Lions’ Den: late game heroics come up short in loss to Panthers

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After becoming accustomed to fourth quarter comebacks, it was assumed that Matthew Stafford was going to lead the late surge to a Detroit Lions victory, but it wasn’t enough. The Lions fell to the Carolina Panthers 27-24, bringing Detroit’s record to 3-2.

The Lions looked hot out of the gate. Running back Ameer Abdullah broke out a 16-yard run, Stafford had a couple quick completions to receivers Marvin Jones Jr. and Golden Tate. After a defensive holding call, the Lions were in field goal range and Matt Prater knocked one home from 30 yards out.

Detroit’s defense looked stout on the Panthers first drive, but the second drive the Panthers found a hole.

Cam Newton, Carolina’s quarterback, found tight end Ed Dickson near the 50-yard line. Dickson, doing his best Incredible Hulk imitation, broke through a Miles Killebrew tackle, withstood a Darius Slay punch at the ball and was eventually dragged down at the three-yard line.

The Lions stood tall and kept the Panthers out of the endzone, but Graham Gano did hit a 21-yard field goal.

The ensuing drive, Detroit’s running back Theo Riddick put Panthers All-Pro linebacker Luke Kuechly on rollerskates, taking a screen pass 21 yards. That set the offense and running back Zach Zenner up for a one-yard touchdown.

Life was good for Detroiters; the Lions up 10-3 at the beginning of the second quarter. Offense looked great, defense was strong. Then, radio silence.

Over the next seven possessions, Detroit ran 24 offensive plays (3.4 plays per drive) for 32 total yards (1.3 yards per play) and no points. Punt, punt, end of the half, fumble, punt, turnover on downs and a punt.

During that span, the Panthers ran 40 plays for 163 yard and 17 points, which very easily could have been 20 points had Gano not missed a 55-yarder.

Receivers Devin Funchess and Kelvin Benjamin each capped off drives in the endzone. Funchess hauled in a 10-yard touchdown to end a 73-yard drive. Newton found Benjamin for a 31-yard dime in the endzone to top off a 75-yard drive. Newton finished the day 26-of-33, 355 yards and three touchdowns.

The running game took a step back for Detroit. Coming off a 94 yard performance against the Minnesota Vikings, Abdullah was limited to 10 carries for 31 yards. Not great, but it gets worse.

Abdullah’s two longest carries were for 12 and 16 yards respectively, which means on the other eight carries, he went three yards, .375 yards per carry. That’s horrendous.

All the blame doesn’t fall on Abdullah. Zenner was able to find the end zone once, but sporting 11 yards on three carries is rough. Especially when you factor in that his longest rush of the day was 14 yards.

Riddick, not much better: two carries, eight yards. His longest rush? Eight yards.

These are talent backs that can make plays when they are given room. The only problem is,  there isn’t any. This offensive line has struggled as of late. They’ve made the run game non-existent and have put Stafford in a run for your life situation.

Speaking of Stafford, he got all sorts of beat up. He fumbled twice, but only lost one of them. He was sacked six times and walked away with a bloodied hand and a gimpy ankle. However, he was able to give the Lions some life.

Going into the fourth quarter, Detroit was down 17 points. Stafford relied on his big name targets, Jared Abbrederis and Darren Fells.

Nope, that’s not a typo. That’s who Stafford had to rely on to make plays, but you know what? Unlike players like Eric Ebron and Jones Jr., they made them.

In the final two drives, Abbrederis was targeted three times, catching two of them for 37 yards and setting the stage for the big tight end. Not Ebron, obviously, but Fells.

Fells shows up on the play-by-play three times. He recovered a Stafford fumble early, caught a 4-yard touchdown and caught a 20-yard touchdown. Fells is emerging as one of Stafford’s favorite targets, catching six passes for 64 yards in the past two weeks.

After the two touchdown drives, the fate of the game fell onto the defense. They had the Panthers in a 3-and-9, with 2:30 left on the clock. Newton was able to hit Benjamin on the left side of the field for 17 yards. With no timeouts left, Detroit watched as Newton took three knees and the game was over.

Sitting at 3-2, the Lions are in a good place. But relying on your $27 million quarterback to will the team to a victory in the final minutes of the game isn’t a great strategy.

Detroit needs to learn how to put together a full four quarter game on a consistent basis. They have the talent, this team can be incredibly dangerous, but their incompetence during some points of the game will be their downfall.

Next week, the Lions travel to New Orleans to take on the Saints, who are coming off a bye. The Saints are not a good team. Yes, they have Drew Brees, but the defense is terrible. If the Lions don’t come out of The Big Easy with a win, Detroit’s in trouble.