by Sharon Thorsland
The Panthers face a daunting task this weekend - taking on the Seattle Seahawks at Century Link Field. (Kick-off is set for 8:30 Sunday night, WBT’s coverage starts with the pre game show at 5:30). “The Link” is one of the toughest venues in the NFL, and making things even more difficult - the Panthers offensive line has been decimated by injury in the past weeks, to the point that former practice squad player Tyler Larsen will make his NFL debut at center on Sunday. The defense is having its own injury woes - linebacker Luke Kuechly and starting safety Kurt Coleman are in the concussion protocol and aren’t expected to play. But no one’s throwing in the towel. “Injuries are part of the game. Nobody feels sorry for you,” says tight end Greg Olsen. “There is still going to be a game on Sunday. Seattle doesn’t care. Just have to keep rolling.”
The Seahawks are having their own problems this season. With Pro Bowl running back Marshawn Lynch retired, the run game has struggled. After finishing last season ranked 3rd in rushing, the Seahawks have fallen to 27th averaging just 89 yards a game. That’s led to some inconsistent performances - the Seahawks beat the Patriots but lost to the 49ers and to the Bucs last week, and are now 7-3-1 on the season.
While the Seahawks offense has had its ups and downs, the defense has been outstanding. They’re the NFL’s stingiest bunch, allowing just 17th points in the game. As usual the defense is headlined by its “Legion of Boom” secondary. Pro Bowl cornerback Richard Sherman leads the team with four interceptions. DeShawn Snead is nursing a hamstring injury so Jeremy Lane has been starting on the other side. Hard hitting safety Kam Chancellor teams with fellow Pro Bowler Earl Thomas, who's expected to return this week from a hamstring injury.
The Seahawks can get after the quarterback - defensive end Cliff Avril leads the team with 10 sacks and has four forced fumbles. His running mate, Pro Bowl end Michael Bennett, is back from a knee injury this week, and backup Frank Clark has done an outstanding, racking up 7.5 sacks. Edge rusher Bruce Irvin is now a Raider but the Seahawks sill have Pro Bowl middle linebacker Bobby Wagner, he leads the team in tackles. They'll face a Panther offense that is 10th in the NFL averaging 25 points a game. “Nobody has as many run styles as they do because of the quarterback and what he adds,” says Seahawks coach Pete Carroll. “And they’re still making plays and chucking the ball down the field to their big guys, they have a tremendous receiving crew. And anytime you have Jonathan Stewart back there, he’s a problem.”
The Panthers will have their own problems with Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson. The former NC State standout is a dual threat - he's thrown for over 2800 yards and 11 touchdowns with just 4 interceptions, and he's picked up 159 yards and another score on the ground. Wilson has plenty of weapons, starting with receiver Doug Baldwin, he's got 61 catches and 5 touchdowns. Long time Panther nemesis Jimmy Graham starts at tight end, he's got 51 grabs and 4 scores. Jermaine Kearse and 2nd year player Tyler Lockett have combined for nearly 700 yards. Second year back Thomas Rawls is back from injury and leads the running attack, he teams with rookie C.J. Prosise, he’s a big play threat who's averaging 5.7 yards per carry.
These teams know each other well, they've faced off seven times in the past five seasons. The Panthers won the past two match-ups, most recently the NFC divisional playoff game last year in Charlotte. And while the cards might be stacked against them, they’re looking at game as a must-win. “Big game coming up,” says receiver Ted Ginn junior. “We’ve gotta go out and keep fighting. Every game from here on out is a big game, it’s a playoff atmosphere from here on out.