Five things to watch as Detroit Lions host Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers

Three key Lions sidelined with injuries

If the Lions’ hope to snap their three-game losing streak, they need to play practically perfect football against the Carolina Panthers on Sunday at Ford Field. It will be the first of three straight home games.

The Panthers (6-3) are coming off a Thursday night loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers so they’ve had extra time to prepare for the Lions who are 3-6.

The Lions (3-6) will be without three injured starters — wide receiver Marvin Jones Jr., defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson and tight end Michael Roberts.

It’s been a rough start under first year coach Matt Patricia, after the Lions finished 9-7 last season.

Still quarterback Matthew Stafford said the team hasn’t quit.

“I think we have a bunch of professionals, a bunch of guys that want to win. Nobody wants to go out there and work their tail off and not win,’’ Stafford said. “So, everybody’s out there trying to figure out a way to be better. Any way we can do it, we’re going to try.”

Five things to watch against the Panthers:

1. Stafford has been sacked 16 times in the last two games. Somehow, some way, they have to find a way to protect him while allowing him to be effective. “I think everybody’s doing everything they can to try and get us going. I think it’s a total team effort, everybody’s trying to play better at all positions, at all spots,’’ Stafford said. “I think our coaches are putting a ton of work in trying to be as good as they can be. So, it’s a total team effort. Offense is no different, we’re out there trying to find ways to make sure we score points. That’s the name of the game at the end of the day. Obviously, limiting sacks and turnovers and all that kind of stuff is going to help us do that, so any way we can do that kind of stuff is going to be beneficial for us.” The offensive line will be without right guard T.J. Lang for the rest of the season.

2. Stafford and offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter are on the same wavelength when it comes to the offense, but they’ve got to translate it from practice to Sundays. They work closely together. “He and I shoot texts throughout the week while I’m at my place and he’s here working. I know he’s up all hours of the night trying to figure out what’s going to be the best way for us to go out there and score a bunch of points, and I’m thinking about it constantly, too,’’ Stafford said. “So, we’re bouncing ideas off of each other all day at practice, trying to find ways to make ourselves score some more points. That’s the name of the game, which has been good.”

3. Detroit’s defense will have its hands full with quarterback Cam Newton and running back Christian McCaffrey, the one-two offensive punch. Each has four rushing touchdowns while Newton has thrown 17 touchdown passes (against just five interceptions) and McCaffrey has caught four of those TDs. Also wide receiver Devin Funchess averages 12.2 yards per catch with 477 yards and three touchdowns. The Lions defense has particularly struggled in the run game giving up 176 rushing yards in the loss to Seattle and 128 to the Vikings. They found better success against the Bears last week holding them to 54 rushing yards, although Mitchell Trubisky passed for 355 yards.

4. Cornerback Darius Slay, who was out last week with a knee injury, is expected to be back in action which will provide a needed boost to the secondary. “He’s a tough player. (He’s) a guy that really, through the course of the season, I’ve had the pleasure to kind of work with and be around and kind of use some of his different talents and attributes in different ways through the course of the game,’’ Patricia said. “I think he gives us some multiplicity in the backend, which is great.”

5. Coaching, as always, is key. While Cooter and defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni make the calls on game days, Patricia is heavily involved. The coaching staff has got nine games of working together, but they’re facing a huge challenge with the talent on the Panthers roster. The Lions are 2-2 at Ford Field.

EXTRA: Stafford was asked what makes veteran Panthers’ defensive end Julius Peppers so good.  “Have you seen the guy before? He’s 6-6, 295 pounds, whatever he is. Extremely athletic, a very smart player. He’s seen a lot of football, he’s a smart rusher,’’ Stafford said. The two have a history going back to 2011 when Peppers (who played for the Bears) tackled Stafford, injuring his shoulder and knocking him out of action for six weeks.

PREDICTION: Panthers 35, Lions 14

Detroit Lions coach Matt Patricia explains his outdoor snowy practice when next 4 games are indoors

Also makes snarky remark about media

ALLEN PARK — Lions coach Matt Patricia defended his decision to hold practice outdoors on Thursday despite the snow and cold and the fact that the Lions next four games are indoors.

At his Friday press conference, he started with a statement praising veterans before Sunday’s Salute to Service day.

Then the coach, who seemed agitated, read a prepared script on the outdoor practice seeking to get “closure to this continuing conversation as far as our training.”

Patricia doesn’t talk to the media on Thursdays so he didn’t address the uncommon notion of practicing outdoors in the snow when the four upcoming games are indoors.

He ended his Friday remarks with a snarky comment about the media.

“We’re going to be practicing inside today just so everybody’s clear, make sure everybody is good, with all the head coaches in the room on that. Everybody good there?’’ Patricia asked. “Again there’s some wind out there , some gusts, probably a good idea to practice inside. It’s all based on what’s best for the team at that moment.’’

The Lions are 3-6 and preparing to play the Carolina Panthers (6-3) on Sunday at Ford Field.

In Patricia’s remarks he started off by saying: “First, we’ll always practice and train in a manner that looks out for our players’ ability to prepare each week for our poopent while taking care of including all parameters to the overall health and safety of our team. Indoor walk-throughs which we had this week which we’ve also had in the past are always beneficial to our team, beneficial to our players, it’s a great teaching and learning environment. It’s an opportunity to pull off physically the demands of practice …’’

He went on, saying the downside of practicing on the indoor turf is the wearing effect it has on players’ bodies.

