The Seahawks have faced the Carolina Panthers four times in the past three seasons, three regular season games and a playoff game in January, winning all four. In those four Seahawks victories, the Panthers have averaged just 11.5 points and 267.8 yards per game.
What the Seahawks also did in all four games, which is very much related to the rest of their recent success against Carolina, is keep quarterback Cam Newton in check.
"Cam Newton is the centerpiece of that offense," linebacker K.J. Wright said. "We know everything is going to revolve around him. He's going to run the ball, he's going to pass the ball to his favorite targets, so if we can take him out of the game, especially running the football, then I believe we have a good chance of winning."
Few NFL players are asked to do more, or deliver more, than Newton does for the Panthers. The No. 1 pick in the 2011 draft, Newton has twice earned Pro Bowl honors while carrying the Carolina offense both as a passer and also as a rusher who has gained 2,766 rushing yards over four-plus seasons. As a passer and a rusher, Newton has accounted for 124 combined touchdowns.
"It's built around him," Seahawks defensive coordinator Kris Richard said. "He's a big, physical, strong quarterback, and he doesn't hesitate to put the ball in his own hands in crucial moments of the football game. We realize that he has a big powerful arm, he has a lot of faith in it, and he's going to put the ball where it needs to be."
But in four games against the Seahawks, Newton has never had the type of huge individual performance that has helped him carry the Panthers to victory against so many other opponents. In three regular season meetings, he has passed for 141, 125 and 171 yards against Seattle—he had 246 in the playoff game, thanks in part to Carolina trailing for much of the game, leading to 36 pass attempts—and he has three touchdowns and three interceptions in those four games.
Perhaps more significantly, the Seahawks have held Newton to 141 yards and no rushing touchdowns on 35 carries in those four games, keeping him well below his career average of 5.4 yards per carry. It helps that Seattle is used to dealing with mobile quarterbacks, both at practice (Russell Wilson), and within their division (Colin Kaepernick), but more than anything, slowing Carolina comes down to limiting big plays, which is one of the strengths of Seattle's defense.
"I don't know if there's been a key (to stopping Newton), but they have not been able to get the big plays," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "He's a very explosive football player, running and throwing, and their offense, the scheme they put out there is one that gives him chances to get the ball down the field, make big plays. That's kind of a strength of ours overall, and that's helped us when they play him. That's what we're challenged with again. It's not just the throws that you might think, the bombs, it's the big crossing routes, the big deep in routes, and corner routes, things that he can throw and that they have. They have the whole option game going on too, he's running the ball over ten times a game, so he's definitely involved in the running game. They're not hesitant to run him in tough situations where he's going to get banged. That poses a much different threat. We've been pretty solid at that stuff over time, we have to continue to do that if we're going to have success."
Four games into his fifth season season, Newton is again being asked to carry his team's offense, averaging more than 30 pass attempts and 10 carries per game, and it has been a winning formula for the 4-0 Panthers. So as has been the case in previous meeting, priority No. 1 for the Seahawks defense is stopping Newton.
"It's very hard," said linebacker Bruce Irvin. "He makes us play all types of defenses, because he's capable of making teams pay with his arm and his legs. We have to play great, gap-sound defense and make sure we contain him, because if we don't, he'll make us pay."
If anyone should be looking forward to another game against Carolina, it's Irvin, who has five sacks in three games against Carolina. Yet even Irvin can't help but marvel at one of the NFL's truly unique players, a 6-foot-5, 245 quarterback with a big arm, great speed and a willingness to run like a physical running back.
"Cam is a hell of an athlete. He can run, and he's bigger than me," Irvin said. "I don't know what it is about having success when we play them. I guess it's just hustle. I don't know, man."
Whatever it is, the Seahawks need to keep doing it on Sunday.