Keys To A Carolina Upset In Week 1
By Blake Baxter
At long last, the 2013 NFL season is upon us. Seven long months have elapsed since the Baltimore Raven were crowned champions of the Harbaugh Bowl. On Thursday, the defending champs kicked off against the Denver Broncos. On Sunday, the rest – aside from a quartet of teams that play on Monday Night – will officially take the field for the first time this season. One of the first teams to play on Sunday will be the intriguing Carolina Panthers as they face the heavily favored Seattle Seahawks.
I spent the better part of the summer fastidiously poring over season statistics, ferociously devouring game recaps and voraciously consuming all Carolina Panthers-related news. I eagerly pursued any sign of potential Panther success, leaving no stone unturned in my search. And through it all, I managed to compile a fairly compelling case that Carolina could surprise some people this season. Last week, I rounded up all of the "if’s" and "might’s" the Panthers would need to go their way to have a successful season. Before I took a glance at the schedule, I was hopeful they might have an easy game or two to start off the season on a good note for a change, before they had to face any contenders. But it was not to be. Instead, we will get our first chance to see how things are going to shake out against a Seahawks team that is not only favored to win the game, but also to go deep in the playoffs. Yikes.
Last season, when the teams faced each other in Carolina in Week 5, the Seahawks edged the Panthers 16-12. But the Seahawks were a different team at that stage of the season. They had a rookie quarterback, a young team overall and had showed potential but also had clearly not fully gelled yet. They were just 2-2 at the time. It was September – two months before things started clicking and Seattle won seven of their last eight in the regular season and beat the Washington Redskins in the Wild Card round. This year, the 'Hawks enter the season riding a wave of hype as they have been selected as a Super Bowl favorite far and wide. However, that does not mean that the Seahawks are guaranteed to walk away with this one. Sure, the Seahawks have a strong offense that got on a roll last year (in the second half of the season, only the Patriots scored more points), one of the league’s best defenses (last season, Seattle gave up the fewest points in the league and held the Panthers to 12 points and a paltry 190 yards in their matchup last season) and they actually care about the well-being of their players. And yet, they still have a few little holes, due in large part to injuries and suspensions, but holes nonetheless.
Seattle will be without premier receiver Percy Harvin, who got hurt this offseason before ever playing so much as a preseason game for Seattle. DE Bruce Irvin has been suspended the first four games for performance enhancing drugs, something that has not been all that uncommon in Seattle the past couple of seasons. In all honesty though, this is nitpicking; the Seahawks have plenty of pieces to fill in here and there. So, what do the Panthers need to do to pull off an upset against a team like this?
Spread The Ball Around
For the past two seasons, WR Steve Smith has been Cam Newton’s favorite target. The fact that he is responsible for just a quarter of Newton’s career total completions is a little surprising, perhaps because it seems that Newton looks for Smith far more than that. Against Seattle, CBs Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner will look to shut Smith down and force Newton to look for other options. Although it is not a guarantee that this will happen – Smith might be a step slower that he used to be, but he is still crafty – Newton will want to spread the ball around anyway. Look for Newton to be feeding up-and-coming wideout Brandon LaFell as well as veteran TE Greg Olsen and newcomer Domenik Hixon.
Get The Running Game Going Early
For the most part, 2012 was a tough year for Carolina running backs. Starting RB DeAngelo Williams regressed from his 2011 stats, which were not close to his peak in his 2008 and 2009 heyday. Jonathan Stewart struggled with injuries and produced his career worst numbers in limited action while new addition Mike Tolbert did not provide the punch that he did in San Diego the previous two seasons. However, the Panthers focused on their running game more towards the end of the season and it paid off, as they finished the season with a four game win streak. They start off the season with Stewart on the physically unable to perform list, but they added a pair of young legs in Kenjon Barner that could give their running game a jolt that it was lacking last season. It is important that the Panthers get the running game going to avoid putting pressure on Newton to do it all.
Have The Secondary Step Up
Carolina’s secondary has been a much-maligned bunch throughout this offseason – and not totally without reason. When talented but undersized fan favorite Captain Munnerlyn is your top cornerback, questions are more than warranted. The Panthers brought in veteran CB Drayton Florence in the offseason, only to cut him earlier this week. Second year CB Josh Norman won the job with a stellar preseason. Veteran SS Charles Godfrey moved over to the free safety spot, leaving a void to be filled by Mike Mitchell, who has only started nine games in his five-year NFL career. This hodgepodge will have their hands full – even without having to worry about Harvin – just trying to contain Sidney Rice and Golden Tate. They will have to step up and silence their doubters or they will get run over by Russell Wilson and the high-powered Seattle offense.
It will undoubtedly be an uphill battle, but if Carolina does those three things, then they could have a chance to knock off the mighty Seahawks.