Carolina Panthers: Newton's Picks, Soft Defense and Poor Coaching Aid Lions Win

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Carolina Panthers: Newton's Picks, Soft Defense and Poor Coaching Aid Lions Win
Leon Halip/Getty Images
Panthers' linebacker James Anderson (50) is caught lying down on the job as the Lions' Kevin Smith (30) runs for a career-high 140 yards.

Losing stinks. Losing after blowing a big lead stinks even more.

Just ask Cam Newton, whose Carolina Panthers (2-8) wasted a 17-point second-quarter advantage to lose by 14-points to Matthew Stafford and the Detroit Lions (7-3) at Ford Field on Sunday.

Or ask first-year Panthers coach Ron Rivera who criticized his team for not having the killer instinct to put the game out of reach when they had the Lions on the ropes.

The Panthers' second-half stench could be smelled all the way back in Charlotte as Newton tossed three of his career-high four interceptions and the Lions scored five of their seven touchdowns after the break.

The Lions' recovery from Sunday's disastrous start marks their third comeback from at least 17-down this season and makes them the Cardiac Cats of 2011.

 

Hot Carolina Start Sizzles, Then Fizzles

The Carolina Panthers got out to a 24-7 lead early in the second-quarter, thanks mostly to three turnovers by the Detroit Lions on their first three possessions and Kialoha Pilares' 101-yard kickoff return for touchdown.

Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford picked up where he left off against the Chicago Bears a week ago and threw interceptions on the first two Detroit drives—though Newton regifted the first one with the Panthers in scoring position—and recently reacquired running back, Kevin Smith, fumbled the ball away on Detroit's third possession.

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Pilares' touchdown followed Stafford's first touchdown pass of the day and was the first scoring kickoff return by the Panthers since Rod "He Hate Me" Smart ran back a 100-yarder against the New Orleans Saints in 2003.

Despite the Panthers' early lead, it never felt like Carolina was in total control of the game.

That is partially because they did not so much stop the Lions' offense as the Lions shot themselves in the foot repeatedly in the first quarter, and also because they squandered the opportunity to finish their opponents while they were down.

Stafford eventually found holes aplenty in the Panthers' secondary, and he rebounded from his two first-quarter interceptions with a pair of second-quarter touchdown passes on quick-strike scoring drives that got the Lions back into the game.

 

A Tale of Two Halves

The Panthers took a 27-14 lead into the locker room, but they could have used at least a three-touchdown advantage against the powerful Lions' offense to stave off another fourth-quarter defeat.

As per usual, the Panthers' opponent made the better second-half adjustments and Carolina looked and played like a shell of itself after the break.

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Detroit pounded the middle of Carolina's defense with inside handoffs and underneath passes en route to a 35-point second-half featuring three Stafford touchdown passes and a pair of touchdown runs by Kevin Smith.

Smith, who was not even with the team until being claimed from the waiver wire just a couple of weeks ago to replace injured starter Jahvid Best, had a career-day with 140 yards on 16 carries. He added another 61-yards and a touchdown on four receptions.

Though Carolina ran the ball well in the first-half against Detroit's aggressive front line, they got away from the running game after the break and became more intent on passing the ball downfield.

Newton, who was sacked just once in the game by Kyle Vanden Bosch, was hounded by constant pressure from Vanden Bosch, Nick Fairley and Ndamukong Suh throughout the game, and three of his passes, which were sailing high all afternoon, wound up in the arms of Lions defenders in the second half.

 

Curious Play-Calling

Once again, Panthers offensive coordinator, Rob Chudzinski, called way more passes (38) than runs (26), despite the fact that Carolina moves the ball effectively when it puts it in the hands of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart.

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At one point in the game, Williams averaged over 10 yards per carry, but he only carried the ball 10 times for 73 yards.

Stewart (eight carries for 22 yards) was less efficient at running the ball than his backfield mate, but he made six catches for a team-high 87 yards on screens and underneath routes.

Newton had a difficult time throwing the ball accurately against the Lions, often throwing off his back foot and sailing passes high over the heads of his downfield targets, and it seemed like "Chud" could have protected his quarterback with a heavier dose of running plays, screens and intermediate routes by the tight ends and receivers to help Newton get into a better rhythm.

As for the Panthers' defense, coordinator Sean McDermott's inexperienced and injury-plagued unit is often at a physical disadvantage against its opponents, and that was the case again against the Detroit Lions.

Rookie defensive tackles Simone Fua and Terrell McClain are overmatched nearly every week, the injury-riddled linebacker corps seemingly starts a new lineup each game, and Chris Gamble is the team's only true cover cornerback who can defend against the pass in man-to-man coverage.

However, the lack of an effective pass rush and inability to slow the Lions' running game on simple up-the-gut plays lies not just with an overmatched unit and the killer instinct factor, but it also lies with an ineffective scheme and the coaches' inability to adjust to and counter Detroit's steady diet of underneath throws and inside runs that kept the chains moving throughout the second half.

Leon Halip/Getty Images
Ron Rivera and his staff were outcoached by the Detroit Lions.

Where’s the D?

Carolina's defense apparently forgot how to shed blocks and tackle after creating those three early turnovers and they were particularly porous up the middle, where Detroit pounded the ball time after time, especially in the second-half.

Chris Gamble, who was lined up across from the Lions' superstar wide receiver, Calvin "Megatron" Johnson, for most of the game, played a good game despite giving up five catches for 89 yards to Detroit's best player.

Gamble kept the big guy from scoring, though Stafford found five other receivers to connect with in the end zone.

The rest of the defense was pitiful. The pass rush was non-existent, Carolina could not stop the inside-handoff—it allowed a 100-yard rusher for the fifth time this season—and Detroit scored touchdowns on each of its six trips to the red zone.

The Panthers' run defense is so bad this year that only the pass-happy New Orleans Saints failed to get a runner over the 80-yard mark in a game against Carolina so far this season.

That's nine opponents' running backs with more than 80 yards against the Panthers in only 10 games.

That's not good and it's something they will need to correct with two games against LeGarrette Blount and one each against Adrian Foster and Michael Turner in the last six weeks of the season.

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In the end, Carolina's defense gave up the third most points (49) and the most yards (495) and first-downs (29) in the franchise's 17-year history in their Week 11 loss at Detroit.

 

Small Scheduling Reprieve

If there is a silver lining in the second-half of the Panthers' season, it's that the winless Indianapolis Colts (0-10) are next on their schedule.

Barring an epic meltdown in Indy, the Panthers should beat the Colts for their third win of the season.

Unfortunately, the last five weeks of the season do not get any easier with games on the road against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-6), Houston Texans (7-3) and New Orleans Saints (7-3).

The Panthers will also host Tampa Bay and the Atlanta Falcons (6-4) before the season's end.

Suddenly, a 4-12 season seems like the best possible result for the Panthers after losing its first two games following the bye-week by a combined score of 79-38.

At least they should get another high pick in the 2012 NFL Draft to build for the future.

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