Lions vs. Panthers preview: Prepare for a catfight
James Hawkins of The Detroit News breaks down Sunday’s Lions-Panthers game at Ford Field (1 p.m. FOX/760 WJR).
PANTHERS TO WATCH
Luke Kuechly, LB: Concussions have robbed him of playing time the past two seasons but he’s still one of the league’s most complete defenders. Kuechly can read an offense like few others and seemingly is always in position to make a play. He’s tied for ninth in the league with 34 tackles to go along with three passes defensed, a fumble recovery and an interception.
Kawann Short, DT: His numbers through four games don’t stand out, however, they understate his real value and impact on Carolina’s defense. Short has been the team’s most dominant interior force the past two seasons and this year is no different. He makes life difficult for opposing offenses with his ability to clog running lanes and consistently collapse the pocket.
Christian McCaffrey, RB: The do-it-all rookie is just as much a slot receiver as he is a running back. McCaffrey leads the team with 22 receptions and ranks fourth in the league in receiving yards by a running back with 206. He’s averaging 73.8 total yards of offense (51.5 receiving, 22.3 rushing) per game and is also deployed as a punt and kickoff returner.
■ Contain Cam: Panthers quarterback Cam Newton appears to be shaking off the rust after missing most of the preseason with a shoulder injury, which coach Ron Rivera said contributed to his early struggles. While he’s averaging a career-low 5.5 rush attempts, Newton (6-foot-6, 260 pounds) is still a load to bring down and a threat to rip off a long run off a read option.
■ Trench war: Another game, another imposing front seven. After being overrun and allowing six sacks against the Vikings last week, the Lions’ offensive linemen must do a better job winning their one-on-one battles to protect Matthew Stafford and allow passing plays to develop downfield. If not, it’ll hamstring the passing attack and could lead to an ugly offensive showing against Carolina’s fourth-ranked defense.
■ Battle of strengths: It’s no secret that the Panthers will pound the rock with bruiser Jonathan Stewart (5-10, 240) and shifty Christian McCaffrey leading their 13th-ranked rushing attack (116.2 yards), which is averaging 29.2 attempts per game. The Lions have stood tall against the run, ranking seventh in the league (86.3 yards), and will receive a boost if middle linebacker Jarrad Davis is able to return.
■ Limit deep shots: So far, the Lions’ secondary has only allowed three completions on 19 passing attempts that have traveled at least 20 yards. If the Lions are forced to stack the box and aren’t putting pressure on Newton, it could open up plenty of downfield chances for big-bodied receivers Kelvin Benjamin (6-5, 245) and Devin Funchess (6-4, 225).
FACTS AND FIGURES
■ The Lions are tied for the league lead in total takeaways (11) and points off turnovers (47).
■ Jim Caldwell is the fastest Lions coach to reach 30 career wins since Buddy Parker (1951-54). Caldwell reached the mark in 52 games and Parker in 41 games.
■ Cam Newton is the first quarterback in NFL history to reach 50 career rushing touchdowns.
■ Through four games, the Panthers are the least penalized team in the league with 13 penalties for 118 yards.
■ Carolina’s offense leads the league in drives over six minutes with seven and third-down efficiency at 51.9 percent (27-for-52).
■ The Lions rank first in turnover differential at plus-nine (11 takeaways, two giveaways) and the Panthers are tied for 29th at minus-five (two takeaways, seven giveaways).
■ After throwing a pick-six on his first pass attempt of the season, Matthew Stafford hasn’t thrown an interception in his last 137 attempts.