When Carolina played at Seattle earlier this season, the Panthers' 135 rushing yards was the highest rushing total for any Seahawks opponent this season. That stat is telling for two reasons as the Seahawks prepare to face the Panthers in the divisional round of the NFC playoffs. For starters, it shows that the Panthers, who averaged 4.1 yards on 33 carries, are both committed to the run, and are capable of running the ball even on tough defenses; and secondly, the fact that no team gained more than 135 rushing yards on the Seahawks all season shows just how good Seattle was against the run in 2015.
In a classic matchup of strength vs. strength, the Seattle's No. 1 ranked run defense (81.5 yards allowed per game) will try to slow Jonathan Stewart, Cam Newton and company, who helped the Panthers rushed for 142.6 yards per game, which ranked second in the NFL.
The Panthers aren't dangerous on the ground just because of a commitment to the run, or even the talent level of the players running the ball, but also because the style of their running game. While several teams, Seattle included, feature a quarterback who is a threat to run, nobody has as many designed runs for their quarterback as the Panthers.
"It is a really diverse running game," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "It is the most that we'll see in the NFL. There's nobody that does more stuff, and it's basically because the quarterback is such a dynamic part of it. They're willing to run the quarterback inside, outside, lead plays, powers, all of the read stuff as well. This is the most difficult offense that we face, and it's really because Cam is such an adept player. A lot of teams have some plays that they use, but nobody relies on the quarterback to run like they do. He's got 10 touchdowns rushing this year, and those aren't quarterback sneaks at the goal line. They're from all over the place. It's the most challenging."
Because Newton is such a good athlete, and also because his 6-foot-5, 245-pound frame allows him to handle more contact than most quarterbacks can, Newton carried a career-high 132 times for 636 yards and 10 touchdowns this season.
"You actually have to account for him in the running game," said middle linebacker Bobby Wagner, who missed Seattle's Week 6 meeting with Carolina with a pectoral injury. "Other running quarterbacks, they might run the ball a couple of times, but not that much. But he's such a big guy, he can take the pounding a normal running back can take, so you definitely have to be ready for his capability to run the ball too."
But while the Panthers running game deserves respect—and is getting it from Seattle—the Seahawks feel they are capable of slowing down Newton and Stewart, who rushed for 989 yards in 13 games. Not only did the Seahawks lead the NFL in run defense this season, they have not allowed an individual 100-yard rusher since Week 11 of the 2014 season, and that's after facing the NFL's leading rusher, Adrian Peterson, twice, as well as three other players who finished the top eight in rushing this season: Stewart, Darren McFadden and Todd Gurley. From the defensive linemen all the way out to the defensive backs, the Seahawks have played sound, physical run defense all season, a big reason why they led the NFL in scoring defense for a fourth straight season.
"I think it starts up front," Panthers coach Ron Rivera said in a conference call with Seattle-area media. "First of all, I think it starts with the ability to play an eight-man box as much as they do. Then also I think that they have very aggressive defensive backs. A lot of people say, 'OK, well we'll make their corners tackle.' Well, from what I'm seeing, I think their corners are very physical players. I don't think those guys shy away from contact, and when you do that, you do have the ability to play with an eight man box. You have the ability when teams go down to crack on your safeties, your corners are going to be there. I think their front is very stout. I think they've got a lot of playmakers in their front six or seven guys, and again as I said, they've got some very active safeties. But one thing I've always appreciated is corners that are willing to tackle, and when you put the film on, you do most certainly see these corners coming up to tackle."
Rivera mentioning Seattle's cornerbacks is fitting this week, because Richard Sherman was a big part of the defensive effort that held Peterson to 45 yards on 23 carries last week. Of Sherman's six tackles against the Vikings, three were solo tackles on Peterson runs, including a tackle for a 1-yard loss on the game's first play from scrimmage.
"I've made note to the players what a great game he had tackling-wise last week," Carroll said. "He has really been a consistent, hardball corner from the time he got here. It is really cool that he demonstrates that. There's some understanding that corners don't have to tackle, that's not what Richard Sherman is. He's a legitimate part of our run defense. We count on him, he's been consistent for years, and we're very lucky to have that. He's a real asset to us there."
Sherman made it a point heading into the 2014 season to focus on his run defense because he wanted to be known as more than just a great cover cornerback, and that dedication is something that could be a big factor in Sunday's game.
"I think it has been a huge part of my game," Sherman said. "It's just about being complete. After a while, you stop competing with other people and you start competing with yourself. You start competing with history, and just seeing how good you can get, how perfect you can play. Once you get to that point, it's not really about what other people think or what other people are watching for, it's really about you competing with the man in the mirror, and watching your own film and critiquing yourself."
Whoever is asked to make tackles in the run game, whether it's a cornerback like Sherman, Jeremy Lane or DeShawn Shead, or a defensive lineman in the trenches like Brandon Mebane or Ahtyba Rubin, the Seahawks know they'll need to keep the Panthers' explosive running game in check if they're going to have success on Sunday.
"You've just got to play assignment defense," linebacker Bruce Irvin said. "If you don't, Cam will make you pay. That run game interesting, because usually it starts with a top back, but with them it starts with a quarterback who's a really good runner. If we stay home, play our gaps, put some hit on Cam a couple times, we should be OK."
Take a walk down memory lane with photos from all 10 Divisional playoff game the Seahawks have ever played, including last year's matchup against the Carolina Panthers who the Seahawks face once again in a Divisional playoff game on Sunday.