The Carolina Panthers season had gone the opposite of Seattle’s. Accompanying their sole win was a trio of losses to the New York Giants, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and the Atlanta Falcons—three teams whose defenses finished 2012 at the bottom of the rankings. To blame was a dysfunctional offense. Quarterback Cam Newton had his hands full, and as his moniker suggested, he was indeed “Superman” for the unit. His statistics were lukewarm, with seven total touchdowns to five interceptions, but without their multifaceted super-weapon taking chances with the football, the Panthers were likely a three or four win team. Anything could happen on a Sunday afternoon, but this contest, especially coming after a confusing loss to the Rams, felt like a get-right game for the emerging Seahawks, and that its defense would be too much for Superman Cam to big-play his team to a victory.
The Offense Struggles Once Again
Thus far, the 2012 season had certainly been a feel-good one. With the Seahawks turning in big plays, and squeaking out exciting victories, the spirit of winning football was finally back, with fans quickly realizing this team was more dominant than lucky. Yet, even excited fans noticed that the Seahawks had one obstacle they could not overcome: themselves. The Panthers game was no different. Three holding penalties cost the offense a 56-yard completion and two Marshawn Lynch break-out runs, totaling 31-yards. An 11-yard end around was negated due to an unnecessary roughness penalty. Add a pick-six by Russell Wilson, a Leon Washington fumble on a kick return, and a bobbled catch by Lynch that lead to an interception, and it was a miracle the team was in the game at all.
As had been the case all season, Lynch, the NFL’s leading rusher, was called on not only to gain yards on the ground, but to set up a play-action attack that was finally finding its stride.
The general idea of the play action pass was to use a series of plays that were consecutive runs, or where the same down was consecutively a running play, to bait the opposing defense into expecting a run and then surprising them with a pass. After snapping the ball, the quarterback would fake a handoff to the running back, and upon coming out of his drop, locate a receiver who had hopefully run to the vacant part of the field. In order for play-action to work, the offense likely had to be producing running yards despite the best effort from the defense to stop the run. Fortunately for the Seahawks, Lynch was designed to set-up the play action. His wide running stance made him nearly impossible to tackle on a first effort, and he almost always gained positive yardage, even if he was hit in the backfield.
On 1st and 10, Bevell called a run for Lynch off the left tackle. The Panthers linebackers cheated on the run, but despite Thomas Davis being in the backfield, Lynch found a crease for a three-yard gain. On the next play, Lynch carried the ball up the middle, once again surviving contact at the line of scrimmage. On third down, Wilson completed a short throw for a first down, setting up the next series of downs.
The Panthers were playing a “Cover-2,” a look designed around the principle that both safeties would play deep and try to keep the play in front of them. In this instance, the Panthers safeties were so deep, they were not even in-camera. With the Seahawks’ having two tight ends bunched low, linebacker Luke Kuechly (59) had a decision to make. Play to Lynch or drop back into his zone. At the snap, Kuechly got caught. He could not help himself from believing the offense had run on first down again. And he was right to be suspicious. The Seahawks had run on seven of the previous eight first downs. Kuechly’s bite on Lynch cost him. He retreated as fast as he could, but Wilson put in a bullet to the uncovered portion of the field for a thirty yard gain.
The two plays preceding this one were off-tackle runs by Lynch, one gaining 8 yards and the other 11. Faced with Lynch in the backfield with fullback Michael Robinson (26) and seven men on the line of the scrimmage, the Panthers once again keyed-in on Lynch. Yet, this time the Panther’s fixation on Lynch led them into fooling themselves. In the Panther’s defensive system, cornerback Captain Munnerlyn (41) was a wildcard player, some kind of hybrid-corner/safety/terrible idea. On this play, cornerback Josh Norman (24) and Captain Munnerlyn (41) were on the high side of the field, leaving the secondary imbalanced, with no true corner to cover down low. Quarterback Russell Wilson recognized the vacancy and changed the play. By tapping his foot, he communicated to Lynch to exit the backfield and motion out as a wide receiver. Lynch dragged down strong safety Charles Godfrey (30). Now faced with the prospect that Seattle would pass the ball, the Panthers defense fell instantly into disarray amongst a flurry of coverage shifts. Linebackers Kuechly and Davis were communicating, most likely deciding Kuechly would take over for Godfrey and Davis would take over for Kuechly. Meanwhile, cornerback Norman was shouting at Munnerlyn, causing Munnerlyn to approach the line of scrimmage, as if he were a linebacker.
One had to admire the trick. By simply moving Lynch, the Panthers now had a linebacker playing as a safety and a safety playing as a linebacker.
