Enemy Confidential: Improved Supporting Cast Adds Bite to Panthers' Offense

Losers of two straight games, the desperate Panthers hope to end their skid back at home against the Seahawks.

Playing for the first time in two seasons, the Seattle Seahawks will travel cross country to renew their bitter rivalry with the Carolina Panthers.

Though the Seahawks and Panthers didn't face one another during the 2017 season, they met five times in the previous six seasons and also dueled twice in the postseason during that span. Battling for one of two wild card berths, Sunday's latest installment holds major playoff implications for both teams.

While Seattle halted a two-game skid with a 27-24 win over Green Bay to keep their playoff hopes intact, Carolina dropped a costly game in Detroit, failing to convert a two-point conversion in the final two minutes. Losers of two straight, the Panthers have cooled off after a fast start and now find the Seahawks only a game behind them for the final playoff spot in the NFC.

Unlike previous seasons, Carolina has used free agency and the draft to bolster the supporting cast around quarterback Cam Newton, who has completed a career-high 68 percent of his pass attempts so far through 10 games. Adding dynamic running back Christian McCaffrey, receiver D.J. Moore, and a host of other impact skill players to the mix, a vastly improved unit has averaged 26 points per game, 10th best in the NFL.

On the flip side, the Panthers defense hasn't been quite as stout as past seasons, though an elite linebacker group headlined by perennial All-Pro talent Luke Kuechly remains one of the league's best. Without a consistent pass rush and a secondary that has given up over 250 passing yards per game, Carolina has plummeted to 20th overall in scoring defense this season.

Here’s a closer look at Seattle’s upcoming opponent, including series history, additions/departures, key numbers, and Carroll’s evaluation of the Panthers heading into Week 12:

SERIES HISTORY

--10th regular-season meeting. Seahawks lead series 6-3. Seattle has won five of its six home games against Carolina, including a 31-17 victory in the 2014 NFC Divisional Round. The two teams have split six games at Bank of America Stadium, with the Panthers most recently surviving a torrid comeback attempt to edge the Seahawks 31-24 in another playoff contest back in 2016. The Seahawks have won the past three regular season games in Charlotte and five of the past six overall.

WHAT'S NEW?

--Additions: The Panthers hit home runs on their first two draft picks in April, snagging explosive receiver D.J. Moore in the first round and cornerback Donte Jackson in the second round. Moore already has 474 receiving yards and has averaged nearly 16 yards per reception this year, while Jackson ranks third in the NFL with four interceptions. Carolina didn't spend a ton of money in free agency, but the front office did sign former Pro Bowl defensive tackle Dontari Poe and re-signed franchise icon Julius Peppers on a one-year deal to bolster the pass rush. Prior to Week 5, Carolina also added veteran safety Eric Reid, who has started the past seven games and recorded 41 tackles in that span.

--Departures: After spending his first four seasons with the Panthers, All-Pro guard Andrew Norwell departed during free agency to sign a multi-year deal with the Jaguars. Defensive tackle Star Lotulelei left after reaching a deal with the Bills, creating an opening easily filled by Poe. The Panthers have also battled injuries this season, already losing starting tackles Matt Kalil and Daryl Williams, safety Da'Norris Searcy, and cornerback Ross Cockrell to injured reserve.

INSIDE THE NUMBERS

  • 100.7: Quarterback rating for Cam Newton on first downs this season, among the top 10 in the NFL.
  • 3: Number of players with 490-plus receiving yards and 600 or more rushing yards, including Saquan Barkley, Alvin Kamara, and Christian McCaffrey.
  • 69: Number of targets since Panthers tight end Greg Olsen last dropped a pass, the longest-active streak at the position.
  • 98.5: Rushing yards surrendered per game by Carolina, eighth-best in the league.
  • 23: Total sacks by the Panthers defensively, tied for 23rd in the league.
  • 18.5: Fantasy points allowed per game to tight ends by Carolina's defense, the highest per game total in the league.
  • 52: Number of penalties, fourth fewest among the 32 NFL teams.

CARROLL'S THOUGHTS

--There are few players in football who create more problems for opposing defenses than Christian McCaffrey, who is one of only three running backs in the NFL with over 600 rushing yards and 495 receiving yards. Possessing great straight line speed and unrivaled quickness, he’s proven capable of running between the tackles as well as lining up as a slot receiver.

“He does everything. 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.” Carroll said in regard to McCaffrey. “That’s a real problem and you just give him another dimension with Cam [Newton], and it just makes it really hard.”

The Seahawks have had trouble stopping the run in recent weeks, although they did limit Aaron Jones to only 40 rushing yards on 11 carries in last week’s win over Green Bay. With Newton and McCaffrey both capable of wreaking havoc on the ground and the read-option game a major focal point in Carolina’s offense, ratcheting up run fits and clean tackling will be critical for Seattle.

--Though the Panthers play in the NFC South, they’ve played the Seahawks five times in the regular season over the past seven seasons. In what has become a division rivalry of sorts, Carroll holds great respect for a defense that still features plenty of big names from prior contests, including two playoff games between the two teams.

“They’re really stout. You guys will recognize the names, all those guys that you’ve been seeing for years.” Carroll stated. “There’s enough of those guys that you can feel their old ways. You can feel their experience. You can feel the play-making ability. You can’t fool these guys.”

Seattle has emerged as the NFL’s top rushing team, averaging north of 150 yards on the ground per game and eclipsing the 150-yard mark in seven straight games. The Panthers have the talent to counter, however, with a group of linebackers Carroll raved about on Tuesday.

“They’re really sharp and savvy and Thomas [Davis] is amazing and Luke [Kuechly] is an amazing player and Shaq [Thompson] is – their linebackers just jump out at you…” Carroll said.

Kuechly, a four-time All-Pro selection, once again leads the Panthers with 83 tackles, while Thompson has already enjoyed his finest NFL season, recording 61 tackles and 2.0 sacks. As for Davis, the 35-year old veteran has showed little sign of decline, making 36 tackles in six games this year.

--Along with dealing with Carolina’s talented group of linebackers, Carroll name-dropped defensive end Mario Addison as a player Seattle will have to account for on Sunday, comparing him to Seahawks star Frank Clark. The 31-year old defender has evolved from a long-time reserve into the team’s best pass rusher over the past couple of seasons and leads the team with 7.5 sacks.

“I just think he’s just grown in experience and he’s on his game better than he’s ever been just because he’s learned.” Carroll said while commenting on Addison’s ascension. “His quickness and his consistency and getting after the QB is really obvious and they have a really good push with the other big guys around him. He’s a nice complement. He’s exactly the kind of production that you’re looking for.”

Addison posted a career-best 11.0 sacks last year, but he’s not the only quality player on Carolina’s front four. Defensive tackle Kawann Short remains stout in the interior, though he hasn’t had quite as much success getting to the quarterback as prior seasons with only 2.0 sacks this year, while Dontari Poe and Julius Peppers give coach Ron Rivera reliable veteran options in the trenches.

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