Panthers vs. Seahawks: What's the Game Plan for Carolina?

Bryan Knowles@BryknoContributor IIIOctober 17, 2015

Carolina tries to break a five-game losing streak against Seattle.
Carolina tries to break a five-game losing streak against Seattle.Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

If the Carolina Panthers are going to match their best start in franchise history, they’re going to have to do something they haven’t done since 2007: defeat the Seattle Seahawks.

Winless in Seattle
DateLocationResultNotes
1/10/2015SeattleL, 31-17Russell Wilson throws three touchdowns; Kam Chancellor scores a pick-six
10/26/2014CarolinaL, 13-9Luke Willson scores the game-winning touchdown with 53 seconds left
9/8/2013CarolinaL, 12-7Jermaine Kearse's fourth-quarter touchdown gives Seattle the win
10/7/2012CarolinaL, 16-12Panthers held to 190 yards of offense
12/5/2010SeattleL, 31-14Marshawn Lynch scores three touchdowns
Pro-Football-Reference.com

The Panthers have come frustratingly close to beating a team that has ranked among the top teams in the NFL since 2010; only the New England Patriots, Green Bay Packers and Baltimore Ravens have won more games than Seattle since 2010. The last three times the Panthers faced the Seahawks at home, they’ve come one score away from pulling off huge victories. Instead, they’re riding a five-game losing streak.

Make no mistake—despite Seattle’s 2-3 start, this road game in the Pacific Northwest is the toughest game remaining on Carolina’s schedule. A victory here would not only give Carolina possession of first place in the NFC South, it would provide a firm and powerful statement that their 4-0 start isn’t a fluke, or due to playing subpar opposition in the first month of the season. It would be a declaration that the Panthers are real contenders this season.

Can the Panthers pull off the upset? Let’s take a look at what would be involved.

Offensive Game Plan

All the clever schemes and strategies in the world won’t mean a thing if the Panthers can’t find a way to slow down Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril coming from the outside end positions. They are a tremendous force from the outside edges, attacking the weak part of Carolina’s line. It’s a clear matchup advantage for the Seahawks, especially when you consider their Pro Football Focus rankings:

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It’s also an area the Panthers have struggled with against Seattle in the past. The worst game of right tackle Mike Remmers’ career came in last year’s divisional playoffs against Seattle, and Cam Newton has been running for his life in the recent matchups against Seattle. It’s a problem that has gotten worse and worse as the losing streak has deepened.

Seattle's Quarterback Pressures vs. Carolina
DateQB SkQB HtQB HuTotal
1/10/2015262129
10/26/2014321520
9/8/2013151117
10/7/201242915
12/5/201033814
Total13186495
Pro Football Focus

Remmers and Michael Oher are unlikely to fully shut down Avril and Bennett. That isn’t necessarily required for a win, however—Avril and Bennett have been having great seasons, and the Seahawks are still 2-3. 

What’s important is to win enough of the battles so that the offense can make some progress. The Panthers won’t win if they’re constantly in 2nd/3rd-and-long situations, so they can’t afford to let Avril and Bennett have their way in the backfield.

Normally, the way around powerful pass-rushers would be to run the football, and you’d think the Panthers would have the personnel to do just that. The interior line combination of Andrew Norwell, Ryan Kalil and Trai Turner might just be the best interior line in football.

However, the running game hasn’t quite performed as well as it did during the winning streak to close 2014. The Panthers are at just 4.0 yards per attempt, which is in the bottom half of the league. They are fourth in the league with 132.3 yards per game, but that’s primarily because they run the ball so often, and they have Newton behind center on both scrambles and designed running plays.

The Seahawks are allowing just 3.5 yards per rushing attempt, the second-fewest in the league. So, while the pass rush is going to be brutal, it might actually be in Carolina’s best interest to throw the ball.

