CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Panthers say their first order of business Sunday is slowing down Seattle’s running game, which is triggered by quarterback Russell Wilson and spearheaded by running back Marshawn Lynch.
And they feel they have the pieces in place to do just that.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera says his team is better equipped to stuff the run this season after drafting 300-pound defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short with their first two picks and signing another giant space eater in Colin Cole to go along with veteran Dwan Edwards.
The Panthers also have Jon Beason back from an injury, helping solidify a solid linebacker corps that includes Luke Kuechly, the NFL’s leading tackler last season, and Thomas Davis.
“We have four big stout physical football players up front that can help our guys and allow our linebackers to run,” Rivera said.
The guy they’ll be chasing primarily is Lynch.
And he’s tough to stop.
Lynch has run for more yards than any running back in the league since November of 2011. He had 85 yards rushing on 21 carries in Seattle’s 16-12 win over Carolina last October.
The Seahawks last year went to the en vogue zone read offense – a system where a mobile quarterback has the option to handoff or keep the ball as the play develops – something the Panthers used extensively the last two seasons with Cam Newton.
Lynch has been the beneficiary of that scheme.
Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said Lynch reported to training camp this summer in great shape and eager to pick up where he left off last season, rushing for more than 100 yards in eight of Seattle’s final 10 games.
“He’s looked fast, and agile, and strong and has prepared every single day full on,” Carroll said. “... I haven’t seen him like this. I haven’t seen him this sharp going in to a season. He’s really taking this seriously. That’s not just like the last month or so, that’s six months of preparation. He’s really poured himself into to prepare for a great year.”
Carolina’s defense has experience defending the zone read in practice over the past two seasons facing Newton, but they haven’t seen it much in games.
With more and more teams installing the zone read, Rivera said he and his staff spent a portion of the offseason meeting with college coaches – though he wouldn’t say which ones – to get their thoughts on how to best defend it.
Still, Carolina struggled to defend it in their lone preseason loss at Philadelphia.
That’s something Rivera attributed to “being stagnant” at the line of scrimmage and reacting instead of attacking.
“When the ball was snapped everybody was trying to see where the quarterback was going,” Rivera said. “It was our first real shot against the zone read. But once we settled in and started to attack and do the things we are capable of, we were able to handle it a lot better. It was a good lesson for us to learn.”
The key, Rivera said, might be the play of Lotulelei, their first-round draft pick from Utah.
Lotulelei struggled against the Eagles, but Rivera said he was outstanding the following week against Baltimore.
“I think that was kind of one of those things that was an awakening for him,” Rivera said. “You’d like to see him continue to be effective inside, continue to push the pocket, hold the point of attack, hold the double team and let the linebackers run.”
On Sunday, the Panthers will find out if they’re good enough to stop Seattle’s offense – and compete with one of the best teams in the NFC.
“There’s excitement about the unknown,” Rivera said. “There’s excitement about what the potential is and what you hope to become.”
NOTES: Panthers SS Mike Mitchell (calf) is doubtful for Sunday. Rivera said Friday if Mitchell can’t play recently signed Quintin Mikell will get the start. ... WR Domenik Hixon (hamstring), defensive tackle Dwan Edwards (thigh) and guard Amini Silatolu (hamstring) are questionable, while LB Jon Beason (knee) and FB Mike Tolbert (hamstring) are probable for Sunday.