The Carolina Panthers will face a much different Seahawks team than they one they beat on October 18th.
It’s been 3 months since the Seahawks played host to the Panthers in Seattle, and do you remember how bleak things looked for the home team then? The 27-23 loss was the second heartbreaking defeat in a row for Seattle, dropped them to 2-4, and put their aspirations of making it back to a third straight Super Bowl in serious doubt. Most troubling was the fact they suffered their fourth late-game defensive meltdown in as many losses, and we saw a dramatic shift in two narratives; CenturyLink isn’t the insurmountable home-field advantage it used to be, and this Seahawks defense isn’t as good as the dominant ones that led the previous two championship runs.
But much has changed since then, at least for the Seahawks, because the truth is that was not the same defense we’re used to. In particular, a few things have changed significantly since then:
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- MLB Bobby Wagner is back. He missed the first Carolina meeting with a strained pectoral.
- Cary Williams is no longer a Seahawk. The CB was so undisciplined and played so poorly that he was benched a month later and released outright in December. He played every snap opposite Richard Sherman in this game. The resulting combo of Jeremy Lane and DeShawn Shead has been a dramatic improvement.
- Frank Clark was inactive for this game, and the rookie defensive linemen has become a major force over the last month.
- Defensive coordinator Kris Richard has gone back to basics. In an attempt to put his own stamp on this unit, he had introduced some new coverage and pressure packages, and communication errors were most to blame for the late-game defensive meltdowns against the Bengals and Panthers. Since making these changes, things have been slightly better I’d say:
- And offensively, the Seahawks are a completely different team than the one that faced Carolina. The offensive line is dramatically improved, and they’ve taken on a much more balanced look since injuries to Jimmy Graham, Marshawn Lynch and Thomas Rawls forced Darrell Bevel to place more responsibility in the hands of Russell Wilson.
In the first meeting, Lynch returned after missing the Cincinnati game and gained 54 yards on 17 carries through three quarters before being forced to sideline with another injury. Wilson turned his attention to Graham for most of the offenses production, hitting the TE 8 times for 140 yards. But perhaps the most substantial difference in the Seahawks offense since that time is the emergence of WR Doug Baldwin. Shortly after this game, Baldwin’s role expanded, and his production skyrocketed. 12 of his 14 touchdown receptions have come since then.
Meanwhile, the Panthers don’t look much different than they did then.
They’re a 15-1 team with a probable MVP QB in Cam Newton, an outstanding defense, and strong running game. In fact, much as been made about how the Panthers have been built in the same image as Seattle.
How well they match up with THIS version of the Seahawks, a much different one than they beat in October, is the biggest question heading into Sunday’s divisional round playoff game.