Seahawks-Panthers: Three Key Matchups

As much as any other professional sport, the NFL is a team game. No one player can be successful without the assistance of others. That said, individual matchups can and do determine winners and losers on a weekly basis. brought in Rob Rang to help determine the individual matchups that will determine whether the Seahawks will win or lose this week...

Panthers QB Cam Newton vs. Seahawks LB K.J. Wright

With injuries to starting guards Amini Silatolu and Trai Turner forcing the Panthers to start now four former undrafted free agents along their offensive line, there is plenty of reason to believe that this could be the game in which Seattle’s pass rush finally wakes up. The Seahawks have struggled to generate a rush with four and there has been plenty of talk that the club is considering sending extra defenders on blitzes. While applying pressure on the quarterback is generally a good idea, forcing the 6-5, 245-pound Newton out of the pocket isn’t necessarily the goal, as he’s a powerful, agile runner who can gain yardage in chunks if the Seahawks are undisciplined in their rush. The Panthers haven’t called upon Newton with many designed runs yet this season but with the club 3-3-1 and facing tough foes (New Orleans next Thursday and at Philadelphia on the following Monday night), this may be the game that offensive coordinator Mike Shula elects “unleash” the former No. 1 overall pick. If you think Seattle is “desperate” for a win, consider the plight of the Panthers. Last year’s No. 2 seed in the NFC hasn’t won a game this season this September 14.

As Seattle’s biggest (6-4, 246) and most versatile linebacker, Wright may be asked to “shadow” Newton should the Panthers choose to feature their athletic quarterback on the move. As anticipated in this very column last week, Wright and the Seahawks struggled against the Rams’ running game early last week. Wright has great size and athleticism but his length can be a detriment in terms of leverage when trying to fight through blocks. Wright (and the Seahawks’ Run D as a whole) deserve credit for improving last week in his first game this season at middle linebacker. It is fair to project that he’ll be even better against Jonathan Stewart and Newton this week.

Panthers TE Greg Olsen vs. Seahawks SS Kam Chancellor

With the Seahawks anticipated to focus on stopping the running and getting some pressure on Newton, there could be even more of a reliance on man-to-man coverage against Carolina than in most weeks. In these situations, the Panthers like to feature the size of their 2014 first round pick Kelvin Benjamin (who leads all rookies with five TD receptions), but between Richard Sherman and Tharold Simon, the Seahawks are as well-suited to handle big receivers on the perimeter as any team in the league. The Seahawks catch a break in that the Panthers’ speediest receiver – fellow rookie Philly Brown – is out for this game with a concussion.

That means to sustain drives, the Panthers are most likely going to revert back to their most reliable pass-catcher, Olsen, who currently leads the team in catches (41), receiving yards (493) and is tied with Benjamin for tops on the club with five scores. Olsen led the Panthers in all three categories last year and finished second to former Carolina star Steve Smith in 2012.

The Seahawks have struggled mightily this season against tight ends, surrendering a league-high eight touchdowns to opponents this year. With Chancellor battling through hip and ankle injuries, the Panthers will surely look to build upon this number.

The 6-5, 255-pound Olsen isn’t the hybrid receiver type of tight end so en vogue in today’s NFL. He is, however, a precise route-runner with strong hands to extend and pluck the football. He’s also tough, showing the ability to hang on to passes after taking a big hit.

Seahawks WR Paul Richardson vs. Panthers CBs Antoine Cason, Melvin White

Like the Seahawks, the Panthers can trace their struggles this season to the disappearance of their pass rush. With the club’s best rusher – Greg Hardy – currently on the NFL’s exempt list while appealing a conviction on domestic violence charges, the Panthers won’t be getting their teeth back any time soon.

Given how Seattle struggled containing the Rams’ pass rush a week ago, that’s music to the ears of Russell Wilson and play-caller Darrell Bevell.

Without one of the league’s top defensive lines applying consistent pressure, a marginally-talented secondary has been picked apart by opponents. Starting cornerbacks Antoine Cason and Melvin White are at their best on intermediate and short routes but neither possesses elite straight-line speed. Safeties Roman Harper and Thomas Decoud have, as a result, played on their heels a bit this season, attempting to take away the deep ball from opponents. With both safeties playing back, that’s helped offenses average an NFL-high 5.3 yards per rush against Carolina this season, despite the presence of talented defensive linemen Star Lotulelei, Charles Johnson and arguably the best middle linebacker in football, Luke Kuechly.

Whether Wilson and Richardson actually hook up on a deep ball down the sideline or not, it is important that the Seahawks challenge Carolina vertically. Doing so would help to loosen up a Carolina run defense that is almost certainly gearing up for a steady serving of Marshawn Lynch (and perhaps Wilson) runs.

Prediction: Seahawks 24 – Panthers 16 Top Stories