When the Seahawks match up against the Panthers at 5:15 p.m. PT on Saturday, Jan. 10 at CenturyLink Field, they'll see a few fresh faces in the Carolina secondary that weren't receiving significant playing time when the two teams met in Week 8 of the regular season - a 13-9 Seattle win.
Panthers cornerbacks Bene Benwikere and Carrington Byndom, as well free safety Tre Boston are three first-year players who helped ignite Carolina's current five-game win streak.
Since the Panthers' rookie trio has had their roles increase, the team's pass defense has seen significant improvement. Through the club's past five games - all wins, with Benwikere, Byndom, and Boston in the mix, the Panthers have given up 154.8 passing yards per game. In the team's previous six games - all losses, the secondary was surrendering an average of 234.7 yards through the air - a 79.9-yard difference.
Count Seahawks wide receiver Doug Baldwin as one who's been impressed with what he's seen on tape of the Panthers' new cover-men.
"They're very athletic, very talented guys," Baldwin said on Tuesday. "They're obviously still young so they're still getting a feel for it, but they pose a threat to us because of how athletic they are.
"They don't play like rookies. They play like they've been in the system for a while, so we have to be on our game when we're facing them, making sure that we're not making dumb mistakes. Being on top of our routes, making sure that we're not taking for granted that they're young guys because they have shown a propensity to be able to make plays."
The call to feature more of the Panthers' rookies came from Carolina head coach Ron Rivera, who said the team's change-up in the secondary "really helped to settle things down." Carolina saw the move pay dividends in last week's 27-16 wild-card win over the Cardinals, when the rookie safety Boston recorded one of the team's two picks of Arizona quarterback Ryan Lindley and the Panthers defense held the Cards to 78 total yards - 51 of which came from Lindley's arm.
"I think it was the need for speed," Rivera said of the switch via conference call on Wednesday, his 53rd birthday. "We had some veteran guys that were solid football players that did things the right way, but I think we needed to be more athletic, a little more aggressive, and that was kind of the thought behind that decision."
In Seattle's regular-season win at Carolina, Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson threw for 199 yards - roughly 18 yards under his per-game average (217.2) - and tossed an interception after a ball bounced off the hands of running back Marshawn Lynch. But the Seattle signal caller also led the Seahawks 80 yards for the go-ahead score with 47 seconds to play, when he hit tight end Luke Willson for a 23-yard touchdown with the Panthers' rookie safety Boston covering on the play.
"I have a lot of respect for their defense, their secondary," Wilson said on Wednesday. "Even though they're young, they're doing a tremendous job at playing big-time football. You look at their past six games and they look phenomenal.
"They're here for a reason. They're in the playoffs for a reason."
In going against the Panthers' budding defensive backfield, Wilson believes the game will come down to taking advantage of the one-on-one matchups on the outside. Finding ways to be explosive, which the Seahawks did better than any other team in 2014, will be key.
"They're going to have to do a lot of things to try to stop us, obviously" said Wilson. "We're very versatile in our offense and we do a lot of different things. But we know they do a lot of different things on defense, too. We're going to have to be on our best game plan possible and understand what we're trying to do."
Baldwin, the team's 2014 leading receiver who paced all Seattle pass catchers with six grabs for 61 yards in the Seahawks' regular-season win over the Panthers, is ready for whatever test awaits.
"They're playing a different style of defense, so it's going to pose a challenge for us," he said. "But of course, you guys know us here in Seattle. We're always excited about that challenge."