Panthers finally face QB with playoff experience
Seattle's ability to cover Steve Smith and Carolina's ground attack will be among the key issues during the NFC championship game.
Here are five things to look for in next weekend's NFC championship game:
1. For the second consecutive week, the Seahawks face a top cornerback whom they let escape through free agency. First, it was Shawn Springs of the Redskins. Now, it's Ken Lucas of the Panthers. Lucas, in his first season with the Panthers, has had a better year than his former Seahawks teammate, Springs, who left Seattle the previous offseason. The Panthers consider the signing of Lucas this season and the selection of Chris Gamble in the first round of the 2004 NFL draft as two of the keys for their bounce back from a 7-9 season.
Lucas was considered a No. 2 cornerback with the Seahawks, but he's been a No. 1 cornerback and shutdown guy for the Panthers. He was a third alternate to the Pro Bowl. He only allowed one touchdown pass all season. In the Panthers' two playoff victories, Lucas has had interceptions in each game. Thanks to Lucas and Gamble, the Panthers are able to disguise a lot of their plans on defense. They can match up with good receivers in man coverage. That gives them the flexibility to get safety Mike Minter near the line of scrimmage as the eighth defender in the box or gives them the luxury of blitzing. Expect the Panthers to copy the Dallas Cowboys' game plan against the Seahawks. The Cowboys went to more man coverage so they could stack the box to stop Shaun Alexander. Because the Seahawks lack speed at the wide receiver position, defenses can try using an extra defender to stop the run.
The key for the Seahawks is finding a way to beat that single coverage. Because they know Lucas so well, they will try to test him early just like they tested Springs early in the Seahawks-Redskins playoff game. Lucas isn't considered a physical cornerback so Mike Holmgren may try to send big, physical Joe Jurevicius against him. Jurevicius is 6-foot-5, 230 pounds. Lucas is 6-0, 205, which is actually pretty big for a cornerback. On the flip side, the Seahawks replaced Lucas with two corners -- Andre Dyson and Kelly Herndon. Marcus Trufant is the Seahawks' main cover guy, so the Seahawks don't have to put Dyson and Herndon in too many tough positions. The plan has worked out well since both corners have had a chance to start because of injuries in the secondary, which has also allowed the unit to develop depth. Of the two, Dyson is better in coverage than Herndon, who tends to have a lot of passes thrown at him each week. Dyson has battled injuries of late and left the Redskins game because he was banged up.
• X-factor: Seahawks wide receiver Darrell Jackson. Even though he's banged up and not playing at 100 percent, Jackson can take control of a game and makes the Seahawks even more explosive. Jackson is Matt Hasselbeck's favorite target. He runs good routes and he gets behind defenders. After a slow first quarter on Saturday, Jackson came on and caught nine passes for 143 yards and kick-started the Seahawks' passing game. Jackson had a big game last year in a playoff loss to the Rams. The Panthers may have to double Jackson, but that opens up Bobby Engram and Joe Jurevicius.
• X-and-O factor: Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren and Panthers offensive coordinator Dan Henning are two of the most experienced play-callers in football. They've been calling plays for decades, but their styles are so different. Holmgren runs the pure version of the West Coast offense, but he's become very creative in the three-receiver packages he runs. He uses the pass to set up the run, but his play calls out of the three-receiver set have been sharp all season. Henning relies on the run. He'll work out of two-back or two tight end sets. His goal is to run the ball 35-40 times. He'll keep in extra blockers to give Jake Delhomme time to throw down field. Both run effective offenses.
