Panthers' Offensive Line Dominates in the Trenches
The Carolina Panthers looked like two completely different teams from the first half to the second half. However, one group that played well for all four quarters was the Panthers' offensive line.
In the last three games against the Seahawks prior to today, dating back to Week 8 of the 2014 regular season, the Seahawks sacked Cam Newton eight times. The Panthers' offensive line won this battle though as Newton was sacked only once and the Seahawks didn't even register a QB hit other than that one play.
The offensive line did an excellent job in the run game as well, opening running lanes for running back Jonathan Stewart. On the first offensive play, Trai Turner pulled to his left and sealed the lane, along with Mike Tolbert, to break Stewart for a 59-yard run.
Last year, this group was a work in progress but the playing time Andrew Norwell and Turner got as rookies was invaluable to play at this high level in 2015. The Panthers now have to face the sixth best run defense in the Arizona Cardinals and these five will be called upon again to make Stewart's life just a little easier and give him the running room necessary to make plays.
Jonathan Stewart Completes this Offense
Speaking of Stewart, this was his first game back from a foot injury that forced him to miss the last three regular season games. The rest seemed to do him good in the first half as he had two rushing touchdowns and 84 rushing yards, including that 59-yard run on the first play.
The threat of Stewart though opened up everything for this offense including the passing game for Newton, as he completed eight of 11 throws for 102 yards including a touchdown pass to Greg Olsen.
The second half the Panthers' running back wasn't nearly as effective though finishing with only 22 rushing yards on eight carries. According to Panthers.com's Max Henson, Ron Rivera said that Stewart tweaked his foot early on but was able to finish the game. This injury could have contributed to Stewart's slow second half, a half that the offense struggled to move the ball.
The Panthers have to hope that this is not a serious injury as they will need Stewart out there to help control the clock and keep the Cardinals' offense on the sidelines.
Kuechly and Davis Make Key Plays in the Final Minutes
Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis showed against the Seahawks why they are two of the most complete linebackers in the NFL. Kuechly finished the game leading the Panthers in tackles with 11 and made a key play early in the game that set the tone when he intercepted Russell Wilson and returned it for his second career touchdown.
While this was an important play, the one play that may stand out more came just before the two minute warning. On that play, Doug Baldwin started in the slot and about 10 yards down the field broke towards the sidelines and Wilson looked to have an easy completion to his top receiver. However, Kuechly made up incredible ground coming from the near hashmark to break up the pass. He has been much improved against the pass this year and was graded as the best inside linebacker against the pass according to Pro Football Focus.
He wasn't the only linebacker making key plays as Thomas Davis sealed the victory for the Panthers when he recovered the onside kick by the Seahawks after they cut the lead to seven. It is remarkable to see that a linebacker would be out there on the hands team, a spot typically reserved for wide receivers and running backs.
The veteran linebacker has shown excellent hands and was tied for the league lead in interceptions at the linebacker position with only one other player, his teammate Luke Kuechly. These two players continue to make game-changing plays and they showed that against the Seahawks on Sunday.