Like most Seahawks fans, I hold a soft spot in my heart for the Carolina Panthers. Aside from obvious similarities in team construction, a mutual dislike of the Saints and Niners, and a fondness for Luke Keuchly, I have a more personal interest. My dad's side of the family hails from Concord, NC. They pre-date the Panthers franchise by several generations and, much to my shame, several of them are life-long Steelers fans. But they're family, so I have to love them anyways.
By the way, I know you guys are reading this. Put down those stupid towels and get on the Panthers bandwagon already.
In anticipation of tomorrow's tilt with everyone's favorite NFCS team, I decided to do a bit of scouting. To compile this report, I watched the Panthers play against the Vikings, Saints (in Week 14), Cards, and 'Hawks.
Pretty much any talk about the Panthers has to begin with their front-7. It's the strongest unit on the team, and the foundation of everything they do on both defense and offense. Charles Johnson (DE), Kawann Short (3 tech), Star Lotulelei (NT), Luke Keuchly (MLB), and Thomas Davis (WLB) range in talent level from "solidly above average" to "arguably the league's best player at his position".
Editorial note; at the time I began writing, the news had not yet broken about Star Lotulelei's broken foot. It is worth noting that the DL is still very good without him, although Dwan Edwards is obvious a significant step down.
The Panthers even have great depth. Dwan Edwards (DT), Kony Ealy (DE), and Kevin Riddick (LB) are all players whom I am high on but have not managed to crack that ultra talented starting lineup.
To my mind, the key to our offensive success is going to be Justin Britt and J.R. Sweezy.
No, we're not doomed, and you aren't C3PO.
When the Panthers align in their base defense, the offensive right is the side that features Charles Johnson (their best pass rusher) and A.J. Klein (their worst LB).
In Seattle's previous meetings with Carolina, they've often opted to run directly at Johnson with the notable exception of the zone-read. In zone read plays CJ is the unblocked defender whom Wilson reads.
This is particularly helpful for Britt. Instead of having to pass block against one of the league's best edge rushers, all he has to do is out-muscle a guy who's giving up nearly 35 pounds. Britt can do that all day with a high rate of success, and by forcing Johnson to defend the run repeatedly, the Seahawks make it impossible for him to tee off against the pass.
The reason Sweezy is the other key guy is because of Cable's blocking scheme. More often than not, on runs to the right it's going to be Sweezy who has to make it into the second level and pick up the LB responsible for the fill.
Diagrammed below is a play run by the Vikings.
It's worth noting right off the bat that the Vikings and Seahawks use different rules to determine blocking assignments. Had Cable diagrammed the play, the principles involved would be the same, but the assignments would be different. This is partially due to differing philosophies, and partially due to different personnel.
Below is the same play drawn from the Seahawks perspective.
Regardless of blocking rules, the key to this play is the pair of strong side double teams, and a lead blocker taking out the middle linebacker. Because Seattle's version of the play puts a hat on the Strong Safety, in the unlikely (albeit possible) event the pursuing weakside linebacker gets stuck in the wash, there's a lot of big play potential here, even if it's only designed to get 5 yards.
The Panthers' secondary is an interesting group. None of them are top tier players, but they function better than the sum of their parts. Both the starting corners are decent. I was particularly impressed with 5th round rookie Bene Benwikere. He's very fluid in coverage, changes direction well and is aggressive going after the ball. Bene has the potential to develop into something really special a few years down the line.
Carolina doesn't have enough speed at the safety position to play single-high consistently. They'll try it occasionally, but it's a bad look for the talent they have. More often they'll play a modified Tampa Two (cover-2 with a linebacker in the deep middle). I suspect they'll mostly stick with Man Under on Saturday, as the deep dropping MLB in the Tampa Two makes it impossible to spy a mobile QB.
Not that Darrel Bevell ever asked for my help, but if he did, the secondary guy I'd try to pick on is rookie FS Tre Boston. He lacks top end recovery speed, and is understandably prone to making rookie mistakes. Rookie mistakes when you're supposed to be sitting on top is the sort of error that results in explosive plays downfield.
Like Seattle, the Panthers are an above average zone running team. As 'hawks fans, you already know all about both the zone running game, and the read-option, so I'll skip immediately past that.
In addition to their bread and butter, Panthers offensive Coordinator Mike Shula does a good job of drawing up unusual and "gimmicky" running plays. These are both used as a constraint against teams over-pursuing the ZRO, as well as to stress defenses laterally across the line of scrimmage as much as possible. For an example, in the gif below, the Panthers mimic a pitch-option left (which they had run successfully earlier in the game). The entire second level bites on the misdirection and Jonathan Stewart very nearly breaks it to the house.
Had Greg Olsen (#88) not gotten tangled up in the backfield, he'd have gotten a hat on the Free Safety and Stewart would probably have made it to the endzone untouched. This is precisely the sort of play that's most successful against Seattle due to the incredible speed of our linebacking corps. It's much easier to over-pursue a play when you're running very fast!
The Panthers passing game is essentially Greg Olsen, Kelvin Benjamin, and a bunch of nothing. When faced with a one dimensional passing game in previous games, Carrol has shown a willingness to play more man coverage than usual. I don't think we do it this week though. When Seattle's gone man-heavy in the past, the one threat the team had was a guy like Megatron, or Anquan Boldin the game after hanging 200+ yards on the Packers. KB doesn't command that kind of respect. His poor hands technique means you can pretty much rely on him to drop an unacceptably high percentage of his targets. Olsen probably won't figure strongly into the Panthers gameplan.
This 'hawks defense has been shutting down top tier receiving tight ends for years. From Olsen in our previous meetings, to Vernon Davis, Jimmy Graham, Rob Gronkowski, and Julius Thomas. Antonio Gates did light Seattle up like a Christmas Tree earlier in the year, but even then the coverage was fine. Sometimes a Hall of Fame guy is going to catch the ball even with a defender draped all over him.
Essentially, the Panthers don't really do anything that can force the Seahawks out of their default game plan. Stack the box, contest the line, play zone, and sit on top of the deep ball. Schematically, Carolina has the sort of offense that causes Seattle problems, but they just don't have enough talent along the line or at the skill positions to consistently execute against Seahawk defenders.
It's difficult to make a prediction for this game. On the one hand, this Panthers team is for real. A stout defense and a strong running game are enough to hang with any team in the league, even if there's an obvious talent disparity. While the Seahawks are better, it's likely the game in a close score, and I very nearly predicted 17-12 as the final outcome.
Then I remembered how embarrassed I was after predicting a close win in the Super Bowl. Not to mention how I cringe at the memory of thinking Arizona might be able to keep the game close with (potentially) the #1 seed on the line.
Let me get this straight, I thought that my team, one of the most talented and best coached in the world, was not so secretly vigilant against a trap game. They spend their nights beating opponents to a pulp with their bare hands, and my plan was to exercise temperance when making playoff prognostications?
Seattle 31, Carolina 13.