The Trenches- Panthers Offensive Line vs. Seattle Front Seven
I'm just going to say it since we all know it; The Panthers offensive line has been downright atrocious during the preseason. Carolina heads into this game with two veterans in Jordan Gross and Ryan Kalil, and then a few question marks. Amini Silatolu has not only been dreadful during the preseason, he may not even play due to injury. Then we have the turnstile in Byron Bell and the largely inconsistent Garry Williams on the right side. Thankfully Travelle Wharton will be returning to the lineup at Guard, though he may see limited action. Last season, Cam Newton had arguably the worst game of his entire career when this offensive line hit the brick wall that is Seattle's front seven, as the Panthers couldn't even dent them running the ball and Cam threw for a measly 141 yards. We cannot afford to have another game like this if the Panthers hope to win this game.
The saving grace for Carolina is that a lot of Seattle's fearsome pass rush won't be on the field Sunday. Bruce Irvin starts his suspension, Chris Clemons won't play while still recovering from his knee injury in the 2012 playoffs, Cliff Avril is nursing a hamstring, and Seattle's two starting defensive tackles are battling groin injuries. Still, Red Bryant is a massive problem for the run game at defensive end, and Michael Bennett will fill in. Seattle's young linebacking corp could cause a lot of issues for the passing and run game, as KJ Wright and Bobby Wagner return from a stellar 2012 campaign. The Panthers will have to keep Cam Newton upright and create holes for the running backs to win the trench battle, something I'm not very optimistic about.
The Receivers vs. Defensive Backs
This is another matchup that looks bleak. As far as starters go, the Seattle secondary is definitely in the conversation for best in the league. Three of their four starters have made the Pro Bowl, with many likely on the way for Richard Sherman. They're big, they're fast, and they're nasty. Meanwhile, aside from the ageless wonder that is Steve Smith, none of the receivers on roster can really match up well at all to Sherman and Brandon Browner. That being said, the Panthers will probably try to see what they can get out of Walter Thurmond, Seattle's nickel cornerback.
Greg Olsen will also figure into the passing game, and we saw him open many times last time he played Seattle, only to run back to the line of scrimmage following an incompletion. However, Bobby Wagner and the Seattle linebackers will also factor in, and I still don't see this matchup being favorable towards Carolina. Olsen will need to be a big factor, and Steve Smith will have to improve on his 40 yard performance from 2012 against Seattle.
The Trenches: Panthers Front Seven vs. Seahawks Offensive Line
Marshawn Lynch has been a dominant force since entering Seattle and reinvigorating their running attack to become the best since Shaun Alexander. However, last time these teams met the Panthers held Lynch in check, keeping him under 100 yards (85 yards on 21 carries). This was due in large part to the man who reinvigorated the rush defense, Luke Kuechly. However, the Panthers fell due to the lack of pass rush and eventually giving up points.
This time around, Carolina has a few new toys to play with. The Panthers top two draft picks should see a lot of action in this game, as Star Lotulelei appears "as advertised" at nose tackle while Kawann Short created a lot of pass rush from the under tackle position during the preseason. And then there's the ever so scary Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy coming off the edges. Seattle's offensive line isn't bad on paper, not by a long shot. But the Panthers were able to generate pass rush on an arguably better offensive line in Baltimore. It remains to be seen if Carolina can stop the run and create interior pressure with a rookie nose tackle and a rotation of a stop gap in Dwan Edwards and rookie Kawann Short at under tackle. But the preseason has been promising to say the least for this young front seven. The read option can be scary, but much like Williams and Stewart, Lynch is far more productive in a traditional rushing attack. I'm giving the edge to Monsters Inc. in this one.
Defensive Backs vs. Wide Receivers
Seattle goes in to this game lacking their shiny new offseason toy in Percy Harvin, but they still have largely the same group that brought them to the playoffs. Sidney Rice and Golden Tate head this group, with a reliable Zach Miller at tight end. Meanwhile, Carolina rolls in with a few question marks in the secondary. Captain Munnerlyn and Josh Thomas will start at cornerback, with Josh Norman taking over outside duties in nickel formations while Munnerlyn kicks back to nickel. It is a little perplexing that Captain Munnerlyn is starting over preseason sensation Josh Norman, who lead the league in takeaways in a very solid showing all preseason. But c'est la vie. At Safety, Charles Godfrey returns to his more natural Free Safety spot, while Quintin Mikell and Mike Mitchell will likely share duties at strong safety. Mikell and Mitchell are largely the same style of player (talented at rush support and blitzing, could be a liability in coverage), but Mikell likely gets the majority of snaps on Sunday after being acquired this past week. Jon Beason, Thomas Davis, and Luke Kuechly will also have a big impact on the success of Seattle's passing attack as well.
On paper, Seattle blows Carolina's defensive backfield* (correction) out of the water. However, there was one noticeable, albeit understandable trend throughout the preseason; When Carolina's front seven generates pass rush and shuts down the run, Carolina's secondary plays much better by proxy. When the front seven isn't doing its job, the secondary gets gashed (a la Philadelphia). If the secondary is given the ability to go after turnovers due to the pass rush, the secondary can create problems for Seattle. But the secondary itself does not win this matchup without pass rush, so I must give the edge to Seattle here.
Edge: Seattle (depending on front seven play)
The Carolina Panthers are statistically the NFL's worst team on opening day, with a record of 6-12 all time. That means that the Panthers have only won a third of their opening day games. Of those 12 losses, the Panthers have only made the playoffs ONCE following that loss. The last time Carolina won the opening day game, it was in 2008 against a very good Chargers team. Carolina went on to go 12-4 and clinch NFC divisional playoff berth (but we all know how that went).
Bottom line, people often say "its not how you start, its how you finish". This is true, but starting strong certainly helps. This is Carolina's chance to come out and prove that we aren't some sub .500 team, and roll over the Super Bowl favorites in a game that many would label as a "trap game" for Seattle. I'm not usually one to get my hopes up, but if the defense can shut down Seattle's offense (as much, if not more than last season), we may see the first opening day win in five years here in Charlotte.