Panthers defense dominant in shutout win over the Detroit Lions

By Zach Goins

Photo: Jaylynn Nash/Icon Sportswire/AP

November 22, 2020

For the first time in five weeks, the Panthers are back in the win column– and they did so in dominant fashion with a 20-0 shutout against the Lions.

The shutout was Carolina’s first in nearly five years, and only the second in the league this season. While the Panthers weren’t playing one of the NFL’s top teams, blanking an opponent at this level is impressive no matter who’s on the other side of the ball.

What’s more impressive was Carolina’s ability to secure a win despite missing their best players, like quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who was out with a knee injury, running back Christian McCaffrey and cornerback Donte Jackson who have been struggling with injuries all year long.

“I thought it was a total team win,” head coach Matt Rhule said. “With so many of our players down, not able to play, I thought a lot of guys stepped up and we did what it took to win.”

Here are some takeaways from Sunday’s win:

P.J. Walker rises to the occasion

With Bridgewater sidelined, the starting quarterback responsibilities fell to P.J. Walker, the former Temple Owl-turned-XFL star who Carolina picked up in free agency this spring. Walker had played sparingly on two occasions earlier this year when Bridgewater was briefly banged up, but Sunday marked his first career NFL start. The result was one to remember.

Walker completed 24-of-34 passes for 258 yards and a touchdown, but his most important stat was a Carolina victory. Walker also earned himself a game ball in the locker room after the game. 

“It was awesome,” Walker said of his first start. “I feel like once I got a little comfortable after the first couple of drives, for me it was just to go out there and play football again. Go out there and have fun. Been playing the game for a while, so just go out there and execute.”

Walker had quite a bit of help on both sides of the ball, with three different receivers catching seven passes or more, plus the defense pitching a shutout. Defensive end Brian Burns said that knowing it was Walker’s first career NFL start inspired the defense to make things as easy as possible for him, hence the shutout.

“Knowing that this was P.J.’s first start, we needed to give him a little momentum, a little push to make the game easier for him,” Burns said. “I felt like we did that today and he did a great job of taking care of the ball, making his throws.”

Brian Burns in post-game Zoom press conference.

Walker’s performance was nothing flashy, but he effectively moved the Panthers up and down the field and managed the game. His debut outing definitely wasn’t perfect, particularly in the red zone, where Walker threw two interceptions in the end zone. Ultimately, the picks didn’t result in anything significant for the Lions, but without them Walker’s day– and Carolina’s win– could have looked much more impressive.

It doesn’t sound like Walker’s time under center will last too much longer, though. Bridgewater went through extensive warmups testing out his knee before the game, and Rhule even went so far as to say he probably could have played today, so it seems like he’ll be back in the starting lineup next week.

At long last, Panthers force a punt

Entering Sunday’s matchup, the Panthers’ defense had only forced two punts in the team’s last four games. That’s one side effect of having the league’s worst third-down defense. 

Against the Lions, though, the defense finally got in gear, holding Detroit to just three conversions on 14 third downs. As a result, the Lions punted six times and Carolina return man Pharoh Cooper saw his first significant action in weeks. 

Rhule said the defensive turnaround wasn’t due to any drastic changes in the game plan or scheme, but instead simply playing with more discipline and confidence. 

“I thought our defense was the tale of the day. They did a fantastic job getting to the quarterback, not allowing big plays and getting off the field on third down,” Rhule said. “After our third down woes, I thought the staff went back, 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.”

One way the defense helped themselves when it came to third down was by winning on first and second down. Too many times this season opposing offenses have been gifted with third-and-short against the Panthers, and that’s a situation that’s a challenge for any defense to stop. On Sunday, 11 of Detroit’s 14 third-down attempts were third-and-5 or longer.

“I thought they did a good job of keeping plays in front of them,” Rhule said of the defense. “I thought they did a good job of rallying to the ball, I thought we tackled. We got that early turnover.”

While some skeptics may attribute the Panthers’ success to a stagnant Detroit offense, safety Juston Burris said Carolina knows what kind of team it has on defense.

“I think it gives us confidence, not that we lost any confidence after last week,” Burris said of the shutout. “We know that we can be a dominant defense. Everything that we need is on this defense, and I think we have the confidence to go out and shut teams out.”

Breaking the third quarter curse

The Panthers’ performance– or lack thereof– in the third quarter this season has been well documented. Entering Sunday’s matchup with the Lions, Carolina had only scored three touchdowns in the third quarter through 10 games, and the last time it happened was in Week 7 against New Orleans.

Well, add 10 more third-quarter points to the scoreboard for the Panthers, because those woes were nowhere to be found on Sunday. Early in the third, Walker connected with wide receiver Curtis Samuel on a 17-yard touchdown pass, and kicker Joey Slye added a career-long 56-yard field goal late in the quarter.

“We understood that coming out of the half we’ve got to play better,” Samuel said of the recent struggles. “Our focus was just execute, just execute at the highest level. Everybody do their job, just all put it together, and just let it come to us. Don’t try to do anything different. Just be yourself.”

The third quarter success came at a critical time for Carolina, after the team struck out in the second quarter instead this week, with an interception and three punts on four possessions. Leading just 7-0 at halftime, coming out hot to start the second half helped the Panthers cement their lead and secure the win.

Burns finally gets home

It seems like every week Brian Burns is inches away from having a three or four sack game. Defensive coordinator Phil Snow even went so far as to predict earlier this week that Burns was closing in on a breakout three-sack performance.

He may not have gotten that many, but two sacks is nothing to be ashamed of for Burns. As a whole, Carolina’s defense notched five sacks and 11 quarterback hits on Detroit’s Matthew Stafford. 

Rhule said a combination of things led to the defensive front’s domination, including a mix of blitzes and fakes, elite coverage downfield, and the Lions playing from behind. Rhule wasn’t the only one happy about the performance. 

“I accept anything God throws my way, and if he intended for me to get two, that’s what it was,” Burns said. “He’s saving my big game for a special time, I’m waiting on it, it’s alright.”

When you’re in on as many big plays as Burns was on Sunday, it may be hard to pick a favorite, but not for Burns.

“I would have to say, the one where I was tired as hell,” Burns said. “They forgot to block me and it was a freebie. I usually don’t get freebies, so that was new to me.”

The Panthers visit the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday, November 29 at 1 p.m. on FOX.

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