Everything you need to know for Seahawks-Panthers
The Seattle Seahawks held on by the skin of their teeth on a frigid Sunday to beat the Minnesota Vikings by a score of 10-9, advancing to the NFC Divisional Round. It was a tough victory, as the offense struggled at times, despite a surging end to the season. The defense played as well as ever, with almost every single player grading positively. Seattle has its work cut out for them going forward, as they’ll travel to Charlotte to take on the Panthers this Sunday.
The Panthers finished the season with a 15-1 record, best in the league. They were led by PFF All-Pro Honorable Mention quarterback Cam Newton on offense, and a strong secondary on defense. The Panthers were arguably the most dominant team in the NFL in wire-to-wire fashion, and they’ll get a chance to avenge last season’s Divisional Round loss to the very team they’re playing this time around.
The two teams last met in Week 6, where the Panthers marched into Seattle and took down the Seahawks on a last-minute touchdown from Newton to Greg Olsen. This has the potential to be an even better game, as both teams have arguably improved since then. Let’s take a look at some strengths and weaknesses on both squads.
Last week, we mentioned that the Russell Wilson (85.2 player grade) to Doug Baldwin (91.7) connection would be the difference-maker in their Wild Card game against the Vikings. That proved to be partly true, as Baldwin finished with a +1.8 game grade and scored the only touchdown of the meeting. Wilson (who graded -2.1 overall) and the rest of the Seahawks’ offense was struggling with the cold temperatures, something that won’t be an issue this week in Charlotte.
Defensively, the duo of defensive ends Cliff Avril (87.9) and Michael Bennett (90.7) continue to be a driving force. Both players have graded out in the top 10 among all edge defenders this season. Against the Vikings, Avril had a sack, a hit, and two hurries on top of four solo run stops. Bennett was even more disruptive, with one hit and six hurries, as well as five solo run stops. The Seahawks’ pass rush, as a unit, pressured Teddy Bridgewater on 41 percent of his dropbacks.
Offensive line play continues to be an issue for the Seahawks. The offensive line has three starters that have graded out as “below replacement level” on the season. Their highest-graded player is left tackle Russell Okung (73.7), and against the Vikings, he was one of the lowest-graded players on the line. He especially struggled in pass protection, allowing a sack, a hit, and four hurries. Right tackle Garry Gilliam (35.8) was no better, allowing five hurries.
The Seahawks have had a strong defense with very few weaknesses all season, and that was very evident against the Vikings. One thing Minnesota did try and exploit was safety Kam Chancellor (73.9) in coverage. Chancellor isn’t particularly known as a coverage stalwart, and he struggled on Sunday, allowing some big catches and missing some key tackles, as well as earning a very poorly-timed penalty.
DE Michael Bennett (90.7): Bennett has a freedom like few other defensive players in football, able to move freely and make plays based on his instinct, which is frequently right. He was Seattle’s best player on Sunday, just as he was all season. His pass rush productivity of 13.4 was second-best at his position this season, and his 8.0 run stop percentage ranked third.
Cam Newton. Need we say more? Newton (87.0) graded out as our fifth-best quarterback this season, and was the only quarterback with a passing grade above 85.0 and a rushing grade above 90.0. Newton accounted for 76 percent of the Panthers’ total yards, and 54 percent of their total points scored. Newton doesn’t rely on his receivers to make plays either, as 63.0 percent of his passing yards came in the air (third-best by our measure.)
We can’t talk about the Panthers without mentioning their strong secondary. The unit is led by Josh Norman (83.6), whose coverage grade of 87.6 ranked fourth among cornerbacks this season. He also averaged surrendering a mere 0.66 yards per coverage snap, the second-fewest in the NFL. But he’s not alone, as free safety Kurt Coleman (84.4) has quietly been a top 10 safety this season.
The Panthers’ offense is very good all-around, but one thing they have struggled with is run blocking on the edge. This is in part because of tight ends Greg Olsen (82.5) and Ed Dickson (51.7). While good receivers, they rank 115th and 116th out of 117 tight ends in terms of run blocking grade. On the line itself, left tackle Michael Oher (73.8) has a 26.2 run block grade, the worst among all tackles this season.
Pass rush is something the Panthers have struggled at, minus second-team All-Pro defensive tackle Kawann Short (90.3). He alone makes up roughly 20 percent of all their pressures this season. Defensive linemen Jared Allen (70.1) and Dwan Edwards (46.8) have struggled as pass rush specialists, generating just 47 total pressures combined all season. Defensive tackle Star Lotulelei (65.9) has rushed the passer 323 times and has registered just 13 total pressures.
Luke Kuechly (99.9): Kuechly was the best linebacker this season, so good that he almost broke our new grading scale. He finished with a 99.9 coverage grade, and a 98.4 run defense grade, both tops in the league. His 14.0 percent run stop percentage ranked second among inside linebackers, and he was the most efficient tackler, missing just one of every 24 tackle attempts.
Matchups to watch
TE Greg Olsen (82.5) vs. SS Kam Chancellor (73.9): After watching Chancellor struggle on Sunday in coverage, the Panthers will be looking to take advantage and scheme things up with Olsen. His 95.1 receiving grade ranked No. 1 among tight ends this season. Last time they met, Chancellor had success, allowing just one catch on two targets for 5 yards.
LG Justin Britt (39.6) vs. Kawann Short (90.3): A potential game-changing matchup between one of the best interior defenders in football this season and a below replacement-level guard. Britt surprisingly graded out positively in the Wild Card game, but on the season, he ranked 70th out of 80 qualified guards. Short had 67 total pressures (third-most among DTs) in the regular season, and graded in the top 12 for both pass rush and run defense.
Paths to victory
Seattle can win if: Russell Wilson can hit on some of the big plays that he missed on Sunday, and their defensive line can get pressure on Newton without blitz help, which will force the Panthers’ average receivers to try to get open against the Seahawks’ strong secondary.
Carolina can win if: They can establish a strong run game with Newton and Jonathan Stewart that opens up some big play action passes, and if their secondary can lock down the Seattle receivers and give their defensive line time to get to Wilson.