The Detroit Lions are 7-7 on the season and very much in the playoff hunt in the NFC with three games remaining thanks in big part to the play of their offensive line.
The most consistent component of this team all season long has been the play of their offensive line. New York Jets head coach Robert Saleh said last week leading up to the game against the Lions that Detroit and Philadelphia had the best offensive lines in football. It's hard to argue with him.
Not only have those big guys plowed the way for the team's most rushing yards (1,765) through 14 games since 1998 and their most rushing touchdowns (19) since 1981, but they're a direct link as to why quarterback Jared Goff and the passing game have played as well as they have most of the season too.
The Lions have allowed 19 sacks this season, tied with Dallas and Tampa Bay for the fewest in the league. The 19 sacks allowed through 14 games are the fourth fewest in franchise history.
"It is pretty sweet, and I don't take it for granted because I've been on the other side of it," Goff told detroitlions.com last week. "We've got a really good group right now and I make sure those guys know how much I appreciate them. There are guys around the league getting hit quite a bit and right now we're not one of them."
The Lions have spent considerable resources turning this line into one of the best in football. They used three first-rounds picks on tackle Taylor Decker, center Frank Ragnow and tackle Penei Sewell, and a third-round pick on guard Jonah Jackson. Guard Halapoulivaati Vaitai (currently on IR) was a priority free-agent signing on a five-year deal in 2020. Evan Brown has stepped in in place of Vaitai and played consistent ball, much like he did last season filling in at center for Ragnow when he was lost for the season in Week 4.
Detroit has put the resources into building this line upfront and are now reaping the rewards.
"Our o-line is doing a really good job, a really good job," head coach Dan Campbell said. "We've got some really good players up there. I mean, our two tackles, and Jonah (Jackson), Frank's (Ragnow) out there battling like he does every week.
"They're giving our guy a chance and when he sits back there and just plays with rhythm and stays on that back foot and is ready to throw, I mean, we're pretty good. When you block the way they're blocking upfront and you give our guy a chance to see it, we're pretty potent on offense."
Rookie defensive lineman Aidan Hutchinson earned the Lions' highest Pro Football Focus grade on defense (83.4) in the win over the Jets. Since Week 11, his PFF grade of 89.5 is fourth best among all edge rushers in the league. Hutchinson currently leads all rookies with 41 pressures on the year.
"He does everything," Campbell said of Hutchinson. "And that to me, it's not just one thing, it's the totality of it. He does everything and has gotten that much better, and really you can say that about all those rookies."
Starting safety DeShon Elliott injured his shoulder in the third quarter against the Jets Sunday and didn't return to the game. Elliott had further tests on the shoulder Monday and it's likely the Lions will be without him Saturday against Carolina.
"I would say right now he's looking like he probably won't be able to make it," Campbell said Tuesday. "As of right now it doesn't look very promising."
The Lions turned to veteran C.J. Moore to replace Elliott in the second half last week and that could be the case again this week. The Lions also have second-year safety Ifeatu Melifonwu available. Safety Brady Breeze is on the practice squad.
The Carolina Panthers have a clear identity on offense, and that's running the football. They rank 17th in the league in rushing (117.5 per game), while ranking 30th in the pass (170.6).
"It'll be everything," Campbell said of stopping their run this week.
It's what Pittsburgh was able to do in their 24-16 win over Carolina last week when the Panthers rushed for just 21 yards. Carolina has averaged 40.3 rushing yards in three losses since Week 9, while averaging 213.3 in the three wins.
"This team has an identity and they're going to try and bully us," Campbell said. "We have to be able to absorb it and answer back."