How Carolina Panthers plan to fix defense vs. Detroit Lions

Pittsburgh Steelers running back Najee Harris (22), right, stiff arms Carolina Panthers cornerback Keith Taylor Jr. (28) at the Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C., on Sunday, December 18, 2022.

Pittsburgh Steelers running back Najee Harris (22), right, stiff arms Carolina Panthers cornerback Keith Taylor Jr. (28) at the Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C., on Sunday, December 18, 2022.

Carolina lost the battle in the trenches against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday.

The Panthers’ defense was pushed around by Pittsburgh and allowed 156 rushing yards on 45 carries. Upfront, the Steelers dominated the Panthers’ defensive line. At the second level, Carolina linebackers and defensive backs missed tackles and blew coverage assignments.

After consecutive weeks of winning at the line of scrimmage and playing sticky pass defense, Carolina reverted to its early season woes. With their playoff chances on life support, the Panthers face a critical matchup on Saturday when the Lions visit Bank of America Stadium.

Winners of six of their past seven games, Detroit is one of the hottest teams in the NFL whose playoff hopes are still alive. As are the Panthers’ postseason ambitions. According to FiveThirtyEight, Carolina has a 22% chance of winning the NFC South. Those odds improve to 34% with a win and jump to 43% if the Buccaneers lose on Sunday at Arizona.

Here is how Carolina can reestablish its identity against the Lions.

Third-down miscues

The Steelers converted a season-best 75% of their third downs against Carolina. Interim coach Steve Wilks said the team’s inability to defend on third down cost them the game.

“I felt like our nemesis this past week was third down. We just couldn’t find a way to come up with that play,” Wilks said. “With third down, you start talking about time of possession and controlling the drive. We didn’t do a great job of getting off the field.”

The Lions are the 10th-best third-down team in the NFL, converting 43% of the time. Over the past three games, the Lions have converted nearly 50 percent on third down, which is third-best in the league.

Whatever third-down defensive schemes worked for Carolina against Seattle two weeks ago were not functional against Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh converted six third downs via the run and another six by throwing. Carolina could not defend the pass or set the edge against the run.

Losing No. 2 cornerback C.J. Henderson early in the first quarter decimated the Panthers’ third-down scheme. Interim defensive coordinator Al Holcomb wants to play man-to-man defense on third down. But without Henderson, the Steelers threw away from Jaycee Horn and at Henderson’s backup Keith Taylor.

Taylor allowed six receptions on six targets for 106 yards, according to Pro Football Focus. Taylor allowed five first downs and 53 receiving yards against both Diontae Johnson and George Pickens.

Henderson has practiced both Tuesday and Wednesday and is on pace to play Saturday. But it would be advantageous for Carolina to diversify its third-down play-calling even if Henderson is back to his every-down role. Horn was targeted twice. He gave up two catches for 12 yards and a first down versus Johnson.

Teams prefer to throw away from Horn. But even when the Steelers did target Horn they were successful. Meaning, Steelers quarterback Mitch Trubisky anticipated the Panthers’ third-down calls.

Holcomb must diversify his third-down play sheet versus quarterback Jared Goff and the Lions. Last week in a 20-17 victory over the Jets, the Lions picked up 17 first downs and 14 of them came via the pass.

But the Panthers’ run defense was soft, too. Holcomb said a combination of poor tackling and an inability to set the edge compounded the team’s ineffective third-down plan.

“We got to defend the run better. That was the key thing there. They didn’t have a touchdown pass. All of their touchdowns came off the run game,” Holcomb said. “At the end of the day, it came down to tackling and leveraging the formation.”

Red-zone run defense

The Steelers scored the game’s first touchdown on a 7-yard Najee Harris rush. The score was a microcosm of the Panthers’ problems. On the play, the Steelers washed the Panthers’ front line to the right. The play’s design left Harris one-on-one with safety Jeremy Chinn. He couldn’t make the open-space tackle and Harris easily scored.

Pittsburgh was three-for-three in the red zone and perfect in goal-to-go situations.

After the game, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin detailed how simple winning upfront usually is.

“More than anything, I just think there’s nothing mystical about dealing with the run,” Tomlin said. “Usually, it’s about guys coming off of blocks and making tackles.”

When asked about that quote on Wednesday, Wilks agreed.

“There were a lot of self-inflicted (plays). Not playing with violent hands, not getting vertical, not staying in gaps,” Wilks said. “All the little things that we preach and emphasize each and every day that we’ve shown success with previously.”

The Panthers practiced in pads on Wednesday with hopes of refining their physicality upfront. Carolina will need to play one of its best red-zone games of the season to beat the Lions. Detroit’s 70% red zone-touchdown rate is third-best in the NFL. Lions running back Jamaal Williams’ 14 rushing touchdowns is the most in the league.

Poor second-down tackling

The Panthers’ defense must also improve its second-down execution ahead of Saturday.

Carolina allowed 5.2 yards per second down last week. Two of the Steelers’ three touchdowns were on second down. Holcomb said poor tackling allowed Pittsburgh to operate from third-and-manageable.

“I believe they had 14, second-and-7 pluses,” Holcomb said. “So we had them in favorable positions in terms of what we wanted, but we didn’t do a good job on second down, because they had a lot of third-and-shorts.”

Pittsburgh ran 24 second-down plays. Seventeen of those calls were runs. The Steelers averaged just 4.6 yards-to-go on third down. Pittsburgh faced third-and-7 or longer just twice (and they converted both).

Poor tackling resulted in Carolina defending too many unpredictable situations. The Panthers missed 19 tackles against Pittsburgh, according to Pro Football Focus.

The Panthers missed just six combined tackles in their wins against Denver and Seattle.

Whether it’s third down, red zone, or tackling, Wilks is confident Carolina will correct its mistakes.

“When you have done something before, which we have, it’s just going back and trying to recollect that,” Wilks said. “It’s about the details. So I’m not concerned about us not being able to get back to it.”

Hailing from Minnesota, Ellis L. Williams joined the Observer in October 2021 to cover the Carolina Panthers. Prior, he spent two years reporting on the Browns for Plain Dealer. Having escaped cold winters, he’s thrilled to consume football, hoops, music and movies within the Queen City.

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