Does Carolina dare to test Richard Sherman and the Legion of Boom?
Does Carolina dare to test Richard Sherman and the Legion of Boom?Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

Seattle’s dirty little secret this season is that the Legion of Boom isn’t really living up to its billing. Richard Sherman is having a bit of a down year—though, because of his talent, that just drops him down to about league average. Kam Chancellor is still shaking off a little rust after a holdout that extended into the regular season; he gave up 11 receptions on 13 targets against Cincinnati, according to PFF, including two touchdowns to tight end Tyler Eifert.

The biggest weakness, however, might be the cornerbacks behind Sherman. Last season, Byron Maxwell was the second corner, and Marcus Burley, Tharold Simon and Jeremy Lane provided depth. Maxwell’s off in Philadelphia now. Burley has had surgery on a broken thumb, according to Bob Condotta of the Seattle Times, and will miss this game. Simon is on injured reserve with a dislocated toe. Lane tore his ACL in the Super Bowl and isn’t back yet.

In their place—call them the Legion of Substitute Cornerbacks, to continue the comics references—are Cary Williams and DeShawn Shead. Together, the two have been targeted 34 times and allowed 23 receptions for 266 yards and a touchdown, according to PFF’s numbers. That’s no longer a strength; that’s an exploitable weakness.

Legion of...Whom?
PlayerPos.Thrown AtRecYdsTDINTPDQB Rating
Richard ShermanCB161012000285.4
Earl ThomasFS4355110116.7
Cary WilliamsCB191113210296.8
K.J. WrightOLB221714400193.8
Bobby WagnerMLB2321210001104.7
DeShawn SneadDB1512134000103.9
Kam ChancellorSS1816200201150.0
Marcus BurleySCB865200091.7
OthersN/A10891100137.9
TotalSEA1351041138517110.7
Pro Football Focus

This is why they haven’t done so well once you go down the depth chart at receiver. Football Outsiders has them seventh-best in the league at covering No. 1 receivers, thanks to Sherman. However, they are just 18th in the league against second receivers, 30th in the league against tight ends and 31st in the league against "other" wide receivers.

Obviously, that calls for Greg Olsen, and plenty of him. The other question, however, is whether or not Newton can build enough of a connection with a third or fourth receiver to take advantage of the weakness. 

The return of Jerricho Cotchery will help some. Operating out of the slot, he might be able to take advantage of the matchup against Shead. This could also be the week where Devin Funchess breaks out, but we’ve been saying that for weeks now, and there’s been no sign of activity there.

Your headline for a Panthers win probably includes the phrase “touchdown pass from Newton to Olsen” somewhere near the top.

Defensive Game Plan

The Panthers will get a taste of their own medicine when they try to corral Russell Wilson. If Newton is the best power-running quarterback in the NFL, Wilson’s the best scrambler. He’s provided with poor-quality offensive lines year after year and yet finds way to extend plays and perform great feats with the ball in his hand. He led the league in snaps under pressure last season, per PFF, and he’s doing it again this year.

Wilson has been at least the second-most frequently pressured quarterback in each of his first four seasons, with only Michael Vick in 2012 trumping him.

The Seahawks have been successful because Wilson is good under pressure. He’s exceptionally accurate, his receivers do a good job of altering their routes and breaking back to him, and when nothing’s open, he’s great at turning the ball upfield and gaining yards on the ground himself. With some quarterbacks—your Mannings, for example—you know that once the pressure gets there, the quarterback is going to take the ball to the ground. With Wilson, anything is possible until the play is dead.

Almost as if they are testing this theory, the Seahawks seem to try to surround Wilson with less and less talent on the offensive line year in and year out. This year, they traded away All-Pro center Max Unger, getting in return a tight end in Jimmy Graham, who’s a fantastic weapon in theory, but he's not a blocker. The replacement, Drew Nowak, is a converted defensive tackle who has spent most of his career on the practice squad.

Seattle's offensive line really hasn't had Russell Wilson's back so far this season.
Seattle's offensive line really hasn't had Russell Wilson's back so far this season.Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

In fact, all five of the starting offensive linemen for the Seahawks have graded out in the red, according to PFF. The weakest spots happen to be the guys assigned to stopping Kawann Short—Nowak and left guard Justin Britt. Britt’s out of position—he was right tackle as a rookie last season but struggled enough that the Seahawks moved him inside this year. His replacement, Garry Gilliam, hasn’t been much better.

