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Three Key Matchups: Seahawks at Panthers

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The Seahawks will play the Panthers on Sunday in what almost feels like a divisional game given how familiar the two teams are against each other. Sunday’s game at Bank of America Stadium will be the ninth meeting between the two teams since 2010, postseason included. And like many of the previous meetings, this one will be significant for both teams, as the Seahawks (5-5) and Panthers (6-4) are both looking to help their playoff chances against a fellow NFC contender.

“It’s a very familiar matchup,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. “… It’s almost like a division matchup for us—for them too. We’re looking forward to getting revved up and getting it going. It’s an exciting matchup. We know these guys pretty well, they know us pretty well, so it should be a good battle for us.”

If the Seahawks are going to get a win on the road against a team that is so far unbeaten at home this season, these are three matchups that could make the difference on Sunday afternoon:

1. Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey vs. Seattle’s run and pass defense.

While the Seahawks running game has leaned on several running backs, the Panthers have found success relying on one back, 2017 first-round pick Christian McCaffrey, who is playing 96 percent of Carolina’s offensive snaps this season.

McCaffrey has been one of the league’s most productive runners in 2018, rushing for 632 yards and four touchdowns on 136 carries, but what makes him particularly dangerous is his versatility. In addition to being Carolina’s leading rusher, he also leads the Panthers in receptions with 60—for perspective, that’s 22 more than Tyler Lockett’s team-leading total this season—and has 496 receiving yards and four receiving touchdowns.

“He does everything,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. “He’s caught 60 passes already, so he’s a real focal point in the offense and he’s running the ball with good average and scoring both by the catches and from the ground. That’s a real problem and you just give him another dimension with Cam (Newton), and it just makes it really hard.”

And as has always been the case with the Panthers since Cam Newton became their quarterback in 2011, the running game is tough to deal with not only because of what the running backs can do, but because of Newton’s threat to run.

“The offense alone is a big challenge just because of read-zone option,” linebacker Bobby Wagner said. “You’ve got to respect Cam as a runner. You got a lot of pulling and then you add (McCaffrey) to it, he’s able to hit the hole downhill, he’s able to get outside. They move around him a lot as a receiver, as a fly guy, so we have to just do a good job of knowing where he’s at and know what he likes to run in the certain spots that he’s at. It’ll be a good challenge.”

For Seattle’s run defense, this is a tough test, but one they know they’ll need to be ready for after having some struggles in the running game in recent weeks, allowing 309 rushing yards to the Chargers and Rams before limiting Green bay to 48 last week.

2. Seattle’s top-ranked running game vs. Carolina’s run defense.

Seattle’s running game is on a roll, having gone over the 150-yard mark in seven straight games, but the Seahawks face a tough test this week when they play a Carolina defense that ranks eighth in the NFL against the run.

“Terrific group,” Seahawks offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said of Carolina’ front seven. “Defensive line—big, physical. Linebackers are as good as they come in the game probably at dissecting things, seeing things, both Thomas (Davis) and Luke (Kuechly), and Shaq Thompson—they just play that defense well, they’re committed to stop the run and they do a really good job of it. It will be a terrific challenge for us. It won’t be easy, that’s for sure. They’ve given up a couple of big runs, but it’s tough sledding to go in there and run the football. But, it’s kind of who we are and we’ll take our chances.”

And while the overall numbers have been solid for Carolina, which is allowing 98.5 yards-per-game on the ground, there have been opportunities for big plays against the Panthers, as was evident last week when Detroit’s Kerryon Johnson had four runs that gained 11 or more yards. Overall this season, the Panthers have allowed 28 explosive runs (12-plus yards), tied for sixth most in the league, including eight in the past two games. The Seahawks know that it won’t be easy to run the ball against the Panthers, but they’re confident they’ll be able to keep playing their style of offense.

“I think we are who we are,” Schottenheimer said. “As long as we can continue to have explosive plays, both run and pass, we can go play a Rams team and go put up 31 points. I think it’s pretty cool to be different. People know when they play us, they’re going to get a physical brand of football and we’re going to leave our mark. They’re going to kind of feel us after they play us. The main thing is that we win. There’ll be games at some point where maybe Russ (Wilson) has to go out and throw for 350 yards, but we realize that the way for us to play the best is to be balanced, and it starts with the running game.”

3. Frank Clark and Seattle’s pass rush vs. Cam Newton and his pass protection.

The Seahawks pass rush was a big factor in last week’s win over the Packers, with Seattle’s defense recording five sacks of Aaron Rodgers, including two more for Frank Clark, who has already matched a career high with 10 this season.

“The way we rushed the passer in the second half in particular, we had a number of sacks in the second half,” Carroll said. “It was everybody working together with great intensity and feeding off one another. It wasn’t any one guy highlighted against a matchup or something like that. That was everybody pushing and the sacks were really a combination of guys’ efforts. I’m hoping that that will be a part again because if you noticed, we broke the pocket down and that’s important to do with Cam as well because he can get out and really scorch you too.”

Matching that success against Newton and the Panthers offense won't be easy, not just because the Panthers do a good job protecting Newton, but because his rare combination of size and elusiveness makes him difficult to take down even when protection does break down. As a result, the Panthers have given up only 20 sacks this season, tied for the sixth fewest in the league.

A big reason why the Seahawks will be hoping to pressure Newton is because there is no bigger factor in creating turnovers than pressure on a quarterback, and the Seahawks are eager to create some takeaways this week. After starting the season with 16 takeaways through seven games, the Seahawks have none in their past three games.

“I’m really disappointed in that. It’s been difficult,” Carroll said. “It makes it harder to win and harder to get ahead and stay ahead without getting football off of our opponents. It amplifies also our few that we have given up in the same time span, and they’ve been significant because we haven’t counted on the other side. It just kind of comes in numbers sometimes. You hear it get talked about, they come in bunches. That’s really the truth. It’s always seemed like that, and we had a pretty good roll going there and then it just kind of got quiet. So what I take of it is, it’s something that just needs to draw even more emphasis. We’re trying to make it our number one emphasis. We’re going to continue to amplify and down the stretch here, it’s going to be absolutely crucial.”

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.

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