Five things to watch as the Lions face the Panthers; plus prediction

Lions coach Dan Campbell

When the stakes go higher for the Lions — like they will against the Carolina Panthers on Saturday — the team’s temperature must go down. That’s the way coach Dan Campbell sees it and he’s guided this team to six wins in the last seven games to make a playoff berth a possibility.

The Panthers (5-9) still have a shot at the playoffs so the Lions (7-7) can’t take them lightly. Kickoff is at 1 p.m. on Saturday.

Give Campbell credit for keeping the focus on each day and each game instead of the big overall playoff picture. So far they have kept marching forward, keeping the outside noise on the outside.

“I kind of feel like – if it was going to happen, it would’ve happened last week because I felt like all of sudden there was this big – all this attention and everybody wants a piece of the players and coaches,’’ Campbell said. “And so, if it was going to happen, it was then. I think because that was a big swing, we were in the sewer before that and then all of a sudden, we’re – life’s great. So, I feel like, alright, we’re through it. 

“Now, to me it’s – man, the emphasis is on – there again, you can never lose sight. You’ve got to respect the opponent and what they’re capable of. They’ve got a chance to win this division, they’re very much in the hunt. So, we understand that. We identify that. We know it’s a physical unit, but the other thing is, man, you don’t know. This is a – we’ve got an opportunity and you just don’t know when these opportunities are always going to be there, and so we can’t let this slip through our fingers,’’ the coach added.

Five things to watch:

1. The defensive game plan will be similar to last week which resulted in a win over the Jets. Defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn said first- and second- down efficiency will be key. “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,’’ Glenn said. “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.”

2. The offensive line probably doesn’t get enough credit for keeping Jared Goff safe. All they have to do is keep it up. Goff hasn’t thrown an interception in six straight games and hasn’t been sacked in the last two games. In the last seven games since the 6 of 7 win streak started he’s been sacked 6 times. In the previous 7 games when the Lions started 1-6 he was sacked 13 times. Carolina’s Brian Burns has 10.5 sacks so far this season. “It’s a catch 22 for me as I’m calling it because I mean, they come to the sideline and they ask for more runs. But yet, when they’re protecting that well, let’s throw it a little bit more, good things are happening. But no I joke around with them about that, but no they’ve done a great job,’’ offensive coordinator Ben Johnson said. “It’s them doing a phenomenal job with their technique and fundamentals in pass protection, but it’s also a testament to our route runners being disciplined, playing fast, being at the right depth and our quarterback’s playing with timing and anticipation.’’

3. Emphasis has been to improve the run game in recent weeks. They’ve had 100 yards rushing or more in the last three games – all wins. Johnson said he’d love to run the ball more but the negative runs really hurt. “We need to be efficient, and we need to get going, stay on schedule and ahead of the sticks. We were in too many second-and-longs last week, and it made our lives difficult, so yeah no, I think they certainly recognize it’s something that we’ll continue to address as the week goes on too,’’ Johnson said. ” And that’s kind of been the story of our season: fires pop up. We’re just in a race to try to put them away, and sure enough, another week comes by, and other fires pop up, so it’s our cycle right now.”

4. It’s been a slow roll-out for rookie wide receiver Jameson Williams. In his first three games he has one catch – a 41-yarder for a touchdown.The Panthers’ defense will have to keep an eye on him when he’s on the field. He and Jared Goff are building chemistry during practice. “It’s a weekly process, and I think it is coming along. We try to push Jamo a little bit more every week in terms of the routes we’re asking him to run, not just for the game, but also for his development and for Jared’s chemistry with him,’’ Johnson said. “We’re trying to see what he’s capable of, and what he’s comfortable with at this point coming off that injury. So, I think we’ll continue to see a growing connection between those two. It’s just time on task.”

5. Don’t play not to fail. This is a young team finding its swagger and learning to win. As the stakes get higher, Campbell has to make sure they don’t get too tight. The coach talked to them at halftime of the Jets win and it worked and he doesn’t think it will be an issue moving forward. “They know that. I don’t feel like I need to beat that one over the head. They get it, and it’s been acknowledged, and now it’s – listen, I think we have a pretty good idea of who we are, where we’re at, and I think more than anything, it’s about – look, we’ve got some guys in this locker room that have won now. I mean we do,’’ Campbell said. “Alex (Anzalone) has won. Jamaal (Williams) has won. (Michael) Brockers has won. Shoot, (Kalif Raymond) Leaf’s won, and then we’ve got a whole slew of young guys that don’t really know. They don’t know any better, and that’s kind of a good thing, honestly.’’

(Prediction: Lions 31, Panthers 21. It could be a Merry Christmas for the Lions if all three units continue to play solid football.)

Author: Paula Pasche

Paula Pasche, a veteran sports writer, covers the Detroit Lions for her Lions Lowdown blog. She has written two books, "Game of My Life Detroit Lions" and "100 Things Lions Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die" which are available at bookstores and on Amazon.com. She won first place for column writing from the Society of Professional Journalists in Detroit (Class B) in 2011, 2012 and 2013 and was The Oakland Press 2010 Staffer of the Year.

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