Why are the Carolina Panthers 1-10? In short, their offense is egregiously horrible.
DeAngelo Williams, their leading rusher with 361 yards, hasnt played since Week 7 and was lost for the season in early November to a sprained foot. The Seahawks suddenly sub-par run defense will have to deal with Mike Goodson and Jonathan Stewart as the teams thunder-and-lightning duo, but with no real aerial threats on this Carolina squad, opposing defenses are stacking the box whenever they want without fear of reprisal.
No Carolina back has enough carries to qualify as a starter in Football Outsiders efficiency metrics, but among those secondary characters, Williams, Goodson, and Stewart all rank near the bottom. Carolinas backs are getting more yards downfield than at or near the line, which is a general indicator that the primary issue is along the front five. The Panthers are getting stuffed (zero or negative yardage) on 20 percent of their running plays, and while that isnt as bad as Seattles 32 percent (the worst in the league), Carolina has no passing factor to make up the difference.
Rookie Jimmy Clausen is the teams leading passer in the same way that Gregory Walcott was the lead actor in the historically bad sci-fi movie Plan 9 From Outer Space its pretty much that they’re required by the NFL to suit someone up at the position, and they might as well find out what they have in the guy who used to throw jump balls to Golden Tate at Notre Dame.
Neither Clausen nor Oregon State grad Matt Moore have been able to amass a passer rating anywhere near the league average the only impressive thing about their numbers is that they are so close to each other in passer rating (Clausen 55.5/Moore 55.6). Football Outsiders metrics for quarterbacks, which adjust for down, distance and opponent, likes them even less Moore and Clausen are the two lowest-ranked qualifying quarterbacks in a cumulative sense, and only former Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme is worse than either in a play-by-play sense.
(Note: Paying Delhomme $7 million guaranteed on a two-year contract may have been the worst quarterback-related move Cleveland Browns czar Mike Holmgren has ever made.)
So, we know that Carolinas offense stinks to high heaven. The problems for the Seahawks could reside on the defensive side of the ball, where the Panthers look league-average at worst and quite good at best. Their front four is decent, but its really the back seven of the defense that gives opposing teams fits.
The Panthers rank 14th in FOs overall defensive metrics, 21st against the run, and 11th against the pass. As weve discussed, Carolina runs a base 4-3 with a lot of zone drops their linebackers tend to cover more than they blitz and they rely on their front four a lot to make run stops and quarterback pressures. They have just 18 sacks to the 33 they have allowed, and end Charles Johnson leads the crew with 6.5.
Linebacker James Anderson, who is probably the most underrated defensive player in the NFL right now, has prevented more successful pass plays than any other outside linebacker who isnt primarily a pure pass-rusher in a 3-4 defense. 41 of the 60 running plays in which hes been involved have fallen short of expected efficiency (45 percent of needed first-down conversion yardage on first down, 60 percent on second down, and 100 percent on third or fourth down), and hes added five passes defenses, 2.5 sacks, and an interception to his overall total. Matt Hasselbeck recently compared middle linebacker Jon Beason to Patrick Willis, which is about as good as it gets.
The defensive back situation is also great for the Panthers, though it isnt quite as defined. Richard Marshall is one starting cornerback, and hes been excellent all season. But Chris Gamble, who has no interceptions all season but eight passes defensed, was benched against the Browns last week for missing a mid-week practice, and replacement Captain Munnerlyn returned an interception 37 yards for a touchdown.
Gamble is expected to start against the Seahawks, but however they do it, Carolina is pretty exceptional against marquee targets they rank fifth in FOs metrics against #1 receivers, first against #2 receivers, and fifth against running backs catching passes. Where they are vulnerable is against tight ends no defense is less efficient against that position and ancillary receivers.
How best to match up against that defense? Last Sunday, the Browns used Brian Robiskie, a bigger receiver, in quick comebacks and slant combinations to counter the zone drops by the linebackers. To make the zone guys come up in coverage then allows the bigger plays up the seams and over the middle to receivers like Ben Obomanu and Deon Butler, but Carolina can be beaten with the short stuff, and using Mike Williams as a primary underneath YAC target should be a very effective strategy. Expect more short passes to Brandon Stokley, and tight end John Carlson should be able to manage a big day with the right number of targets, as well.
In addition, against an offense that really has no firepower to mount any sort of offensive comeback, the Seahawks would do very well to find ways to re-establish the running game they havent had and will need for a successful stretch run over the final four games.