The Lions, winners of three in a row for the second time this season, look to continue their winning ways Saturday against the Carolina Panthers.
Going into the Christmas Eve affair (1 p.m. EST start), both teams have a shot at making the playoffs.
Detroit, at 7-7, sits just a half-game back of the 7-6-1 Washington Commanders for the final wild card spot in the NFC. Meanwhile, the Panthers, at 5-9, sit just one game back of the Tampa Bay Buccanneers for first place in the NFC South.
Carolina, which dropped its Week 15 contest to the Pittsburgh Steelers, has won three of its last five games. So, although the Panthers are sub-.500, this won’t be an easy game for the red-hot Lions (winners of six of their last seven).
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And in unfortunate injury news, Detroit will be without starting safety DeShon Elliott for the pivotal matchup. On Thursday, Elliott was ruled out for the road tilt in Carolina, due to a shoulder injury which he suffered this past Sunday against the New York Jets.
In his absence, Kerby Joseph is expected to lead the way for the safeties on Saturday.
“You’ve got to always drive the bus. That’s what it is,” Joseph said Thursday, when asked by All Lions about “manning the ship” for the safety position against the Panthers. “So, if my brother needs help, I’m going to help him out. And, if I need help, they’re going to help me out.
“I feel like it’s not a one-man army, though. The more we work together, the more we win together, and the more we play together, the better we play together.”
As this season has progressed, Joseph, a third-round pick of the Lions in the 2022 NFL Draft, has increasingly become an impact performer on the third level of Detroit’s defense.
Through 14 games (11 starts), the Illinois product has amassed 65 total tackles, five passes defensed, three interceptions, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery.
With Elliott not being available this week, the Lions are expected to give additional playing time to reserve safeties Ifeatu Melifonwu and C.J. Moore.
Joseph expressed Thursday that he is looking forward to playing alongside the aforementioned defensive backs.
“I love playing with Iffy (Melifonwu), I love playing with C.J., I love playing with all my guys,” Joseph said. “I feel like Iffy’s a playmaker. You know, he’s a sleeper that a lot of people don’t recognize yet. But, his time is coming.”
There’s no better time than Saturday for Melifonwu, a third-round selection of Detroit in 2021, to prove that he’s capable of being a starting safety in the NFL.
If Melifonwu and Joseph are able to provide some solid help to the Lions’ cornerbacks group on the back-end of the defense, Detroit, as a unit, should be able to shut down the Panthers’ passing attack.
Carolina’s passing game, led most recently by fifth-year passer Sam Darnold, has accounted for just 2,388 yards and 12 touchdowns on the season. Each of those marks rank 30th in the league.
I strongly believe Detroit will be able to limit Darnold & Co.
Meanwhile, from a run game perspective, the Panthers are much more effective, despite producing just 21 yards on the ground a week ago against Pittsburgh.
In fact, in Carolina’s three wins since Week 9, it has averaged 213.3 rushing yards a game. And, on the season, the Panthers, led by running back D’Onta Foreman, have rushed for the 17th-most yards in the NFL (1,645).
While one of the keys to stopping the Panthers is limiting their ground game, Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn understands his unit will also have to be stout against Carolina when it tries to pass on first and second down.
“The one thing that we have to be really, really good – the thing that I talk about, man, is first-and-second-down efficiency,” Glenn said Wednesday. “That has got to be on point, because what you don’t want with this team, you don’t want to get them in a third-and-short. Because when they get into a third-and-short, I guess third-and-5 or less, man, it’s really first and second down for them, because they will still run the ball in those situations. So, now you can’t really anticipate what they’re going to do.
“So, as far as framing this game, we have to do everything we can to be really, really stout. Be really, really competitive in the passing game on first and second down, so we can get them in those third-and-longs. So, now we can anticipate and get our pass rushers out there and go to work.”
As for the offensive side of the ball, Detroit will need to do a solid job of preventing Panthers EDGE Brian Burns from getting to quarterback Jared Goff. Burns already has produced a career-best 10.5 sacks this season.
I believe the Lions’ offensive line, anchored by two-time Pro Bowl center Frank Ragnow, will be up for the challenge.
Despite the obstacles that lie ahead for Detroit in Carolina, I’m willing to give the Lions a 60 percent chance of pulling out the Week 16 win.
Source : Sports Illustrated