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What to watch: Panthers at Lions


The Carolina Panthers are coming off far and away their most disappointing performance of the season.

That doesn't mean, however, that the Panthers have to stray far away from what they've been doing this season to again find success.

"Every season I've ever been a part of, you have some games that are bad. The key is to not do it two, three, four weeks in a row," longtime left tackle Jordan Gross said. "If it happens one week, be upset about it, make some corrections and go on.

"We don't need to go to the drawing board or recreate ourselves; we just need to do what we've been doing most of this year."

With the exception of last week's 27-point loss, Carolina has been in every game down to the too-often bitter end. Sunday, the Panthers (2-7) will try to return to the competitive brand of football they had been playing when they visit the Detroit Lions.

The Lions started 3-8 last season before finishing 4-1, and now they're 6-3 and in the thick of the playoff race. The Panthers would like to follow a similar pattern, preferably starting with the Lions game.

Here are some keys to bouncing back and advancing forward.

IN A RUSH: Last week, a Tennessee team short on sacks collected a season-high five against the Panthers.

This season, a Detroit team flush with sacks will try to get to quarterback Cam Newton even more often.

Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh has quickly blossomed into a star attraction, but ends Cliff Avril and Kyle Vanden Bosch lead the sack parade with a combined 11.

Newton's speed, size and strength, however, put him among the toughest quarterbacks to bring down – if his offensive line does the job as it had for the most part before the Tennessee game.

"We've got to protect a lot better as a group," Gross said. "No quarterback is good when he's getting hit a lot, so we've got to do better."


IN A RUSH, PART II: It's easy to protect the quarterback when he doesn't have the ball, which is always the case after a handoff.

If the Panthers are to keep the relentless Lions off their quarterback, they need their running game to get in gear.

"We've got to get the run going," Gross said. "It's not that it hasn't worked; we just need to be able to rely on it down the stretch to take the load off the passing game a little bit."

Newton (7.0 carries per game) and running backs DeAngelo Williams (8.3) and Jonathan Stewart (7.5) are combining to carry the ball about 23 times a game, and the running backs are getting the ball another four times a game on average via the pass.

This could be a good game, however, for the backs to get a few more carries.

QB'S BEST FRIEND: If the Lions offense ever bogs down, quarterback Matthew Stafford can always lob one deep for wide receiver Calvin Johnson and hope for the best.

Johnson rarely disappoints. He leads the NFL with 11 touchdown receptions – three more than anyone else – and ranks third in receiving yards per game (Carolina receiver Steve Smith ranks second).

Simply put, Johnson is an athletic freak that can single-handedly take over a game. He's nearly impossible to shut down, but the Panthers must slow him down to stay in the game.


QB'S WORST ENEMY: Part of the Panthers' plan for dealing with Johnson has little to do with the wide receiver himself.

"If you can't disrupt the timing between the quarterback and receiver, they're going to make things happen," Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said. "He's an elite player, but if you focus too much on one individual and not what they do, you can get in trouble.

"We'll try to handle the individual but we'll try to handle what he does in their scheme more than anything else."

Defensive end Charles Johnson has 15 sacks over his last 16 games – which would tie the team record for a season if they all had come in one season – but he needs help.

Bookend Greg Hardy had three sacks in the Panthers' first five games but none since. The Panthers have gotten a sack from a defensive tackle each of the last two games and have gotten sacks recently from a linebacker (James Anderson) and cornerback (Captain Munnerlyn).

ROUGH ROAD: Tight end Greg Olsen has a simple theory for what the Panthers need to do to pick up their first road victory of the season.

"Play better," Olsen said. "Just play better than we have so far this year, I guess. If I had the magic touch, I'd sell it."

Olsen, in his first season with the Panthers, said he likes the way the Panthers operate on the road. They have come up short in each of their three road games this season, but they'll all been close.

Detroit is a mortal 2-2 at home this season, including two consecutive losses.

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