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Defense steps up, Panthers "hold the rope" again

Xavier Woods

CHARLOTTE — When they talked about the Steelers game a week ago, Panthers defenders kept using the word "embarrassed." And after a day when you allow a team that's not exactly stellar on offense to convert 12-of-16 third downs, that's an appropriate word.

Saturday, against one of the best offenses in the league, they came up with a different kind of description.

In beating the Lions 37-23 to keep themselves in position to play for the NFC South title, the Panthers turned things around defensively and made a different kind of statement.

"You don't live in the past," defensive end Brian Burns said of the difference in the two games. "Character shows in how you respond to things, and we responded well today."

The contrast between the two performances can't be overstated. The Steelers entered last week's game ranked 26th in total offense. The Lions entered this week's ranked fourth, with a quarterback who hadn't turned it over in six weeks, and a team that had won six of its last seven.

And early in the game, it looked like they were rolling. They answered the Panthers' all-ground opening touchdown drive by airing it out, with Jared Goff hitting DJ Chark for a 39-yard gain on third-and-10, and Amon-Ra St. Brown for 13 on a third-and-6 en route to a quick score. The next time the Lions had the ball, the Panthers stopped them short on a third-and-14. The Lions converted the fourth down and pushed it to the Panthers' 8-yard line. And then something else changed. Goff put the snap on the ground, and Panthers defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos fell on it. The Panthers offense responded with a 91-yard touchdown drive, and the tone was set.

The Lions barely give the ball away. They had turned it over 14 times all year, third-fewest in the league. The Panthers hadn't taken it away, with just four fumble recoveries, tied for third-fewest of those in the league.

"I felt like our confidence was pretty high regardless, but we've definitely emphasized turnovers," Gross-Matos said. "It was like a perfect storm. Coming down the line, comes across my face, I fall on it and the offense drives it right down and scores.

"We kept re-establishing the line of scrimmage."

After that, the Panthers continued to establish the version of themselves they wanted to be. The next four Lions drives were three-and-outs which resulted in punts, a statement for a defense that hadn't gotten off the field the week before. The Lions were held to 4-of-12 third downs on the day (33.3 percent), nine points lower than their average for the season (42.3, which ranked 11th).

"It was good because I felt like it turned the game early on," interim coach Steve Wilks said. "We had two opportunities on third and long, and we didn't get off the field, and it was like, 'OK, we can't go down this road again this week.' We came up with a big turnover there, and the offense took the ball down the field. But you know, being able to get off the field on third down was definitely the key today for us on defense."

And by doing a better job on early downs, they kept the Lions in long-distance attempts on third downs, which helped the entire process. Though the Lions are an excellent pass-protecting team (second in the league in sacks per pass play), Burns had two sacks (getting him to 12.5 on the year), and the Panthers hit Goff seven times.

"Basically, winning first and second down, making it third and long, making those third downs harder for them to get, so they can't run the ball again and do QB sneaks and that type of bull," Burns said. "They had to put the ball in the air, so that allowed us to get after them."

It sounds simple when you say it like that. Doing it against the Lions is tougher.

"That display wasn't who we are as a defense," Gross-Matos said. "We had one bad week, a couple of missed assignments. People had to take another step. As a unit, we have great leaders in Shaq Thompson and Burns, those guys are very vocal and very demanding, and I felt like we definitely took that step."

They talked about the rope again this week as well, as Thompson did the night before the Seahawks game (the last time they slowed a high-powered offense). They have a piece of rope inside the defensive meeting room, and the act of holding onto it has become a bit of a mantra.

"We took a step back, and went back to holding onto the rope on defense," linebacker Frankie Luvu said. "It's just taking pride in it, and we came out with the dub."

"There is a rope in the building, but out on the field, it is theoretical," Gross-Matos said. "But I think everybody really does believe in it. It's all about how you finish. Dominating for three quarters is something we've done in the past and not been able to finish.

"It's definitely something coach Wilks has brought up, and something people have bought into."

They gave even further evidence of it late in the game.

After cornerback Jaycee Horn left with a left wrist injury early in the fourth quarter, the Lions continued to push the ball downfield. But on fourth-and-5 from the Panthers' 7-yard line, safety Xavier Woods stepped in and jarred an apparent touchdown away from Lions wide receiver Josh Reynolds, a tangible sign that they were getting better at overcoming adversity. When a good team seemed to be making a run, when things got tougher, somebody made a play.

Wilks talked about the leaders in the locker room on both sides of the ball, from older players like Thompson to younger ones like Burns and Horn.

"Those guys have just really stepped up and given us that guidance in the locker room that we need," Wilks said. "I wasn't concerned about how we were going to bounce back. I saw how we practiced, and I saw the guys talking this week to one another, and our communication was just like over the top.

"You know, we got embarrassed last week. That took a lot of pride to come back and do the things that we did this week and to come out with a great performance as we did today."

View the best in-game photos from Carolina's Week 16 game against the Detroit Lions on Christmas Eve.

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