With 1:55 remaining in the Panthers’ eventual win against the Detroit Lions, the game was already well out of reach as Carolina was up 20-0.
But the shutout was still on the line. The Lions helped the Panthers out with that, getting called for consecutive penalties on fourth down (encroachment and offsides) to solidify the score and leave the ball in the hands of Carolina quarterback P.J. Walker.
And after quarterback Walker’s hard count forced the game-ending offsides penalty, the Panthers’ sideline erupted. Ending a five-game losing streak with a shutout will do that to a team.
That sideline couldn’t have looked more different from a week ago.
Instead of heads hanging low as the defense allowed 544 yards of offense and 46 points to Tom Brady in the Panthers’ worst game of the year and the team watching starting quarterback Teddy Bridgewater leave the field with a knee injury, Bridgewater stood alongside his teammates out of uniform watching the defense and Walker pull away for the most lopsided win of the season.
The Panthers (4-7) were helped by multiple mistakes by a struggling Lions team (4-6) and some poor performances, but for the first time in over a month, they got out of their own way. The things that had gone wrong during the five-game slump went right. The defense got off the field on third down and managed to pressure Matthew Stafford with disguises. The offense put together big drives when they needed to in the third quarter and to end the game.
“Everyone was just playing, just having fun,” defensive end Brian Burns said. “You’re beating up on somebody else, that’s when you play your best ball. You’re not worried about anything that goes wrong, because you’re just having fun, just getting back to the game. We really had a good time out there today.”
Bridgewater warmed up ahead of the game to test his knee, but was ruled out just prior to kickoff, giving Walker the opportunity to make his first career start after winning the quarterback competition over Will Grier in practice.
Was the 25-year-old former XFL star perfect? Far from it. He threw two extremely questionable interceptions in the end zone that were each head-scratching in their own way and as Rhule said, “could have cost the game.”
But he made throws when he needed to and established a quick connection with DJ Moore, who finished the game with seven receptions for a season-high 127 yards. Rhule pointed to a 52-yard pass to Moore on the 95-yard drive in the first half that ended in a touchdown as a pivotal tone-setter for the day.
“I thought it was a jolt in the arm for us,” Rhule said.
Walker completed 24 of 34 passes for 258 yards and a touchdown and the offense managed to get its three leading wide receivers involved in a way that it has struggled this season. Curtis Samuel caught 8 passes for 70 yards and the score and Robby Anderson also caught seven passes of his own for 46 yards.
Coming into the game, the Panthers had been outscored 55-24 in the third quarter this year. Against the Lions, they put up a season-high 10 points after being held scoreless six times in the frame. The defense did its job, forcing two punts and keeping the opponent off the scoreboard for just the second time in the 15 minutes immediately following halftime this season.
And it was that defense that clinched the win and showed the most improvement.
Carolina had a season-high five sacks and came away with the team’s first shutout since 2015 (38-0 vs. Atlanta) and seventh overall in franchise history. It was only the second shutout in the NFL this year. The Lions’ 185 net yards were the fewest the Panthers had given up since 2017 and a far cry from the team’s average of 380 yards allowed per game this year. The Lions didn’t have a possession finish beyond the Panthers’ 33-yard line and, for the second time in franchise history, the Panthers did not allow a single rushing first down (November 1995 vs. Arizona).
“I thought our defense was the tale of the day. Did a fantastic job getting to the quarterback, not allowing big plays and getting off the field on third down after our third down woes,” Rhule said. “I thought the staff went back, the players went back and they had our best week of practice our best week of preparation and I think it showed up in the game.”
Where did the improvement come from?
Stafford, who came into the game with an injured right thumb, was pressured throughout the second half and made uncomfortable, in addition to solid coverage by the Panthers. It helped that Detroit was without running back D’andre Swift and wide receivers Danny Amendola and Kenny Golladay. Coordinator Phil Snow dialed up pressures for Burns (2.0 sacks) and Efe Obada (1.5), but also used disguises with Burns, rookie Jeremy Chinn and others lining up all over the field and confusing the Lions.
“They had no idea where we were coming from, they didn’t know if I was dropping, covering the slot, covering the back or if I was rushing off the edge or going into the B-gap. We were sending guys from all over the place and they messed up their protection a lot,” Burns said. “I usually don’t get freebies and they decided not to block me.”
Last week against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Panthers’ young defense struggled to make meaningful plays. Rhule called the performance “unacceptable.” A variety of leaders on defense took the blame, including Shaq Thompson calling his team out in the locker room.
But against a Lions offense that has struggled throughout the season, the group looked like a unit. Thompson had a big pass defense to end the Lions’ last drive of the game. Safeties Juston Burris and Tre Boston made several key plays and led the team with a combined 12 tackles between them.
The Lions went 1 of 6 on third down in the first half against the NFL’s worst third-down defense since 1972 and finished the game 3 of 14. The Panthers forced their first three-and-out of the season in the third quarter and improved the team’s third down conversion percentage allowed from 55.3% coming into the game to 51.8% after. With that, the Tennessee Titans take care over the lead for setting a historic third down conversion percentage allowed this year (54%).
“I think it was guys having their eyes on their man. Guys being, a little bit more focused, guys understanding they don’t have to make the play for somebody else. They don’t have to make this crazy, outlandish play that nobody’s seen before. Just do their job,” Boston said on correcting the third down issues.
After forcing just two punts combined over the last four games, Detroit had four punts in the first half and ended the game with six punts, a season-high forced for Carolina. Special teams also had a strong day with kicker Joey Slye making his first field goal of 50-plus yards this season (56-yards) after coming into the game 0-4, including two historic attempts.
It was Walker doing enough and the defense stepping up for its most dominant performance yet, despite some of the team’s best players watching from the sidelines with plenty still to improve.
“I thought it was a total team win with so many of our players down, not able to play,” Rhule said. “I thought a lot of guys stepped up, and we did what it took to to win.”