The Carolina Panthers are healthy at the right time.
With Detroit (7-7) visiting Bank of America Stadium on Saturday, the Panthers (5-9) are preparing for a critical game with playoff implications against an explosive Lions’ passing attack.
Cornerbacks Jaycee Horn and C.J. Henderson were not on the Week 16 injury report. The Panthers will need both corners playing at their best to compete against Lions receivers Amon-Ra St. Brown and rookie Jameson Williams.
But it’s not just Horn and Henderson who have progressed through their injuries. For only the second time this season, the Panthers do not have a single player who carries a game status into Saturday.
Horn, Henderson, tight end Ian Thomas and safety Myles Hartsfield were all limited at some point this week but all were full participants at Friday’s practice.
“(It) was a good week of practice. We finished on a positive note (Thursday),” interim coach Steve Wilks said. “I feel great about our preparation, but that preparation needs to lead to execution on Saturday.”
Carolina had a short week of practice due to playing on Christmas Eve instead of Sunday, which helped the team flush its underwhelming 24-16 loss to Pittsburgh.
The Lions present a challenging matchup for Carolina in all three phases of the game. Detroit — winners of six of its past seven games — will try to attack the Panthers’ secondary while copying the defensive game plan Pittsburgh succeeded with last week.
Here is how the Panthers can upset the Lions.
Jaycee Horn, C.J. Henderson must play great
The Panthers’ secondary was exposed without Henderson, who played just four snaps due to an ankle injury. He practiced all week and did not land on the Week 16 injury report, meaning he’s healthy and ready to play.
Carolina will need him. According to Football Outsiders, the Lions have the eighth-best passing DVOA and sixth-best offense overall. (DVOA measures a team’s efficiency by comparing success on every single play to a league average based on situation and opponent.).
St. Brown is a large reason for that. He is one of the best route runners in the NFL. He’ll test Horn and Henderson both outside and in the slot. He’s capable of winning from any formation. His combination of twitch and body deception while running helps him get open against man coverage.
The way Wilks and defensive coordinator Al Holcomb decide to attack St. Brown will be critical.
“I feel very confident when C.J. (Henderson) or Jaycee (Horn) is out there that either one can cover him,” Wilks said. “How we look at it is just basically playing left and right.”
The Panthers have a plan for St. Brown. But it can only be executed if Horn and Henderson play a complete game.
Sam Darnold versus Lions defense
Quarterback Sam Darnold is coming off a good enough game against the Steelers. He did not do enough to overcome the Panthers’ nonexistent run game or season-worst third-down defense, but Darnold played well enough for Carolina to win.
To beat the Lions, Darnold will have to build off his momentum. Darnold posted season highs in passing yards (225), completion percentage (61%), and quarterback rating (108.1) against Pittsburgh. He’ll have chances against the Lion’s 23rd-ranked defense according to Football Outsiders DOVA metric.
The Steelers effectively sold out to stop the run. Carolina posted a season-low 19 rushing yards between running back D’Onta Foreman and Chuba Hubbard. To combat that, look for Darnold to either attack the middle of the field with throws to the tight end or slant patterns for D.J. Moore or Terrace Marshall. He’ll have to be more aggressive running the ball himself, too. The lanes are there. Darnold just needs to be more decisive when scrambling.
Tight end Stephen Sullivan only has two catches this season, but he is the most explosive big target on the team. If Carolina wants to control the middle of the field then Sullivan, Thomas and Tommy Tremble must have assertive games.
Stopping the run
Poor tackling resulted in Carolina defending too many unpredictable situations last week. The Panthers missed 19 tackles against Pittsburgh, according to Pro Football Focus. Carolina missed just six combined tackles in their wins against Denver and Seattle.
Missed tackles forced the Panthers to repeatedly defend third-and-short. The Steelers averaged just 4.6 yards to go on third down. Pittsburgh faced third-and-7 or longer just twice (and the Steelers converted both).
Panthers defensive tackle Derrick Brown and safety Jeremy Chinn must be better run-stoppers. Chinn is having a turbulent season after missing five weeks with a hamstring back in Week 4. But Brown has been one of the Panthers’ best players this year.
He played an uncharacteristically sloppy game against Pittsburgh but should bounce back.
Carolina also could not set the edge last week. Edge defenders Brian Burns, Yetur Gross-Matos and Marquis Haynes must be more firm on the outside. Then on passing situations it’s their responsibility to generate pressure without the Panthers having to blitz.