The opener will provide a stern test for third-year quarterback Cam Newton and the Panthers new offense under Mike Shula.
Seattle's defensive scheme is a unique, hybrid defense that combines 3-4 concepts and personnel in a 4-3 look. This allows Pete Carroll to draw up some interesting fronts and blitzes that can confound offensive lines. Behind that front is a talented and physically intimidating secondary that is probably the best in the league. Combine the two and it's no wonder why many have anointed the Seahawks as the best defensive team in the league.
The Panthers, having gotten a taste of just how good Seattle's defense is in a frustrating 16-12 loss last season, will have the first opportunity to put a dint in the Hawks' neon green armor Sunday.
While Seattle held Newton and the Panthers' offense to only a field goal -- the defense chipped in with a pick-six and a safety -- Carolina shot itself in the foot numerous times to kill promising drives (see the video below). If the Panthers had been a little crisper and Newton a little more accurate, the Panthers may have ran away with the game.
Despite Newton's woeful performance against Seattle, his skill-set actually matches up quite well with the Seahawks' formidable defense.
With so much talent in the defensive backfield, the Seahawks don't need to rely on tricks and disguises to hide their intentions. They do very little to hide what coverage they're in before the play. With the rangy Earl Thomas patrolling the deep middle, the Seahawks are able to drop Kam Chancellor in to the box to help in run support.
With only one safety deep, the Seahawks are ostensibly telling the offense they are in Cover-1 with man coverage underneath or a Cover-3 zone coverage. Making the pre-snap read even easier, the corners will play off the receiver when in zone and press when in man coverage almost every time.
Given the threat that Newton poses with his legs in the Read Option, Seattle played mostly Cover-3 (man coverage is vulnerable against the run game), which has some weak areas along the sidelines against the pass. With his arm strength, Cam is excellent on sideline throws, which are made easier given the cushion provided by cornerbacks, who are in deep coverage.
The Cover-3 also provides an easy read for Newton on the deep-dig route to Steve Smith. With LaFell on a shallow cross and Smith crossing at 15-yard depth, the linebackers are put in a precarious position and Newton can hit whomever they decide to leave open.
One of the more interesting features of Seattle's hybrid defense is their use of Red Bryant as a defensive end. At 6-foot-4, 323 pounds, Bryant is a 4-3 end in name only. He was converted from a defensive tackle and his role resembles more of a run-stopping 3-4 end's than a classic pass rusher's, like Carolina's Charles Johnson.
Bryant's presence makes it tough to run at that side of Seattle's line, but his lack of mobility can be exploited with the Read Option. In Seattle's playoff win over the Washington Redskins, Robert Griffin III had a lot of success "reading" Bryant before being hampered by what turned out to be an ACL tear.
Carolina didn't have notable success with the Read Option against Seattle last year, but they mostly ran it away from Bryant and at the much nimbler Chris Clemons, who did a great job of forcing Newton to hand the ball off before quickly changing course toward the running back:
With the Read Option struggling, the Panthers went away from it, which allowed Seattle to start playing more man-to-man in the second half. With Seattle defenders running step-for-step with Panthers receivers, Newton's accuracy struggles on that day became even more of an issue.
The Panthers' game plan for Sunday's game should include some more Read Option plays at Bryant which should open up passing lanes for Newton. If he can take advantage of them, which he couldn't do a year ago, the Panthers offense should be able hold its own against the league's most talented defense and keep the game close.