J.R. Sweezy is trying to hold things together at right guard, and Russell Okung is probably the better of the two left tackles in this game, but there’s only so much you can do when the line is giving up this kind of pressure.

All told, the Seahawks have allowed an NFL-leading 22 sacks this season. PFF charts them with giving up 85 pressures, a number only the San Diego Chargers beat. As good as Wilson has been under pressure, he’s a quarterback, not a magician. He simply can’t deal with pressure in his face on every single play.

The blueprint for shutting Seattle’s offense down now is flooding the rushing lanes and blitzing everyone on passing downs, overwhelming those new starters and forcing Wilson to have to improvise to stand a chance.

That means plenty of Short and Star Lotulelei disrupting the middle, as well as hopes that Kony Ealy and Wes Horton can provide some element of power off the edge. There’s a chance that Ryan Delaire, who had a great game two weeks ago, could see some work, too, but with the Seahawks more of a running team, the pure pass-rusher Delaire will likely see fewer snaps.

The Seahawks will be getting Marshawn Lynch back, and the best way to heal an ailing pass protection unit is to force the defense to respond to the run.

Kawann Short has some experience tackling Russell Wilson.
Kawann Short has some experience tackling Russell Wilson.Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

Of course, even when the pass rush does disrupt the pocket, it still has to stop Newton from completing passes. He’s been accurate on 77.3 percent of his passes when under pressure, per PFF, which is both insanely good and likely unsustainable. The defenders back in coverage need to hold on to their assignments, even when the receivers start freelancing.

That will probably see Josh Norman and Doug Baldwin battling it out. Norman has been the best cover corner in the league this season, and he would be my choice for an All-Pro at the quarter mark of the year. No cornerback in football gives opposing quarterbacks a worse QB rating than Norman this year—Norman’s even harder to escape from than Revis Island so far.

Baldwin is Wilson’s primary target, though Wilson does spread the ball around some. None of the receivers are particularly threatening, but Baldwin makes the most of his opportunities. He’s caught 23 of the 28 targets thrown his way this season, and he has forced eight missed tackles, per PFF.

He’s also Seattle's one true deep threat. He has as many targets 20 or more yards down field as the rest of the receivers put together, and both of his touchdowns have come on bombs. He takes a lot of snaps out of the slot, which is normally Bene Benwikere’s assignment, but the Panthers might be better served finding ways to get Norman on him more frequently than normal; Norman has had just three snaps in the slot all season.

Luke Kuechly will be back, but he’s reportedly on a snap count, according to Max Henson of Panthers.com. A.J. Klein would normally spell him, but he's out with a concussion as well. Ben Jacobs or David Mayo could get some snaps spelling him, but I imagine most of the rest will come by taking him out of nickel packages, leaving Shaq Thompson and Thomas Davis in. It’ll be a big test for the rookie.

Key Players and Matchups

Carolina QB Cam Newton

As Cam goes, so goes the offense.
As Cam goes, so goes the offense.Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

Newton is key for two reasons. First of all, I’m not expecting either offensive tackle to hold up on a regular basis, so Newton will likely have to stay on his toes, running out of trouble and finding room to make something out of nothing. That should keep him plenty busy, much as he has been in every start against the Seahawks to this point.

In addition, however, it will be up to him to exploit the weaknesses in the once-strong Legion of Boom. Coming off a paltry 124 yards passing against Tampa Bay two weeks ago, Newton is going to have to find and exploit matchups for Olsen, Cotchery and Funchess if the Panthers are going to win this one.

Seattle RG J.R. Sweezy

Sweezy and the offensive line have had their struggles this season.
Sweezy and the offensive line have had their struggles this season.Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

When the offensive line as a unit is struggling, someone has to step up and provide an initial strong point for the rest of the line to gather around. So far this season, the best candidate for doing that would be Sweezy, one of only two linemen still in the same position from last year.