At the snap, Kuechly, Davis and Munnerlyn each dropped back to cover the same section of field, with the three in a straight line. Kuechly didn’t take over for the safety, Davis didn’t cover the center of the field, and Munnerlyn let Miller run right by him. Wilson did a great job with his body language. When he bailed on his first read, he lulled Kuechly, Davis and Munnerlyn into believing the throw was a dump-off pass to Robinson, who had run underneath. Instead, Wilson went deep, completing to Miller for 23-yards.
This Sunday was also the first match-up between two rookie inside-linebackers, both of whom were quickly establishing themselves as the future super-talent of the league, the Panthers’ Luke Kuechly and the Seahawks’ Bobby Wagner. Kuechly, who was drafting with the 9th pick in the 1st round, had an up-and-down day, while Wagner, a second-round pick, played yet another gem. For an inside linebacker, Wagner was considered undersized, but his mixture of speed and ferocity more than compensated for any shortcomings in his physique.
On this play, Wagner (56) was to run a stunt for defensive end Chris Clemons (91), but when Newton (1) saw Jonathan Stewart (28) whiff on KJ Wright (50), he immediately flushed out of the pocket. Wagner was able to disengage from Jordan Gross (69), and then, instead of chasing Newton laterally, he pursued Newton by running deeper into the backfield. Certainly, this gutsy decision shortened the distance he had to travel, but had Newton made it past him, it put Newton in open field, where he was a dangerous running threat. Wagner’s closing speed was stunning, and he had Cam’s legs wrapped up, tumbling Cam to the ground.
The Defense Turns In Another Strong Day.
Out of eleven offensive drives, the Panthers had five three and outs, and another two drives couldn’t even be three and outs because the opening set of downs were cut short by a pair of strip-fumbles by Brandon Browner and Bruce Irvin, with Irvin’s fumble icing the game. Quite simply, the Seahawks defense was a terrifying weapon of destruction, and while the superstar secondary was stealing most of the headlines, the Seahawks’ rotation of defensive linemen were primarily responsible for most of the chaos tormenting opposing quarterbacks. The Seahawks not only had depth, they were versatile. To go with its stable of pass-rushers were the likes of Brandon Mebane and Clinton McDonald to clog up the interior run game. These assets forced opposing offenses to abandon the run and put opposing quarterbacks in positions where they had to throw the ball either early or late.
On this play, the defensive line was shifted to the high side of the field. Above Alan Branch (99) were Jason Jones (90) and Bruce Irvin (51). At the snap, Branch drew the center Ryan Kalil (67), and by moving low, removed Kalil from the play, creating one-on-one matchups on the outside. At the top, Irvin ran outside right tackle Byron Bell (77), twisting Bell away from the play. Mano-a-mano with right guard Garry Williams (65) and a lane on either side of him, Jones used an arm swipe to cast Williams aside and cut into the backfield. The rush interrupted Newton’s process of setting his feet. As a result, the pass lost power quickly, allowing safety Earl Thomas (29) to jump the route. He was unable to bring in the interception.
On the next play, the defense doubled down on the same concept. Branch (99) was on the center with Jason Jones (90) and Bruce Irvin (51) up-top. In addition, Bobby Wagner (54) was lined up above Irvin with Thomas was playing at the linebacker level, beneath Branch. The Panthers responded to the previous play by putting fullback Mike Tolbert (35) and tight end Greg Olsen (88) in the backfield. Once again, Newton was unable to achieve a proper throwing motion. The pass came out lazy. Wide receiver Steve Smith (89) had to throw cornerback Richard Sherman (25) to have any shot at a catch. The heat brought by the defensive line had enabled Sherman to take a few risks against Smith, who was one of the league’s best deep threats. Playing in press coverage, Sherman leaped forward, putting his palm into Smith’s chest. The hit threw Smith off his route and he was desperately trying to catch up to the first down marker when he collided with Sherman, who was awaiting the interception.
Two potential turnovers for the Legion of Boom on consecutive plays were caused by the defensive line. These plays showed how disrupting the timing of an offense was an important element in creating turnover opportunities.
Another Close Victory
The Seahawks were 3-2 and should’ve easily been 5-0, if not for failed game-winning drives against the Arizona Cardinals and the St Louis Rams. The team was a feisty unit, capable of sticking around in any game and of cultivating a big play or two if they kept at it, but their success was not without its question marks. The combined record of the Seahawks opponents was a respectable 12-12, with a victory against Green Bay that many felt was controversial. What the Seahawks needed was an unquestionable victory against one of the league’s elite teams. Only when they passed such a test could they gain the respect they felt they deserved and be considered contenders. Well, the team was about to get its shot—against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.