The Seahawks travel to Carolina this weekend for a game that has big playoff implications for these two NFC foes who know each other well, having played eight times, postseason included, since 2010. To learn more about Seattle's Week 12 opponent, we reached out to Bryan Strickland, senior writer for Panthers.com, with five questions about the 6-4 Panthers:
Q: The Panthers have lost two in a row after winning five of their previous six. Are there particular concerns/trends that have crept up in the past two weeks?
Strickland: Some of the same concerns that were covered up by winning caught up to Carolina in road losses to the Steelers and the Lions—perhaps foremost among them the pass rush. The Panthers entered the season with a league-high 241 sacks since the start of the 2013 season (the start of their run of four playoff berths in five years). But with one sack each of the past two games, Carolina currently ranks 23rd with 23 sacks. Opponents of course know the pass rush's reputation and are doing a good job of either getting the ball out quick with immobile quarterbacks or getting out of the pocket with mobile quarterbacks like Russell Wilson. Still, with their personnel, the Panthers feel they should be finishing off quarterbacks more often and feels it's one of the keys to their success.
Q: What have changes at offensive and defensive coordinator done for Carolina this season? And how much different are the offense and defense than what Seahawks fans will remember from previous meetings in recent years?
Strickland: The defense is being led by Eric Washington, a coordinator for the first time in his coaching career who had led Carolina's defensive line to great success since 2011. Washington prefers to count on his front four to pressure the quarterback more than his relatively blitz-heavy predecessors did, and he does have a secondary that can be counted on a little more than a couple of recent groups. Still, there have been growing pains. Experience certainly isn't in question on the offensive side of the ball with long-time coordinator Norv Turner reuniting with head coach Ron Rivera this season. In 2010 with the Chargers, Turner led the league's No. 1 offense and Rivera headed the league's No. 1 defense. The Panthers are averaging 36.5 more yards and 3.3 points more than they did in 2017.
Q: This is quite possibly related to the previous question, but what has gone into Cam Newton posting his best passer rating and completion percentage of his career?
Strickland: Turner deserves tons of credit, but so does Newton. He showed some signs the previous couple of seasons under former coordinator Mike Shula of taking the "layups" that move the chains and happen to increase completion percentage, especially after Carolina drafted a superior route-running back in Christian McCaffrey last year. Turner has put McCaffrey to work even more, and now Newton also has a couple of young receivers in DJ Moore and Curtis Samuel that excel in catching underneath passes and piling up yards after catch. More than ever Newton is willing to take what the defense gives him, and the personnel around him have more to give.
Q: Christian McCaffrey leads the team in rushing and receptions and is second in receiving yards. Just how important has he become to the Carolina offense, and what trait(s) make him so dangerous?
Strickland: How important? Well, he's playing about 96 percent of the snaps, far and away the greatest usage rate among running backs in the league. Carolina felt comfortable enough with McCaffrey's role to recently part ways with C.J. Anderson, a 1,000-yard rusher for the Broncos in 2017. How dangerous? He's as good a route runner as many receivers in the league, ranking 16th in receptions regardless of position. He also ranks 10th in rushing yards, proving in his second season that he's strong enough to be an effective inside runner. McCaffrey isn't a game-breaker every single week, but he's the definition of a consistent performer.
Q: The Panthers have been solid against the run this year, giving up 98.5 yards per game on the ground, but face an NFL-leading Seahawks rushing attack that has eclipsed 150 yards in seven straight games. How critical will run defense be for Carolina, and how well-equipped are they to slow down the running game?
Strickland: Washington begins each week of game-planning by harping on the importance of stopping the run, be it against a pass-happy opponent or one carrying the ball like the Seahawks are. The funny thing is that statistically the Panthers possess the eighth-stingiest run defense in the league, yet there's a feeling that the group is getting gashed. The numbers posted by the Panthers are heavily populated a combination of stops at or behind the line of scrimmage and chunk plays (Kerryon Johnson for the Lions last week lost yardage four times but gained 11 or more four times). That's a dangerous game to play against a Seahawks unit that is rolling right now.
The Seahawks and the Panthers have faced off 12 times, including three postseason matchups. The Seahawks currently own eight wins in the series and will play the Panthers again this Sunday in Week 12 of the 2018 NFL season.