One of the NFL’s sneaky best rivalries will resume on Sunday following a year hiatus, when the Seattle Seahawks travel to Carolina to take on the Panthers in (another) huge game. The Seahawks, having defeated the Packers 10 days ago, will attempt to take down their second consecutive NFC wildcard contender.
Carolina is coming off a hellish two weeks. In Week 10, the Panthers were blown out on Thursday Night Football, allowing 52 points to a red-hot Steelers team. They followed that up with a crushing loss in Detroit against the Lions, when a failed two point conversion attempt sealed a hideous loss.
Offensive and Defensive Primers
Carolina began the 2018 season with new coordinators on both sides of the ball. Norv Turner arrived to replace Mike Shula after five seasons, while Steve Wilks was the latest Panthers DC to get a head coaching job elsewhere, meaning it was Eric Washington’s turn in the big chair. While Turner’s arrival meant a near total refresh on offense, Washington—like the coordinators before him—is running Ron Rivera’s long established defense.
As my former boss Danny Kelly pointed out in his terrific article on Carolina’s fun-as-hell offense earlier this month, a big part of Turner’s (surprising) success has come in simplifying the game for the former MVP he has at the helm. Cam Newton’s average intended air yards is 7.4 per attempt, 9th lowest among qualifying passers—after leading the league in average depth of target in previous years. As a result, his completion percentage is much higher than ever before—it currently sits at 68.4%, dunking on Newton’s previous career high of 61.7%. Instead of forcing a passer with streaky accuracy to throw to receivers who can’t separate, Newton has been surrounded with dynamic, twitchy and versatile weapons, and he’s thriving.
Though Turner’s background is in the Air Coryell offense, he might as well be a young, hot-shot coordinator from a Division II school the way he’s calling plays in 2018. Motion and jet sweeps are commonplace in the Panthers’ offense, and he’s utilizing his Swiss army knives—Christian McCaffrey, Curtis Samuel and D.J. Moore—as well as you could’ve asked.
On defense, Rivera relies on zone defense more than any team in the NFL, after they led the league last season, running variations of zone on 72.5% of defensive plays. Carolina is similar to Seattle in that they depend on their front-seven to handle business around the line of scrimmage, while the defensive backs sit over the top and stop any chance of explosive plays.
Leaning on a four-man rush the majority of the time, linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis are freed up to roam sideline-to-sideline cleaning up everything, or carrying backs and tight ends downfield into the deeper zones.
Numbers that Matter
81.5: The Seahawks’ offense is not without its faults. They commit to the run to an often ridiculous amount, and restrict their own quarterback, who is one of the 5-8 best at his position in the world. They lack imagination and have repeatedly failed to maximize versatile skill sets. However, one area where they cannot be criticized in 2018, is inside the red zone. Seattle’s been one of the league’s best red zone offenses under Brian Schottenheimer, scoring touchdowns on 70.97% of their trips inside their opponent’s 20. Last week, in a massive win over Green Bay, they were 3/3 inside the red zone.
The Packers were an advantageous matchup for the Seahawks because they allow the most red zone possessions on the road in the league. Seattle’s red zone offense will see another good matchup this week. The Panthers are allowing touchdowns on 81.5% (22/27) of opponent’s red zone possessions. Only the dreadful Buccaneers defense, which is allowing touchdowns 88.9% of the time, rank worse in the league.
Carolina mitigates this issue by allowing just 2.7 red zone possessions per game, which is the third lowest mark in the NFL. In what should be a tight game, the Seahawks need to capitalize on every opportunity. Though their chances inside the red zone may be limited, if this season has been any indication, they’ll make the most of the possessions they do get inside the Panthers’ 20.
100: K.J. Wright was again sidelined in Week 11, and it led to a highly curious personnel decision by Seattle. Rather than switch Barkevious Mingo back to the weakside, where he filled in so well previously, the Seahawks went to Austin Calitro. While Mingo has the athletic ability to drop into zones and move in space with backs and tight ends, Calitro is best suited around the line of scrimmage, moving horizontally and cleaning up runs. The result wasn’t great, as Aaron Rodgers found Calitro in coverage against the uber-athletic Aaron Jones for an all-too-easy 24-yard score. Calitro was caught flat-footed, and Jones simply ran past him.
Rodgers para Aaron Jones— Empacotadores (@Empacotadores) November 16, 2018
With Wright set to miss another game, Pete Carroll has said they would continue to roll with Calitro alongside Bobby Wagner. As tricky of a matchup as Jones is for Calitro, this week will be even more difficult. McCaffrey is as versatile as it gets out of the backfield, and he’s in a groove, exceeding 100 yards from scrimmage in three straight games. Seattle, meanwhile, has allowed 100+ scrimmage yards to seven running backs this year, and in three consecutive games.
