MIKE O'HARA

O'HARA'S FRIDAY FOCUS: Defense looks to keep the good times rolling

Posted Oct 6, 2017

Linebacker Tahir Whitehead and the rest of the Lions' defense want to keep the good times rolling on that side of the ball.

Tahir Whitehead has moved around at linebacker in six seasons on the Detroit Lions’ defense, and something good usually happens for him and the team wherever he lands.

Whitehead’s landing spot this year, either at weak-side linebacker or in the middle, has been around the ball this year on a team that has played takeaway on defense and keep-away on offense.

In the critical category of turnover differential, which often is the difference between winning and losing, the Lions are runaway leaders in the NFL at plus nine after four games. They have 11 takeaways on defense and two giveaways on offense.  

Whitehead leads the team with three takeaways, on two fumble recoveries and an interception.

As the Lions prepare to face the Carolina Panthers at Ford Field Sunday in a matchup of teams with 3-1 won-loss records, Whitehead wants to keep the good times rolling on defense.

“Turnovers always help in the game,” he said this week. “When you win the turnover margin, you definitely put your team in a better position to win the game.

“We’re hungry, baby. Everybody wants a piece of the pie. You’ve definitely got guys that are pushing each other, challenging each other, to get to that ball.

“That’s how we’re made. That’s how we practice. It’s a party at the ball. That’s how we see it.”

Breakdown: The Panthers are coming to town to spoil the Lions’ party, just like they did last week with a 33-30 road win over the New England Patriots.

They’re built to do it on both sides of the ball. They have a strong running game, big receivers on the outside in Devin Funchess and Kelvin Benjamin, and a quarterback in Cam Newton who’s erratic throwing at times but possesses rare athletic ability.

The Lions’ offense has withered the last two weeks. The Panthers’ defense ranks in the top 10 in numerous categories. If the Lions don’t do a better job of protecting quarterback Matthew Stafford, the Panthers’ could match the six sacks the Minnesota Vikings registered in last week’s loss to the Lions.

Although the turnover stat favors the Lions by a huge margin – plus 11 for the Lions to minus five for the Panthers – that cannot be relied on in a game-to-game basis. The equation can be flipped in an instant.

Prediction: The Lions are a legitimately good team – sound on offense, good and opportunistic on defense with playmakers in what has been an elite secondary. The Panthers have a lot of the players back from the 2015 team that went 15-1 and reached the Super Bowl, and Cam Newton can win a game with his arm and legs.

It’s a tough, tough matchup for the Lions who must get their offense performing at a level that matches the defense. A higher voice says take the Lions.

Detroit Lions 26, Carolina Panthers 17.

Series history: The Panthers have a 5-2 series lead. The Lions won the last meeting at Ford Field, 49-35 in 2011. Stafford threw five TD passes against two picks. Newton had a TD pass, four interceptions and ran for two scores.

Lions focus – Darren Fells: The Lions might be getting more than they bargained for out of Fells, whose presence is expanding what defenses have to handle from the tight ends.

As the offense relies more heavily on the run, contributions from the tight ends as receivers and blockers are more important -- especially against top-tier defenses like Carolina’s.

Fells has performed well in the role of blocking tight end that the Lions expected him to play when he was signed as a free agent in March, but he has added a receiving dimension.

Fells had a team-high four catches for 40 yards in last week’s 14-7 road win over the Minnesota Vikings. The quality of the catches exceeded the raw numbers. The same was true for the other tight ends. Eric Ebron had two catches for 27 yards, and rookie Michael Roberts had one for 15.

It added up to seven catches for 82 yards for the tight end trio, and all seven catches gained first downs.

Fells got it going early, with three catches in the first quarter and another early in the second. Fells lined up in a variety of places, including to Matthew Stafford’s left in the backfield on a play when he caught a pass.

“I’ve been told to do a lot it,” Fells said this week “It doesn’t really affect me when they give me new stuff. I go home and study it.”

His first two catches were on third down and helped the offense get out of a hole against one of the toughest defenses in the league. The catches were in addition to his role as a blocker, which helped keep the Vikings’ defense somewhat honest.

Panthers focus – Julius Peppers: He’s back where he started, playing defensive end for the Panthers and sacking quarterbacks.

Peppers began his career with the Panthers in 2002 as a second overall draft pick, and he returned this year as a free agent after stops with the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers.

Peppers is still going strong at the age of 37 and in his 16th pro season. He leads the Panthers with 4.5 sacks. He had two sacks, plus another hit on quarterback Tom Brady, in last week’s road win over the Patriots.

Peppers is adding to a stats line that warrants a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He has 148 career sacks, 50 forced fumbles, 18 fumble recoveries, 11 interceptions and six defensive touchdowns.

Matthew Stafford has been victimized by Peppers in the past, and still considers him a threat to disrupt an offense.

“Can’t get away from that guy,” Stafford said this week.

The memories are painful.

On opening day of 2010 against the Bears, a hit by Peppers caused a shoulder injury that caused Stafford to miss 13 games.

In a 2015 game against the Packers, a blind-side hit caused a fumble that the Packers recovered and converted into a crucial touchdown in what ultimately was a Packers win on a last play Hail Mary.

Peppers still has the power and agility that has made him a premier pass rusher throughout his career.

“He looks like the Julius Peppers I’ve played against my entire career,” Stafford said. “Obviously, still extremely big and athletic – a ton of veteran savvy now, and he’s playing really well. Getting in the backfield. Disrupting loose plays. Getting to the quarterback.

“He’s doing it all.”