2015 NFL Playoffs: Carolina at Seattle Preview

The 2015 NFL Playoffs roll on with a divisional round matchup between Cam Newton‘s Carolina Panthers and Russell Wilson‘s Seattle Seahawks. The Carolina at Seattle preview has what to look for on game day.

WHO: Carolina Panthers (8-8-1 – #4 Seed) vs. Seattle Seahawks (12-4 – #1 Seed)

WHEN: Saturday, January 10 – 8:15 p.m. EST (FOX)

WHERE: CenturyLink Field – Seattle, Washington

Fresh off their victory over the Arizona Cardinals on Saturday, the Carolina Panthers trek cross-country to take on the NFC’s top-seeded Seattle Seahawks. This marks the third time these teams have met in the past two years, with Seattle winning both previous matchups. The Seahawks scored a 12-7 victory to open 2013, and in this season’s meeting they put the game’s only touchdown on the board in their 13-9 Week 8 triumph.

When Carolina Has the Football

Cam Newton versus the Legion of Boom

We have spent a lot of time and energy outlining how the Panthers attack an opponent with the running game using a combination of power, option, and finesse plays. While the Carolina run game will certainly be a big factor in Saturday night’s contest, I want to focus on the matchup between Cam Newton and Seattle’s vaunted Cover 3-based secondary. The Panthers quarterback struggled in the two previous meetings, completing 16 of 23 passes for just 125 yards and a touchdown in the 2013 meeting, and connecting on only 12 of 22 attempts for 171 yards and one interception in the 2014 tilt. For the Carolina passing game to be successful, the QB must show more patience against the talented Seattle secondary and let plays develop. Here are two examples:

On this first play, from their 2013 meeting,. Newton is in the shotgun with 11 personnel on the field. Tight end Greg Olsen is the inside receiver in an inverted slot to Newton’s left, while WR Brandon LaFell (now with the Patriots) is the inside receiver in an inverted slot to the quarterback’s right. Seattle has its nickel defense on the field showing Cover 2 in the secondary:

On either side of the formation the receivers execute an out route/deep route combination. Olsen runs a seam route on the left while the other WR runs a short out. On the right, LaFell executes a deep post pattern, using a quick outside cut to set up his break inside, while the other WR runs a short out. In the secondary, the Seahawks roll their coverage late, with strong safety Kam Chancellor (#31) flying forward to cover the outside flat.

Here is a still from the moment Newton releases the football:

Working from a clean pocket, Newton tries forcing a throw to his TE who is between two defenders. On the other side of the field, LaFell is deep and breaking wide open on his post pattern. If Newton waits one more second, he has a shot at a huge play down the middle. Instead, he delivers a hospital ball to Olsen:

In this example from their 2014 clash, Newton is in the shotgun with 11 personnel on the field for Carolina. The quarterback has a single-receiver split to the left and trips to the right. Seattle’s nickel defense is in the game showing Cover 3 in the secondary:

The Panthers run a simple “out/slant” combination to each side of the field. On the left, the middle receiver in the trips runs an out, while the outside receiver runs a slant. To the right, the split receiver runs a slant, while the running back executes an out route from the backfield. Olsen runs a short curl route over the middle from his inside alignment in the trips. At the snap, Newton reads this play to the trips-side of the formation and makes a quick throw, shown in this next still:

However, the QB chooses the wrong target. Both Olsen and the out route are open (circled in white). But Newton tries to squeeze a throw into the slant route, which at the moment is at least double-covered with the free safety crashing down:

The pass falls harmlessly incomplete; indeed, Carolina is lucky this throw is not intercepted.

Opportunities exist to make plays against this Seattle secondary. But Newton needs to be patient in the pocket, let the routes develop, and then make the correct reads. On each of these plays his offensive line kept a clean pocket, so neither throw was made under duress. If he gives each play just a little more time Saturday, he will have a much better night against the Seahawks than in his previous two meetings with the Legion of Boom.

When Seattle has the Football

Russell Wilson versus the Carolina Linebackers

A crucial element of this game is how well the talented Carolina linebackers will fare in their discipline and execution against the multifaceted Seahawks attack. Seattle’s offense plays to the strengths of its constituent parts by using read-option looks to generate running room for Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch, and by incorporating play-action to get the quarterback moving in the pocket and in position to make plays with his arm and his legs. These concepts put pressure on a defense – particularly the linebackers – who must be patient and disciplined to execute their assignments on each play. A.J. Klein, Luke Kuechly, and Thomas Davis have all performed well in 2014, but the combination of this Seattle offense and the loss of defensive tackle Star Lotulelei is a tremendous challenge. Here are two plays from their earlier meeting to illustrate the task they face Saturday.

Take this play, from the first quarter of their 2014 meeting. Wilson lines up under center with 12 personnel on the field. Lynch lines up as angle-back, and the Seahawks have a wing-TE alignment on either side of the formation. Carolina’s base 4-3 defense is on the field and, to the right of the quarterback, weak-side linebacker Davis walks up to the line of scrimmage over tight end Luke Willson:

CarolinaSeattlePreviewStillFive

The Seahawks use one of their bread-and-butter running plays, sending Lynch off-tackle to the right in a man-blocking scheme. On the left, reserve TE Cooper Helfet moves inside at the snap of the ball, trying to cut down the defensive end:

From the end zone view, you can see how well the linebackers flow to the football. Kuechly, the middle linebacker, attacks the play and gets in on the tackle, while Klein, the strong-side linebacker, also works quickly towards the ball-carrier:

Late in the game, Seattle takes over the football on its own 20-yard line, after a Carolina field goal staked the Panthers to a 9-6 lead. With only 4:37 left in the contest, the Seahawks need to put together a drive. They come out in the same formation as the previously discussed play, and the defense uses the same look as well:

CarolinaSeattlePreviewStillSix

Now watch what develops:

Instead of handing the ball to Lynch, Wilson keeps the football and circles back to the left, finding Helfet in the flat for a 10-yard gain. From the end zone camera, you can see how the aggressiveness of the Carolina linebackers – particularly Klein – works against them:

The Seahawks picked up a first down on this play, and eight plays later Wilson found his other tight end, Luke Willson, for the game-winning touchdown. The Panthers will need better discipline and execution from their linebackers if they are to slow down Russell Wilson and this Seattle attack.

Prediction

Based on the film from their previous two meetings, and despite the low scores in those clashes, Seattle has too many advantages in this game for Carolina to overcome ‒ especially at CenturyLink Field.

Seattle 24, Carolina 13

Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkSchofield.

Mark Schofield has always loved football. He breaks down film, scouts prospects, and explains the passing game for Inside the Pylon.

All video and images courtesy the NFL and NFL Game Rewind.

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