3TFO: Seahawks @ Panthers, Week 1
Finally, the NFL returns full-force. After a very eventful offseason, the Seattle Seahawks bring a loaded roster into 2013 with an eye toward a Super Bowl run. Their returning starters and free agent talents make them one of the teams to beat in a strong NFC this year. Even with no Percy Harvin and likely missing their top defensive ends for this game, the Seahawks will be tough to deal with. Throughout the preseason, Seattle’s second unit routinely dominated opponents, giving the team some added confidence in their depth across the board. They even cut a fourth-round wide receiver from this year’s draft because two undrafted players ahead of him played so exceptionally well.
On the other side, Carolina would love to see their franchise quarterback put the team on his shoulders and carry them to the playoffs for the first time in his career. With serious concerns at wide receiver, offensive line, and in the secondary, the Panthers will rely heavily on Cam Newton to be the type of difference maker who makes players around him better. How will he respond? Let’s take a look at some of the key matchups that will influence the outcome of this game.
Cam Newton vs. Seattle’s Secondary
The young Carolina QB has his work cut out for him in this one. In all likelihood, Panthers receivers will have trouble gaining separation from the physical Seahawks corners. This will force Cam Newton to improvise in a number of ways. One option will be to use his mobility to extend plays, while also presenting the defense with the threat of running. This would give his receivers extra time to uncover and possibly connect on a deep ball. Another option would be to utilize a lot of underneath crossing routes in order to stretch the field horizontally. Shallow crosses can also lead to some high-percentage throws that allow receivers to be able to run after the catch. A third option is to just rifle the ball into tight coverage and hope his receiver wins, but that’s a risky proposition.
Seeing Richard Sherman and Steve Smith jaw it up will be in interesting matchup in its own right. Seattle’s corners have the type of ability to frustrate Carolina’s receivers, and there’s a good chance we’ll see a scuffle at some point. Last year, Sherman gave up a reception just once every 14.8 Cover Snaps, second-best in the league among corners. Brandon Browner gave up a catch once every 13.1 Cover Snaps, the eighth-best mark in the league. If the tandem can lock down the outsides, Cam Newton will probably look Greg Olsen’s way often. Safeties Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas played reasonably well in coverage last season, but did allow a combined 68.0% completion rate into their coverage. If Newton wants to play the percentages, he’ll stay away from Sherman and Browner for the most part, and focus on other members of the secondary.
Russell Okung and Breno Giacomini vs. Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson
If last season was any indication, Russell Okung will mainly face Hardy, and Breno Giacomini will go against Johnson. Okung established himself as one of the better left tackles in the league last year, earning a grade of +25.2 overall for the season. Giacomini struggled at times, ranking 38th out of 53 qualifying tackles in Pass Blocking Efficiency. In 2012, the two starting tackles for the Seahawks also combined for 26 penalties.
Over the offseason, Ben Stockwell analyzed Carolina’s defensive end duo in our Pass Rusher Profile Series. With Charles Johnson’s strength being the outside pass rush, Giacomini will need to be quick off the ball in order to protect his edge. Greg Hardy has a nice repertoire of moves and does a great job of getting to the quarterback once he beats blocks. The matchup between he and Okung represents strength on strength. Who will get the better of it?
Marshawn Lynch vs. Carolina’s Interior Defense
Including the playoffs, Marshawn Lynch broke a ridiculous 66 tackles last year. That number put him just two shy of Adrian Peterson, and that’s with 19 fewer touches than Peterson had. They don’t call him Beast Mode for nothing, Lynch is a wrecking ball whenever he totes the rock. He’s gotten very little work throughout the preseason, but that should all change come Sunday. Look for Seattle to pound the ball up the middle often.
Carolina will counter Lynch’s attack with 2013 first-rounder Star Lotulelei occupying space in the middle. The rookie accumulated a run defense grade of +3.1 in just 31 snaps against the run this preseason. His presence should bolster a defense that missed a whopping 127 tackles last year. At the other defensive tackle spot, Dwan Edwards returns from last year, and his play against the run left a lot to be desired. He and Lotulelei will have their hands full trying to deal with Max Unger, one of the best run blocking centers in the league. Also on the interior, Luke Kuechly returns for his second season after a promising rookie year which saw him rank third among inside linebackers in Run Stop Percentage at 13.4%. He and Lynch will lock horns often, and we’ll see soon enough who gets the better of this compelling matchup.
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