Seahawks' divisional-round defense starts with stopping Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart

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When the Seahawks defense takes to the CenturyLink Field turf on Saturday night for its divisional playoff game against the NFC South champion Carolina Panthers (8-8-1), priority number one will be to put a stop to Washington state's all-time prep rushing leader.

Jonathan Stewart, a native of Fort Lewis, Wash., has [held that title](http://seattletimes.com/html/highschoolsports/2002046121_sandy25.html "Jonathan Stewart rushes to state mark") since posting 7,755 rushing yards in his playing days at Lacey's Timberline High School - located roughly 45 miles south of Seattle. He grew up a fan of the Seahawks and now faces the club he once admired for a chance to play in the NFC Championship game.

"That's the first guy we talked about in the running game," Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll said during his Tuesday meeting with the media of the Panthers' 2008 first-round pick.

Stewart, who after his time at Timberline went on to a standout career at the University of Oregon, has powered the Panthers' ground game through the team's current five-game win streak.

In Carolina's four wins to close the regular season, the seventh-year pro racked up 401 yards on 79 carries (5.1-yard average), more than any running back in the League outside of the Dallas Cowboys' NFL rushing champ DeMarco Murray (418). In last week's 27-16 wild-card win over the Arizona Cardinals, Stewart carried 24 times for 123 yards and a touchdown, maintaining that 5.1-yard average he put up through the final quarter of the season.

"He's a fantastic football player," Carroll said, later admitting he tried to attract Stewart to the University of Southern California during his time as coach of the Trojans. "I've always loved this kid the way he runs. He's always been a guy that has a knack to just keep getting through tackles.

"He looks like he should go down. A lot of guys get tackled and he just keeps going. He's got great lower-body strength, he's got an explosion to him that allows him to bounce and separate from tacklers, and he has good enough speed to break plays. He's a good catcher as well, he'll block you. He's a terrific football player."

Max Unger knows Stewart, or "Stewie" - as Unger calls him, better than most. The Seahawks center blocked for the Panthers ball carrier during their time together at Oregon, noting Stewart's 5-foot-10, 235-pound frame resembles an "action figure" more than an human being.

"He was an animal," said Unger. "A guy that would just never go down."

Unger recalled a 2005 meeting between his and Stewart's Ducks and the University of Houston Cougars. It was Stewart's first action at the collegiate level, and after a shaky start, the Pacific Northwest native made his mark in the game's fourth quarter.

"He towed like seven or eight guys for about 50 yards," Unger partially-embellished, as the play ran 33 yards but did demoralize more than half of the Houston defense. "Pretty cool run."

When the Panthers and Seahawks met in Week 8 of the regular season - a 13-9 Seattle win at Charlotte's Bank of America Stadium, Stewart managed a game-high 79 yards on 16 carries (4.9-yard average). But as cornerback Richard Sherman noted on Tuesday, the Seattle defense was lacking linebacker Bobby Wagner, cornerbacks Byron Maxwell and Jeremy Lane, and was playing with a banged-up strong safety Kam Chancellor - all of whom are in good health heading into Saturday's playoff.

"I think a lot of teams get in trouble when they don't tackle well against them [the Panthers], especially backs like Jon Stewart," said Sherman. "If you're not tackling him well, he'll make you pay for it."

As a team, the Panthers averaged 199.3 rushing yards per game through the month of December and Stewart's two 100-plus-yard rushing efforts in that four-game span were a big reason why.

But in Seattle, the Panthers will face a much different challenge than what confronted them during those final four games of the regular season, when Carolina faced the NFL's 32nd- (Cleveland Browns), 29th- (New Orleans Saints), 21st- (Atlanta Falcons), and 19th-best (Tampa Bay Buccaneers) run defenses. The Seahawks finished 2014 ranked No. 3 against the run, surrendering a paltry 81.5 yards per game.

"We have to get him on the ground," Carroll concluded of Stewart. "And that’s going to take a really great effort of consistent team tackling to do that."

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