, but couldn’t end drives too often. This was the first coaching failure we’ve seen from Caldwell, so there’s always the chance this is just growing pains. It’s never promising when the team can’t defeat an inferior, injured opponent, however, and that’s what the Detroit Lions did against the Carolina Panthers.