The Carolina Panthers are going off at a little more than a three-point underdog at home Sunday when they host the Seattle Seahawks, per Bovada (via ESPN). That line won’t fluctuate terribly between now and kickoff, but the Panthers are beginning to pick up steam as a sexy upset pick.
Pete Prisco of CBS Sports thinks that not only will the Panthers cover the spread, they’ll win outright.
This is a long, tough trip to open the season for Seattle. Carolina looks to be much improved on defense. Their pass rush could cause problems for Russell Wilson. Seattle is a trendy Super Bowl choice, but Carolina is the team that gets off to the fast start. Cam Newton outplays Wilson here.
Greg Cote of the Miami Herald has Carolina winning by three points and labels this game as his “Upset of the Week”:
Hawks are not as mighty on the road, though, and Panthers ended last season with four consecutive wins, so we like this as a pure hunch pick.
While I didn’t pick the Panthers—and don’t plan to change my thoughts even with the uprising of support for Carolina—three of my colleagues did, all three predicting a narrow three-point-or-less victory for the Panthers.
What does Carolina have to do to pull off the upset?
Take Seattle’s Stellar CBs Out of the Equation
When quarterback Cam Newton looks over the Seahawks defensive backfield he’s going to see Richard Sherman and Brandon Brower, two of the top corners in the NFL. Instead of throwing at them and challenging the duo to make plays, Newton would be better off avoiding them.
One of the ways he can do that is by saying no to the deeper passes.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, Newton was terribly unproductive last season when the Panthers met the Seahawks in Week 5 at throwing deep:
Cam Newton was ineffective on passes traveling more than five yards downfield, completing 28.6 percent of his attempts, his lowest in a game in his career.
He did, however, go 5-of-5 with a 102.5 quarterback rating throwing to the left side between zero and nine yards, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Newton won’t be able to live all day throwing to that small window of 10 yards or less on the left side, but he should exploit short passes like that, or even screen passes, to alleviate the effectiveness of Seattle’s powerful cornerback combo.
Run Left with DeAngelo Williams
When the Panthers run the football on Sunday, it’s going to be a steady diet of DeAngelo Williams as Jonathan Stewart is on the PUP list. But he didn’t have a lot of success in last year’s meeting, rushing for six yards on six carries.
Williams didn’t do much in the run game because four of his six carries were up the middle, right at defensive tackle Brandon Mebane, Seattle’s best run-stopping lineman, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Because running up the gut hasn’t worked in the past, and running at defensive end Red Bryant, who’s Seattle’s next-best run-stopper on the line, isn’t wise either, handing Williams the ball and directing him to the left side might be effective.
Pressure on Russell Wilson Is Good
Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson only threw 10 interceptions last season. Basing a key strategy on picking the second-year passer off doesn’t sound like a great idea.
But Carolina’s had success in this arena before.
The Panthers were one of two teams last season to pick Wilson off more than once in a game. A solid pass rush played a part in both picks.
With just under two-and-a-half minutes gone in the third quarter and Seattle up 6-3, the Panthers brought a blitzer in on Wilson’s left side.
The line shifted in that direction and Seahawks tight end Anthony McCoy didn’t make any attempt to chip or push Carolina defensive end Charles Johnson off his line to the quarterback, likely because McCoy was the intended target of the pass.
Johnson wasn’t in Wilson’s face but was pushing his man back toward the quarterback, and Wilson must have felt he needed to get the throw off quickly.
He threw the ball well behind McCoy, and Captain Munnerlyn picked the pass off and took it back to the house for a touchdown.
Wilson’s second interception was an unfortunate bounce off Marshawn Lynch’s hands and into the paws of rookie linebacker Luke Kuechly. Even though it was a bad break for Seattle, the ball was thrown poorly because Carolina pressure had forced Wilson out of the pocket to look for other options.
Here is Johnson collapsing the pocket with a bull rush only to have Wilson escape. Wilson then had to turn around and scramble to the left side.
Wilson threw the ball on the run, and while the pass hit Lynch in the hands, he had to change directions and lean back for the football. It wasn’t a well-thrown football, and Lynch did well to get his body to it. Unfortunately for the Seahawks, it bounced off his hands and up into the air for an easy pick.
Both these interceptions were the result of good pressure on Wilson. With defensive ends like Johnson and Greg Hardy and a defensive backfield that’s been fantastic during the preseason this year at picking off passes, the Panthers could really put themselves in a good situation by dialing up the heat on Wilson.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.