“Standing on turf or running on turf often time for extended periods of time affects joints, affects swelling and causes the bodies on different members of our team to have pain or joint swelling that will cause them further delay,’’ Patricia said.

He said he wanted to work in pads on fundamentals so Thursday’s practice was outdoors.

“Practicing in pads on turf is a little bit of an extra risk in my mind in some of those situations where feet or footwork might be stuck in the turf in different situations where as the grass or natural ground has a little more give. In those situations it’s safer for us to go outside in practice in pads …’’ said Patricia whose Lions are 3-6.

“Going outside yesterday allowed us the opportunity to focus on our fundamentals which we needed to do and take care and make sure we’re technically sound in some of our footwork. … The focus is most of the skilled players have to keep their feet underneath them be able to break with low center of gravity and play technically sound which is always good from a fundamental standpoint it was  a good opportunity to get that done. The temperature outside was not a factor it was not cold, there was not a heavy wind. It was an easy day for us to go outside and get some good work done.’’

It was in the low 30s and snowing on Thursday when Patricia wore shorts at practice.

“Working through conditions that are not ideal as a football team is also another benefit for us to take live learning environments and turn them into actual teaching moments outside. It also allows us to focus on details of technique and the awareness of our surroundings which we’ll have to play through at some point through the course of the year,’’ Patricia said.

The Lions play at Buffalo on Dec. 16.

Detroit Lions Matt Patricia, Jim Bob Cooter defend Matthew Stafford

Former backup Dan Orlovsky also chips in

ALLEN PARK — With a three-game losing streak, it’s not surprising that Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford has come under intense scrutiny.

It wasn’t just the three straight losses, it was the way the Lions lost. It seemed like they weren’t in the game from kickoff and it wasn’t close. They lost those three by a combined score of 86-45.

In those three games — the last two played without top wide receiver Golden Tate — Stafford threw four touchdowns and three interceptions while he was sacked a total of 19 times.

It’s not just Stafford who has been roasted, it’s the whole team.

Coach Matt Patricia, who usually stops short of praising or ripping individual players,  supported Stafford in his Wednesday press conference.

“Matt Stafford, we’re blessed to have him as our quarterback, we’re lucky to have him as our quarterback. This is a guy that’s extremely tough, he’s extremely competitive, a guy that works harder than anybody in the building every single day to get better,’’ Patricia said. “For him as a quarterback, for his due diligence, the work he does every single week, that’s not an easy position to play in the NFL. When you have the defenses that we’ve seen the last couple weeks coming at you from those different directions, playing in stadiums that are not easy to play in, under conditions that are not easy to play under, I would say it’s part of the game, his toughness that he portrays through all those situations, his ability to come back and go right back at it with that tenacious attitude and effort. I’ll take that every single day.

“He’s a great quarterback, he works extremely hard, he’s our leader on offense, we’re going to keep pushing and he’s going to keep leading which is great for us,’’ the coach added.

Of course Patricia would not explain exactly what has happened to the offense in the three losses.

“There’s definitely been some things that we’ve identified that are issues, it’s not really just one thing. It’s been a multitude of different things through the course of these past couple games that have been an issue. I’m going to be real honest I’m not going to give you specific details because there are other people that listen to this stuff,’’ Patricia said. “They’re watching the tape let them figure it out for themselves. But hopefully if there’s anything out there that they’re taking a look at we’ll get it corrected before we see it again which will happen.’’

No one on the Lions’ coaching staff doubts the toughness of Stafford who has started 121 consecutive games. That includes offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter.

“Stafford’s a really tough guy. Obviously offensively, I have to do a better job and we have to do a better job of protecting our quarterback through play-calling, scheme, execution, all those things,’’ Cooter said on Tuesday. “At the end of the day, we have to get that number down and do a better job with that. Stafford hangs in there, Stafford’s a tough guy. He’ll take a hit when needed. We just need to do a better job of protecting him. It starts with me, I have to improve the way we’re going about doing that and fix some of those errors.”

But, like Patricia, Cooter wouldn’t get into specifics about Stafford’s performance.

“I’m really not huge on getting into player evaluations through the media and all that stuff. We talk through all that stuff in-house here, that’s sort of Detroit Lions information,’’ Cooter said. “We’re talking through everything, evaluating every snap during the game, during practice, what we’re doing well, what we can do better. Same thing with, ‘This play’s good, that play’s not that great,’ during a practice week. We’re discussing a lot of things and that’s some in-house business I’m not looking to share with the media.”

Stafford also got a nod of support from ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky, who was Stafford’s backup from 2014 to 2016.

Orlovsky shared his thoughts on Twitter: “Just rewatched & studied Bears game for the Lions: This is 100% unbiased & keeping it real 1) I know Offensive ball and QB play really well, & this offense, in and out 2) Matthew played very good. 1 miss-read 1 miss throw. FAR FROM THE PROBLEM 3) They’re struggling to win vs Man.”

Stafford and the Lions play the Carolina Panthers (6-3) on Sunday at Ford Field.

The Lions’ offense has a long way to go and it will be tough against the Panthers’ defense which has 21 sacks so far including three by Julius Peppers.

Stopping running back Christian McCaffrey, who has scored seven touchdowns in the past three games, and Cam Newton who has thrown at least two touchdown passes in eight consecutive games, is a tall order for the Lions defense which has under-performed for the past three weeks.

EXTRA: Patricia canceled practice and instead had a walk-through on Wednesday. He said he’s changing things up due to the schedule of three games in 12 days, ending on Thanksgiving. The media is not allowed to view walk-throughs while practice is open for a short period due to NFL rules.