Seahawks-Panthers: Three Key Matchups

To beat the Panthers and host the NFC Championship next week, the Seahawks will have to contain Cam Newton and his favorite target, rookie Kelvin Benjamin. Keeping Charles Johnson from adding Russell Wilson to his team-leading sack-total could prove just as important.

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. Scout.com brought in greater Seattle resident and NFL scout Rob Rang to help determine the individual matchups that will determine whether the Seahawks will win or lose this week.

Here are his thoughts on the three critical one-on-one matchups for this week’s game.


Panthers QB Cam Newton vs. Seahawks OLBs K.J. Wright, Bruce Irvin

It is hardly imaginative to focus on the opposing team's quarterback for a key matchup but given the low scoring of the last three games in which these clubs have faced each other, one all-worldly play from Newton very well could determine this game. Newton has yet to show the patience, decision-making and accuracy to convince me that he can win this game methodically passing the Panthers down the field at CenturyLink. He's so big, athletic and strong-armed, however, that he's is one of the most dangerous "chunk" yardage players in the league. The Seahawks must maintain the discipline that has helped them allow just 44 plays of 25 yards or more this season, tied with Detroit for tops in the NFL.

Key to that will be Wright and Irvin, who are facing the tall task of covering 5-10, 235 pound brute Jonathan Stewart and the much quicker Fozzy Whitaker out of the backfield and occasionally tight end Greg Olsen, a quality security blanket. Even more important could be the linebackers' discipline against the run and if when rushing Newton.

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 perception is that Newton didn't run nearly as often this season as in his first two years. However, he ended 2014 with 103 rushing attempts - that's just eight less than a year ago. Newton also rushed for five touchdowns this season, one fewer than Russell Wilson.

Wright and Irvin have each developed into very reliable tacklers, though they do it in different ways. Wright's length and Irvin's incredible agility should be able to keep Newton penned in. They also possess the quick hands to punch the ball free. One clear difference with Newton this year has been his lack of ball security. He tripled the number of fumbles this year (nine) from 2013. Seven of those fumbles came in Carolina's last nine games, including the one Cliff Avril recovered in Week Eight.

Panthers WR Kelvin Benjamin vs. Seahawks CB Richard Sherman

On the surface, the Seahawks' All-Pro is a mismatch against the rookie - until, that is, you remember Week Eight when the 6-5, 240 pounder caught four passes for 94 yards, including a season-long 51-yarder over both Sherman and Earl Thomas.

Benjamin's day should have been better. He let a three-yard touchdown reception slip through his fingers in the second quarter on a drive that ultimately resulted in a Graham Gano field goal. Seattle, remember, won the game 13-9.

Benjamin led the Panthers with nine touchdown catches and finished tied with Olsen for the team lead with 1,008 receiving yards.

Benjamin's height and long arms give him a ridiculous catch radius and his long strides make him a deceptive deep threat. He has good leaping ability and the timing to take full advantage. With fellow rookie Philly Brown, questionable for the game after suffering a shoulder injury last week against Arizona, Benjamin may not just be the Panthers' best big play threat - he may be their only one.

That, of course, plays into Seattle's hand.

The 6-3, 195 pound Sherman isn't quite as tall or nearly as stout as Benjamin but his fluidity, length and poise with the ball in the air make him better suited to handling the Panthers' monstrous pass-catcher as any corner in the NFL.

Seahawks OT Justin Britt vs. Panthers DE Charles Johnson

The loss of Star Lotulelei robs Carolina of their best interior defensive lineman but Johnson is the Panthers' top pass rusher, leading the club with 10.5 sacks.

Though Johnson recorded a season-high seven tackles against Britt and the Seahawks in Week Eight, he did not register a sack. Seattle's rookie being able to contain Carolina's top pass-rusher (and perhaps limit his production against the run) will be key to Seattle controlling the ball and clock.

The 6-2, 285 pound Johnson is neither truly explosive off the snap nor overpowering but he's as sound as they come. He's quicker and more agile than he looks and uses his hands well to slap away the reach of tackles. His natural leverage advantage and athleticism make him just as tough in the running game.

Britt has suffered through his share of rookie moments but that's going to happen when starting all 16 games. Britt has shown impressive strength - mental as well as physical - throughout the year, rarely getting beaten on the same move twice and consistently sealing defenders off in the running game.

There is no question that Britt (and the rest of Seattle's offensive line) is aided by the elusiveness and balance by Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch, but the rookie deserves credit for making the loss of Breno Giacomini in free agency a year ago a relative non-issue.

Given how much many of the other rookie tackles selected ahead of him this year did struggle in 2014, that's an accomplishment that Britt and the Seahawks haven't received enough national credit for.

SeahawkFootball.com Top Stories