Referring back to my article from earlier this week, I shared a poll asking the fans which matchup would be most important from a trenches to secondary standpoint. And the near unanimous vote became the trenches, both sides of the ball. And I'd have to agree.
Jordan Gross vs. Michael Bennett
With Chris Clemons and Bruce Irvin (suspension) out and Cliff Avril doubtful, Red Bryant, Michael Bennett, and O'Brien Schofield will likely take over pass rushing duties at defensive end for Sunday's game. While Seattle's pass rush wasn't the best in the league last season, the Panthers' offensive line has struggled against seemingly every team in the preseason. In addition, Seattle added two pass rushers in Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett. While Avril won't play, Michael Bennett will, and he is a name many Carolina fans know well. The former college free agent lead a relatively pedestrian career, until last season he amassed 9 sacks for the Buccaneers.
With the injuries plagueing the defensive ends for Seattle, Bennett will see a great deal of snaps as a pass rusher along with Schofield rotating in and out. The Panthers offensive line has struggled all preseason, and we've seen a clear regression in Jordan Gross' game. He and Byron Bell will need to do a good job blocking against Bennett and Red Bryant to keep Cam Newton upright. And with Bell's struggles as the Panthers worst pass blocking lineman, Gross will likely see one on one matchups all day against Michael Bennett. And with Seattle's stout rush defense going up against the Panthers' woeful rushing attack, pass protection will likely become even more important.
The biggest reason we've seen defensive success all around has been front seven play. Last time these teams met, the Luke Kuechly-led front seven kept Marshawn Lynch to under 100 yards, a mark that had become habitual for Lynch to break. This time around, Seattle will likely try to neutralize Kuechly (as best they can). A big part of preventing this will be defensive line play. If Star can take up double teams and still make plays, Kuechly should be able to fly around like Superman, instead of remain grounded like Clark Kent. However, Seattle may go for a single block approach to allow blockers to get to the next level.
Max Unger is a Pro Bowl center, and he will be tasked with neutralizing interior pass rush and penetration. This will be a big task for Lotulelei, who while bright during the preseason has never played a full NFL game. This could be a coming out party for Lotulelei, or just as easily a "welcome to the NFL" moment.
Seattle's physical corners in Browner and Sherman will surely give Steve Smith and Brandon LaFell fits at the line of scrimmage. As a result, last season Cam threw one of his worst games ever against Seattle. However, Cam missed Greg Olsen wide open on multiple occasions. As the saying goes "You live, you learn". Cam Newton and the coaching staff surely went over the game tape from last season multiple times over to find weaknesses. Greg Olsen should be an easily noticeable tool for improvement.
Olsen will likely see a lot more targets this game. Cam cannot lock in on Steve Smith, and if he is able to resist the urge should see Olsen getting open. But Chancellor and Thomas are both former Pro Bowlers, and will look to stop this from happening all together.
Brad Nortman vs. Jon Ryan
See guys! I was going to get to special teams eventually!
The last time these two teams met, much of the game was a battle for field position. The Panthers often lost this battle, as Nortman struggled for most of his rookie season punting the ball. Jon Ryan on the other hand blasted the ball and left Cam and Co. without much wiggle room often times. This game appears no different with the two fearsome front sevens coming to town. Nortman demonstrated quite a bit of progression during the preseason, consistently booting the ball into the high 40's as far as yardage goes. I know, its just preseason, but its tough to argue that a punter could "get lucky" during the preseason as punting is fairly universal. This could be the biggest battle of all, due to a below average o-line in Carolina but what's looking to be a potent defense.