The Seahawks return home this weekend to host the Panthers, and are looking to build off of last week's win over the Rams and keep pace in the NFC playoff race. The Panthers, meanwhile, are playing better than their 4-8 record might indicate, having won two of their last three and three of their last six after a 1-5 start.
Here are five things to watch in Sunday's game between NFC foes:
1. Can the run defense take another step forward.
The Seahawks weren't dominant on defense during Sunday's win over the Rams, but they took some steps forward after two subpar performances in losses to the Buccaneers and Raiders. After an opening-drive touchdown and a field goal shortly after, the Seahawks made some adjustments, and L.A. managed only one touchdown the rest of the game. Seattle's third down numbers were also considerably better, and while the Rams did rush for 171 yards, they did a lot of that with perimeter runs, quarterback bootlegs and other plays that are a staple of Sean McVay's Rams offense and that the Seahawks won't see every week. On the more traditional downhill runs, the run defense was considerably better than against the Raiders and Buccaneers.
If the Seahawks are going to have a good game on defense this weekend, they'll need to build off of that progress and not take a step back, because the Panthers will come in looking to pound the ball. Since Steve Wilks took over as interim head coach midway through the season, the Panthers have taken on the type of identity one might expect from a team led by a longtime defensive coordinator, and part of that has been a commitment to the running game.
The Panthers have rushed for 145 or more yards in each of their four wins, including 185 in a Week 12 win over Denver, and 232 in a Week 10 win over Atlanta. Leading the way for the Panthers is D'Onta Foreman, who has rushed for 113 or more yards in four of the last six games, three of them wins.
"It starts up front, they are physical on the offensive line," said defensive coordinator Clint Hurtt. "In my opinion, they are the best coached and most physical group that we have seen so far this year. The way they are getting after people, and I know that you may look at records and those things, but when you put on the tape and you see where a team is and how they are performing, when it comes to running the football, they are doing well. D'Onta Foreman and the young kid (Chuba) Hubbard, they are both really good running backs that run downhill, they run behind their pads, have good contact and balance, and again, they stay committed to it. They have had a multitude of quarterbacks that have played, but the running game has been physical and consistent. Kudos to them on that."
2. Can Tyler Lockett keep his TD streak going.
In addition to being the Seahawks’ Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award nominee, Tyler Lockett has also been one of the team's most productive players in 2022, which should come as no surprise given his production throughout his career. And last week, Lockett caught a touchdown pass in a fifth straight game, tying a franchise record.
A sixth straight touchdown and sole possession of that record won't come easy for Lockett against a tough Panthers defense, one that has given up only 16 passing touchdowns, tied for 11thfewest in the league.
3. Can Geno Smith keep it going with the Seahawks possibly short-handed in the running game.
For a Pete Carroll-led offense, balance is always preferred on offense, but Geno Smith has shown he is more than capable of slinging the ball around when called upon, as was evident last week when the threw for a career-high 367 yards, the final 65 of which came in a game-winning drive he capped with an 8-yard touchdown pass to DK Metcalf.
And while the Seahawks will try to run the ball regardless of who's available, they head into the weekend unsure of the status of both Kenneth Walker III and DeeJay Dallas, neither of whom practice this week after suffering ankle injuries in last weekend's win.
Smith has been the model of consistency this year, posting a 100 or better passer rating in nine of 12 games, the most in the NFL, and throwing multiple touchdown passes in 10 games, also a league-high. He also has had at least a 60 percent completion percentage and a passer rating over 80 in all 12 games, tied for the most such games to start a season with Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers, both of whom did that in MVP-winning seasons.
In other words, even against a strong Panthers pass defense that holds opposing QBs to an 88.6 passer rating, the Seahawks will be confident that Smith can keep the offense humming even if the running game isn't at full-strength.
4. How do the rookie tackles handle yet another tough test?
One of the best stories of this Seahawks season has been the play of rookie tackles Charles Cross and Abraham Lucas, both of whom have started every game and helped Smith and the offense function at a high level. Both have held up well against a number of elite pass rushers, but as is to be expected for any tackle, let alone a rookie, there have been a few bumps in the road, including a Week 12 loss to Las Vegas in which edge rusher Maxx Crosby was a huge factor.
This week's challenge is another tough one, with Pro-Bowl defensive end Brian Burns coming to town. A 2019 first-round pick, Burns has 10.0 sacks, tied for fifth most in the league, and 13 tackles for loss, which is tied for sixth.
"He's a really, really good athlete," Carroll said. "He's really athletic, and he's got the burst, and the length, and all that kind of stuff, but he's really athletic and really slippery in his pass rush. He can get in and out of his spaces really efficiently. He has a really good motor. He really brings it, and he plays all the time. He's getting a ton of reps. You can't rest on him at all. He'll take the edge in a heartbeat. So, he's a really good player."
Smith has been sacked 10 times in the past three games, and while that's hardly all the fault of the tackles, or even the offensive line as a whole, those two will have to play a big role if the Seahawks are going to cut down on those sack totals this weekend.
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5. Can the Seahawks defense keep playing takeaway, and can the offense clean up the turnovers?
The Seahawks have been one of the best teams in the NFL at forcing turnover this season, ranking tied for second in the league with 21 takeaways. Seattle has forced multiple turnovers in three straight games and in nine of the last 10, and with the 12s behind them at Lumen Field, they'll be expecting to get the ball off a Panthers offense that has committed eight turnovers in the past five games, six of which came in a pair of losses.
On the other side of the ball, the Seahawks have for the most part done a decent job taking care of the ball this season, but they have turned the ball over twice in each of the past two games, and have yet to have a turnover-free game this season. Cleaning that up would go a long way towards Seattle having a successful day at Lumen Field.
Seahawks wide receivers Dareke Young and Penny Hart visited a Spokane Children's Hospital on December 6, 2022 to spread holiday cheer.