Calitro is completely overmatched against a player with McCaffrey’s skill set, and if Carroll does indeed give him the majority of snaps next to Wagner, they will be burned by it. How the Seahawks go about slowing down McCaffrey will be a massive part of whether the Seattle leaves Carolina with a win or loss.
69.2: The Seahawks’ early down defense will be paramount to their chances against the Panthers. Carolina moves the ball by converting early or putting themselves in favorable positions on third down. On first and second down, they are sixth in success rate, and in turn, are the tenth most efficient offense on third and short, converting 69.2% of the time. When the Panthers aren’t able to put themselves in favorable positions and have to try and convert third and longs, they suffer; through 11 weeks, they are 29th in converting third and longs.
Seattle, meanwhile, are the 23rd ranked defense by success rate on first and second down. The Seahawks’ below average early down defense, against a Carolina offense that lives and dies by their early down offense, isn’t a good matchup for Seattle. If the Seahawks want to force the Panthers into uncomfortable spots and away from what they do well, winning on early downs will be crucial.
Matchups to Watch
Doug Baldwin versus Captain Munnerlyn: Prior to Week 11, Baldwin told local radio he’s completely over the knee issues that were plaguing him—which came just days after he played 98% of the offense’s snaps—then followed it up with a season-high 10 targets and a touchdown against the Packers. On Tuesday, Baldwin suffered a groin injury in practice and will be a game-time decision, though to hear Carroll describe it, he should be expected to play.
Baldwin, presumably healthy—and definitely shattering the ankles of defensive backs again— will see an extremely favorable matchup in Week 12. Munnerlyn has been Carolina’s weak spot recently, and he is hurting his team. Over the last month, opposing slot receivers have totaled 22 catches, 278 yards and three touchdowns against the Panthers. Those receivers haven’t been a murderers’ row either: Willie Snead, Adam Humphries, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Bruce Ellington have taken turns roasting Carolina. Smith-Schuster is a budding star in the league, but Baldwin is the best of that bunch by a large margin.
Should Baldwin not be able to go on Sunday, it would be Tyler Lockett facing Munnerlyn on the majority of his snaps. At the pace Lockett is playing at, that is not a downgrade by any means.
Seahawks DL versus Carolina OL: Seattle’s defensive line has completely blown expectations out of the water in 2018. They rank 13th in adjusted sack rate per Football Outsiders, and have the ninth highest pressure rate in the NFL. Both Jarran Reed and Frank Clark have taken large steps forward to lead the group.
The Panthers and the Seahawks mirror one another in so many ways, and up front is no different. Carolina’s offensive line is performing better than expectations—currently ranking ninth in adjusted sack rate on offense. Taylor Moton has become a complete stud for the Panthers at right tackle, while the best player among the group, Trai Turner, is back to his previous form, which sees him burying the opposition on a weekly basis.
Though Newton’s accuracy comes and goes, if he’s allowed to stand in the pocket and deliver passes on time, he’ll kill a defense. Inside the pocket, he’s the seventh ranked passer, and Norv Turner’s offense has him getting the ball out quicker than in previous years. Seattle’s defensive line has to continue their strong play and disrupt Newton’s timing. Forcing him to make throws on the run, or tuck the ball and run, will be key to slowing down a versatile offense.
Opponent to Know
D.J. Moore, WR: The best wide receiver prospect in the 2018 NFL Draft has broken out recently, after a slow start which saw him catch just two passes in the first month of the season. As Carolina’s offense transformed into a modern, steamrolling machine, Moore began to find his footing. Since Week 5, the rookie is first in YAC per reception (8.89 average), first in yards after contact per reception (5.5) and fourth in missed tackles per reception (.21). Moore was a refined route runner as a prospect, but the start of his NFL career has seen him play as a receiver capable of winning contested catches downfield, or creating yards on his own after short completions.
With Devin Funchess set to miss Week 12 with an injury, Moore will again be relied upon as the Panthers’ top pass-catching threat. His ability to either posterize an unsuspecting defensive back, or work back to the ball with lightning-quick feet, makes him a difficult proposition for either Tre Flowers or Shaquill Griffin, both of whom struggle with locating the football. Though the Seahawks have a favorable matchup of their own in Baldwin against Munnerlyn, Moore will do his part to keep Carolina’s offense rolling.
At 6-4, the Panthers are Seattle’s biggest competition in the wildcard race, and a win in Carolina would not only see the Seahawks make up the game they need, but get an invaluable tiebreaker too.