Special teams is one of the most - if not the most - important aspects of a football game regardless of the competition level. Whether it be the NFL, college, community college, high school, pee-wee, or the pick-up game you'll play on Saturday in front of the stadium of your choosing after eating five pounds of wings and downing a six pack of Keystone Light (or if you're so inclined - a refreshing hefeweizen); the story remains the same - special teams matter.
Let's be real here: if they didn't matter, we wouldn't call them special teams. The word special is in there for a reason, and that reason is because it's important. Teams win and lose games every single week in every single football league in America (and sometimes Canada) because of great or poor special teams play. Sure, it's convenient to make fun of the special-teamers as if they're not really part of the team because a lot of times they're just guys who weren't good enough to get playing time elsewhere, but the fact still remains - special teams are vital to a team's overall chance at winning a football game on any given day.
This tilt between the Panthers and Seahawks is no different. For the Panthers to win this Sunday, they are going to have to win in all three phases of the game, and that includes special teams. It's probably the understatement of the decade to say this, but I'm going to say it anyway: the Panthers have struggled lately in special teams execution (unless we're talking about the usage of execution that denotes death, because they've been pretty good at killing any chances of winning since 1987*), and if the Panthers stand any chance at heading into their bye at 2-3 they have to execute on special teams. (This time I'm not talking about the application of the word that means death, but you probably figured that out on your own.)
* - Yes, I know the Panthers didn't start playing until 1995, but that's how bad the special teams unit has been in Carolina. They were so putrid, they were losing games before there was even a team on the field. Go ahead and wrap your head around that one for a minute.
If you've managed to keep reading this far down the page, you're probably wondering why I haven't made it to the point of this preview yet, but fear not; we're about to break down four things:
- Carolina's punter/kicker vs. Seattle's punt/kick returners
- Seattle's punter/kicker vs. Carolina's punt/kick returners
- Carolina's kicker vs. Seattle's kicker
- The Special Teams X-Factor
If that doesn't excite you, then you need to check yourself for a pulse. (Sorry, but it's true.) At any rate, let's get this party started, shall we?
Carolina's punter/kicker vs. Seattle's punt/kick returners
By now you're well aware of my admiration of Panthers punter Brad "The Living Legend" Nortman. While I think he's on the road to being the first punter to make the NFL Hall of Fame, I do realize that contrary to popular belief he is in fact a mere mortal. He's only one cog in the Panthers' special teams machine, and since this is a team breakdown I have to give credit where it's due: Seattle is better at returning punts than we are at covering them.
Their punt returner Leon Washington, who will forever be part of one of the all time best moments in Panthers history, is pretty good. While he is currently averaging a pedestrian 8 yards per return, he has broken one off for 52 yards this year, and given the Panthers sometimes inexplicable inability to tackle a return man; he just might break another one of those off in this game. Hopefully Nortman is able to channel his inner Jason Baker and swat at his feet before he's able to take it to the end zone - should Washington be gutsy enough to try and run past Nortman.*
* - Leon, if you're reading this: I wouldn't do that if I were you.
While Washington is middle of the road as a punt returner, he's been quite dangerous as a kick returner this season. He hasn't broken one for a touchdown yet, but he's the league leader in kick return average at 37.7 yards per return. Add in the fact that Carolina also forgets how to tackle return men on kickoffs, and this becomes even more dangerous for the Panthers. To neutralize Washington, Panthers kicker Justin Medlock is going to have to kick the ball deep enough in the end zone to prevent him from being able to return the kick, eliminating one weakness in the Panthers special teams unit and increasing the defense's chance at keeping the Seahawks out of the end zone.
Seattle's punter/kicker vs. Carolina's punt/kick returners
It's no secret that Carolina isn't a dominate force in the return game. Until Kealoha Pilares returned a kickoff for a touchdown last year against Detroit, Panthers fans hadn't seen a kickoff returned for a touchdown from the hometown team since 2003 when Rod "He Hate Me" Smart went the distance against some team that I don't remember and don't really want to look up because it's really not that important in the context of this article. The point is - Panthers kickoff return touchdowns don't happen very often, and we shouldn't really expect to see one this Sunday.
