Despite the tough, tightly played games between these two teams in recent years, the Seahawks could not have asked for a better opponent after such a dreadful Week 14 performance. As our own Mookie Alexander covered on Wednesday, Carolina’s run defense is shocking, on pace to be the worst by DVOA since 1996. This is great news for a Seattle team that is run first (and sometimes, run second and third, too). Ultimately, that will be the crucial matchup on Sunday, as the Seahawks should run all over a lifeless Panthers run defense.
However, for this exercise, let’s look past that and towards three other matchups worth watching:
DK Metcalf vs Donte Jackson
In Carolina’s first game after firing Ron Rivera, sophomore cornerback Donte Jackson delivered a shocking quote about interim HC Perry Fewell’s play-calling on two plays which saw Jackson get burned, saying “First of all, it was two bad calls. Two horrible calls.”
This is the second time the public has been privy of Jackson’s fragility, with the first coming in a telling scene during the Panthers’ season of All or Nothing. Jackson’s reaction to a pair of play calls which left him looking foolish is in contrast to Metcalf, who impressed against Jalen Ramsey in Week 14 (though he did get flagged for a shoving match). Metcalf drew praise from Brian Schottenheimer for that performance, and his rookie season overall:
Seahawks OC Brian Schottenheimer spoke at length today about DK Metcalf, who currently leads all rookie WRs in receiving yards. Loved what he saw out of him vs. Rams. Traded blows with Jalen Ramsey, & held his own.— Ben Arthur (@benyarthur) December 13, 2019
“He’s a special young man,” Schotty said. “He wants to be great” pic.twitter.com/A35I8aWggd
Though Jackson’s quote from Sunday reflected terribly on him, the second-year corner isn’t a liability—but he will now draw Metcalf, as he spends the majority of his time on the defense’s right. In 2019, Jackson is allowing 8.8 yards per target, but has shown a weakness against deep passes: The average depth of target against him is 14.8 yards, and he’s allowing 12.7 yards per completion. For as bad as Jackson’s quote was, there was some truth to it: A zero blitz in the situation they faced was a poor call. Now, Metcalf and Russell Wilson have a chance to exploit Jackson on an island. Metcalf’s average depth when targeted is nearly identical to Jackson’s when targeted—12.6—and he has been a vertical threat since Week 1.
Seattle would be wise to take multiple shots at Jackson’s side of the field to Metcalf, if they find him one-on-one it will be a terrific opportunity for an explosive play. Beyond that, Metcalf’s continued progress should see him churn out yardage: He’s consistently created separation by faking vertical before coming inside on a slant:
Second extremely encouraging moment from Metcalf's debut, on his first target. Gives Dre Kirkpatrick a little jab step up-field to create separation and secure the quick catch. He is aware of how threatening he is vertically: pic.twitter.com/AXPuNL0Hmc— Alistair Corp (@byAlistairCorp) September 11, 2019
And in recent weeks he has shown a strong ability to box defensive backs out on comebacks and curls:
Giving the CB a step upfield has been a really effective way for DK Metcalf to gain separation on short and intermediate routes this season, and it works again here. Love the way he keeps the CB on his back, too pic.twitter.com/N6bcRy1O03— Alistair Corp (@byAlistairCorp) November 6, 2019
Metcalf’s progress has him in a place where solid production should be expected; in a favorable matchup against Jackson, a big game can be anticipated.
Shaquill Griffin and Tre Flowers vs DJ Moore
Carolina’s rising star at receiver will align on both the left and right, as well as sliding inside on occasions. While his varied deployment will see him across from both of the Seahawks’ cornerbacks, his matchups against Griffin will be particularly fun to watch, with two uber-athletic, breakout players coming up against one another. (It is worth noting, unfortunately, Griffin is likely to be labelled questionable heading into Sunday’s game. He appeared on the injury report on Wednesday with a hamstring injury, and missed practice as a result Thursday.)
Moore has seen a tremendous amount of volume in 2019, as he currently sits fourth in the NFL with 121 targets. Moore has 32 targets more than Curtis Samuel, the next closest receiver on the Panthers, and a massive 77 more than the third most frequently targeted wideout, Jarius Wright. Moore presents a problem to any cornerback, such is his complete skill set, but he will be a particular issue against Pete Carroll’s defense. Over a quarter of Moore’s targets in 2019 have come on slants—he’s the most frequently targeted wide receiver on that route in the NFL—and that is a route which has success against Carroll’s zone-heavy system.
Both Griffin and Flowers have been consistent in 2019 in limiting yards after the catch—allowing just 2.9 and 3.9 yards after the catch, respectively—and that will be crucial against Moore. Carolina’s top receiver will get a handful of quick completions coming across the middle, and so the importance for Griffin and Flowers will be to continue to limit damage after the reception.
Bradley McDougald vs Christian McCaffrey
This will be the second time in as many years that McDougald will have to face McCaffrey who, despite slowing down on the ground over the last month, remains a strong candidate for Offensive Player of the Year. Thankfully, McCaffrey is also the last of the dynamic, dual threat forces Seattle will face in 2019, having previously been gashed by Alvin Kamara and Lamar Jackson.
Though McCaffrey hasn’t topped 100 yards rushing in over a month, in the same span he is averaging a ridiculous 12 targets per game. McCaffrey is the league’s best receiver at running back, with 726 yards at an 8.6 per catch clip. McDougald has been among the biggest benefactors of Quandre Diggs’ arrival, but even including his numbers prior to Diggs’ entrance into the lineup, McDougald’s greatly improved from last season: 51.9 completion percentage allowed in coverage, compared to 68.8 in 2018, and 5.8 yards per target, compared to 7.2 in ‘18.
Last season McDougald, starting at strong safety, drew McCaffrey most often in the passing game as the offensive weapon tore the Seahawks up for 11 catches, 112 yards and a touchdown. This time around, not only is McDougald playing as well as he ever has in Seattle, but he’s playing with the freedom that comes with a rangy free safety behind him. That added comfort (and Carolina starting Kyle Allen this time around), should result in a bit of an easier task for McDougald. The defining trait of McDougald’s added comfort since Diggs’ arrival has been his excellent tackling:
Cool hearing McDougald himself talk about the confidence he has in Quandre Diggs, and I think this encapsulates that. Just crashes down on Ertz without hesitation pic.twitter.com/qPuCxjz0qP— Alistair Corp (@byAlistairCorp) November 27, 2019
Bradley McDougald has been an out of this world badass over the last month. Gives up 5 inches and 50 pounds to Kyle Rudolph but gets off the block to drop Bisi Johnson after 1 yard on third down pic.twitter.com/foHDlfRamr— Alistair Corp (@byAlistairCorp) December 4, 2019
That sure tackling will be needed against McCaffrey: An astonishing 96 percent of McCaffrey’s receiving yards this season have come after the catch, and he is an incredible threat in the open field.
In a battle of strengths, the Seahawks have the edge, and should be able to ride their running game as they’re wont to do to victory. However, the Panthers do have the offensive weapons to score with anyone; as long as Seattle gets the defense we’ve seen in flashes since Week 11, the Seahawks should close out their road schedule with a victory.