Sweezy draws a tough task this week, matching up against Short and Lotulelei, but he’s been the best of a subpar bunch this season. He’s the only lineman out of the red in PFF’s grades in the run game, and he hasn’t been terrible in pass protection, improving in every week.

Sometimes what an offense needs to get some traction is a calm in the storm, and if Sweezy can continue to get better, that might give the offense the spark it needs to improve the passing offense.

Seattle DE Michael Bennett

Seattle's pass rush can be hard to stop.
Seattle's pass rush can be hard to stop.Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Both Bennett and Avril are going to be massive deciding factors in this one, but Bennett is the one who should get more snaps against Oher, the weak link on Carolina’s offensive line. While Remmers struggled mightily with Avril the last time they met, it’s been Oher who’s been the larger problem this season.

Bennett is a ferocious player—perhaps too ferocious, as he picked up a $20,000 fine for demolishing Andy Dalton during an interception return last week. He leads the team in sacks with three and also has a forced fumble on the season. In short, he’s a game-changer. The Panthers have done well handling other game-changers this season, limiting J.J. Watt to a pedestrian day, for example. They’ll need to perform the same trick against Bennett and Avril.

Carolina DT Kawann Short

Short is having a great season.
Short is having a great season.Bob Leverone/Associated Press

With Jared Allen out of this one with a pinched nerve, the Panthers will continue to not get much pass-rushing production out of their ends. Mario Addison has done a solid job, and Delaire was a revelation two weeks ago, but neither exactly strikes fear into the hearts of opposing offensive lines yet.

The best pass-rusher Carolina has had, and the best chance to exploit Seattle’s poor offensive front, is Short. He’s having a Pro Bowl-quality season through the first quarter of the year, stopping runners and pressuring the quarterback with equal skill. You know that when Seattle’s offensive line held its weekly meetings, it highlighted Short as the man to stop. If he can dominate at the point of attack, Seattle’s offense will be in trouble.

Carolina OLB Shaq Thompson

Shaq Thompson returns to where he starred in college.
Shaq Thompson returns to where he starred in college.Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

This is a big game for Thompson—a homecoming, of sorts, for the former University of Washington star. He’s actually played quite a few games at CenturyLink Field, as the Huskies played there in 2012 while Husky Stadium underwent renovations. He’s used to the fans there cheering for him, not rallying against him.

His main responsibility on Sunday will likely be trying to contain Wilson, and that’s a tall assignment for any linebacker, much less one in his fifth NFL game. Wilson’s ability to scramble is approaching mythic proportions at this point, and it’s up to Thompson to bring him back to reality.

Prediction

If you just look at the records, you could see the upset brewing. Carolina hasn’t lost, while Seattle has made a habit of blowing late leads this season. You should pick the undefeated team, even on the road against the team with the losing record, right?

Well, as the Atlanta Falcons can attest to, being undefeated doesn’t mean anything in the NFL this early in the season. The Seahawks were right in every one of their games this season, and they could easily be 4-1.

Don’t confuse some losses against high-caliber competition to mean the Seahawks have gone away entirely. They may not be as good as the model in the last couple of seasons, but this is still a competitive team in the environment that benefits them the most.

I keep flashing back to last year’s divisional playoff matchup. The Panthers are better this year than they were last season, but if anything, the 14-point loss was somewhat flattering for the Panthers, who simply could not get anything going on offense for the vast majority of the game.

The most basic necessary condition for the Panthers pulling off the upset in this one is keeping the pass rush neutralized, and I’m not sure they can do that on the road in Seattle against two of the best ends in the game. It’s a tall task. If they can pull it off, there are enough weaknesses for Carolina to get a win in this one, but that’s a big "if."

I can’t quite go all-in on Carolina just yet. While it wouldn’t be the upset of the century if they came out of Seattle with the win, I’m not quite ready to pick the Panthers on the road against the defending NFC champions.

Final score: Seattle 28, Carolina 17

Bryan Knowles is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the Carolina Panthers. Follow him @BryKno on Twitter.

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