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Three Key Carolina Panthers to Watch Against the Seattle Seahawks

The Carolina Panthers are preparing for the most important game of the season and are set to face a familiar foe in the Seattle Seahawks. The Seahawks have won four out of the last five matchups but the Panthers won the last one and look to make it two straight victories on Sunday. These are three players on the Panthers that will be key to victory and play a major role in the outcome of the game.

Jonathan Stewart

The final three games of the regular season the Carolina Panthers were without their leading running back, one who was near the top of the league in a number of rushing categories before his foot injury. The absence of Jonathan Stewart was evident and this offense wasn't as effective with him not in the lineup.

Against the Seahawks was the first game the Panthers' started to lean heavily on Stewart. It started a streak of eight straight games with 20 or more carries and in those eight games, the Panthers averaged 33.13 points per game. In the eight games that Stewart had less than 20 carries, or was out with the injury, the Panthers averaged 29.3 points per game.

In the Panthers' Week 6 game against Seattle, Stewart finished with 78 rushing yards and two touchdowns. The most important stat though was the Panthers won the time of possession battle with the offense on the field for over 32 minutes. 

On Wednesday, Ron Rivera said that there would be no limitations on Stewart against Seattle. This should mean a busy day for the Panthers' running back, a day that will likely include over 20 rushing attempts.

Kawann Short

Another player who had a big game in the Panthers' first game with the Seahawks was defensive tackle Kawann Short. Similar to Stewart, this game was a springboard for a strong finish to the 2015 regular season for Short. Over the final 12 weeks of the season, Short had 11 sacks with two of those sacks being on Russell Wilson in Week 6.

The Panthers' defense has struggled to register sacks from their edge rushers and the team's starters, Charles Johnson and Jared Allen, have combined for only three sacks all year. Short though has done a good job of bringing pressure up the middle and collapsing the pocket. This doesn't allow opposing quarterbacks to step up into the pocket and make quality throws.

This pressure is going to be important to keeping Wilson in check. According to Pro Football Focus, when Wilson is not pressured on his throws he has a QB rating of 121.0 and thrown 26 touchdowns to only four interceptions. However, on throws he is under pressure the QB rating drops to 84.8 and only nine touchdowns and five interceptions.

Short has been hands down the best pass rusher the Panthers have this year and they are going to need another strong game from him against the Seahawks.

Cortland Finnegan

The last key player on the Panther, wasn't even on the Panthers' roster the first time these two teams met. The reason Cortland Finnegan is so pivotal to the Panthers' success is due to the fact that he will be tasked with shutting down the Seahawks' best wide receiver, Doug Baldwin. 

The Seahawks line up Baldwin primarily in the slot, 79.3% of the plays to be exact according to The Washington Post's Neil Greenberg. The Panthers' have one of the best cornerbacks in the league in Josh Norman but they typical only line him on the outside, even if the best wide receiver is in the slot.

This is where Finnegan comes into play because he has been the team's primary nickelback since joining the team at the end of November. When Tillman suffered his first knee injury, the Panthers' moved Bene Benwikere to the outside and Colin Jones to nickelback. However, Jones struggled and the team knew there was a need to strengthen the position and brought in Finnegan.

Baldwin is the clear top receiving target of Wilson and last week against the Minnesota Vikings he threw over 25% of his passes in Baldwin's direction and he caught close to 50% of Wilson's 13 completions (5 receptions). Finnegan should expect to be targeted early and often by the Seahawks' quarterback and it will be the veteran cornerback's responsibility to not allow the big play that has become a staple for the Seahawks.

Twitter @BrandonCroce.

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