Carolina is 17th in the league in average kick return yards with 23.7 yards per return. It's not an amazing number for sure, but on the bright side, when the Panthers do decide to return the kick they're at least getting it past the 20 yard line. While it's not set in stone that he will be returning kicks on Sunday, as of right now Pilares is scheduled to be the man for the job, and he'll probably just take a knee every time unless Steven Hauschka doesn't kick it in the end zone. (Hopefully Pilares will attempt a return if that happens, because if not there's no need for him to be there because that would mean he's terrible at his job.)
Seattle's punter is pretty good (though he's no Brad Nortman). Jon Ryan will bring a 50.3 yards per punt average with him to Bank of America Stadium (which, I must add, is generously aided by a 73 yard punt), and we don't even know who Carolina is going to put out there to return punts. The rumor right now is that we will use either Captain Munnerlyn or Armanti Edwards for punt return duties, meaning rookie Joe Adams is still in the doghouse for his 2 fumble performance against the Giants two weeks ago in prime time.
Captain Munnerlyn is a solid punt returner. He's not flashy, and he's not going to give you a highlight reel return, but he's solid. He doesn't cough the ball up, he knows when to fair catch, and he knows how to give consistent results. The same can be said for Armanti Edwards. While a small faction of Panthers fans will argue that it's not even worth our time to put him out on the field, one contribution that Edwards makes for the Panthers is consistency in the return game. Sure, he may not break a long one (and even when he does, there's always a penalty), but the one thing that Edwards doesn't do is fumble the ball. Not fumbling the ball is important for a punt returner, because it's those type of turnovers that can cripple a team and destroy momentum, which allows the opposing team to take advantage of short fields and build sometimes insurmountable leads.*
* - Not that we've ever seen that happen before or anything. I'm just saying that fumbling is bad.
In short, this match-up is easy to call: our kick/punt returners are average, and unless they can make some clutch plays when called into action, they probably won't have much impact on whether or not the Panthers walk away with a victory. As long as they don't screw up and cost the Panthers the game, we shouldn't hear too much noise about them in any post-game analysis.
Carolina's kicker vs. Seattle's kicker
Let's talk about field goals. I would love to break down Medlock's field goal kicking prowess, but it turns out he's only kicked one field goal so far this season (he made it, by the way). I don't know if that's good, bad, or indifferent; but the fact of the matter is I can't really analyze Carolina's field goal unit since we haven't seen them other than for extra points. Basically, if we have to kick a field goal, we have no clue what we're going to get. (That should be fun though. I like surprises, don't you?)
Seattle's kicker is 7/8 on the year, and his miss was from 50+ yards. Carolina's opponents this season are 13/13 in field goals, and Seattle's opponents are 8/8 so far this year. Since Medlock doesn't have enough attempts to justify breaking this segment down, I'm going to call this one pretty much even.
I'm sure you already know who this is before I even type it, but I'm going to type it anyway. The X-Factor in the special teams battle is none other than Brad "The Living Legend" Nortman. If he can give the Panthers an edge in the field position battle - a battle that will ultimately decide who wins this game - then the Panthers should be able to enter a much needed bye week with a 2-3 record after celebrating a victory over the Seahawks.
They key to winning the field position battle starts with Nortman, but it also includes the gunners getting down field and doing their job to prevent any huge returns, and if necessary, downing any punts inside the opponent's 10 yard line to give Seattle a long field to work with when they try to score (hopefully because they're trying to catch up to the Panthers high octane offense that will march up and down the field all day long).
And that, my friends, is all you need to know about the special teams battle between the Panthers and Seahawks this Sunday. Be sure to stay tuned to CSR for more analysis of this week's match-up as we draw closer to game time, and - if you feel inclined - feel free to add some of your own analysis regarding special teams play in the comment thread.