• Rx factor (health): The Panthers are clearly the team that suffered the most as far as injuries during the NFC divisional playoffs. The Panthers lost halfback DeShaun Foster (broken ankle) and defensive end Julius Peppers (shoulder) is questionable for the game. He said he was fine after the Chicago contest, but stay tuned. Middle linebacker Dan Morgan has had a banged up shoulder all season along with other injuries. Morgan plans to play. He was re-injured in the Bears game. Fullback Brad Hoover has been playing despite a bad ankle. Seattle running back Shaun Alexander said he will be fine for Sunday's game. Alexander suffered a concussion in the first quarter and wasn't cleared by doctors to return. He will undergo tests early in the week but he is expected to play against the Panthers. Wide receiver Darrell Jackson has a sore knee that has him playing at 80 percent efficiency and a sore back from an injury suffered during Saturday's game against the Redskins. Jackson will play but might miss a practice or two while he deals with the back spasms. The rest of the Seahawks' injuries are minor. Linebacker D.D. Lewis has a sore foot and an ankle injury. Right tackle Sean Locklear played the whole Washington game with a sore hip. The only backups who might not play are tackle Wayne Hunter (ankle) and defensive end Alain Kashama (hamstring), but they would probably have been inactive anyway.
• Numbers cruncher: Matt Hasselbeck is not only the hottest quarterback in the playoffs, but he's one of the hottest quarterbacks ever this late in the season. His 76.1 completion percentage in December is the best in NFL history, and his 135.5 quarterback rating is the fourth best. In four December games, he threw 10 touchdown passes and only one interception. Though he had a slow start against the Redskins, Hasselbeck settled into a play-calling rhythm and made key audible calls. He completed 16 of 26 for 215 yards and one touchdown against the Redskins and had a 100.6 quarterback rating in the playoff game.
• The Panthers will win if: Nick Goings can get 100 yards rushing or the defense keeps the Seahawks under 300 yards in offense. The good part about John Fox's team is that it can win any type of game. Because of Jake Delhomme, the Panthers can win shootouts. Because of the defense, they can win low-scoring games. It would be in their best interest to play a low-scoring game because the Seahawks have the ability at home to gain momentum and score in bunches.
• The Seahawks will win if: They contain the Panthers' running attack and force Delhomme into a passing game. Delhomme is a riverboat gambler, which makes him vulnerable to coughing up a few interceptions or turnovers. The Panthers can't afford to have two or three more turnovers than the Seahawks. It's hard to win on the road with turnovers.
3. John Fox is rapidly becoming one of the league's best big-game coaches. So the important thing he has to stress this week to his defense is not to be too overconfident. The Panthers' defense plays with an attitude. Their corners can be physical. Their safeties are physical. This was the league's third-best defense, allowing only 282.6 yards a game. Their two playoff wins have come against two inexperienced quarterbacks -- Eli Manning of the Giants and Rex Grossman of the Bears. Grossman is one of the least experienced quarterbacks to ever make the playoffs, having only seven starts in three seasons. The Panthers played games with the heads of those young quarterbacks. It took Manning and Grossman a long time to figure out some of the disguises in the coverages. Matt Hasselbeck won't be so easily fooled. He's been running Mike Holmgren's West Coast offense for five years, and he's becoming one of the most astute quarterbacks in the league. Few can audible to the right protection or the right play call as well as Hasselbeck and that makes him unpredictable. On Saturday against the Redskins, Hasselbeck called an audible that resulted in a 32-yard run by fullback Mack Strong against an all-out Redskins blitz. Nobody -- and I mean nobody -- audibles to a 34-year-old fullback against a Cover Zero defense on a third-and-6 in a critical fourth -quarter moment of a playoff game, but Hasselbeck did. He's constantly audibled all season to weak-side runs to the left for Alexander. Those plays always work. For one, they come out of three-receiver sets, which gives Alexander wide running lanes because an extra defender is taken away from the run to cover a receiver. Secondly, those weak-side runs come to the left side of the Seahawks' offense, which features two Pro Bowlers -- tackle Walter Jones and guard Steve Hutchinson. Alexander has broken a lot of his long runs this year from those audibles. The Panthers will have to figure out ways of stopping them. Hasselbeck has been to the playoffs for three consecutive years, and now he finally has a playoff victory. In the previous two years, he has put them close. He won't make the mistakes made by Manning or Grossman. Like Jake Delhomme, Hasselbeck is playoff tested and dangerous. This will be a tougher test for the Panthers' defense.
4. The key thing to follow will be the shoulder injury suffered by Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers against the Bears. Peppers would have an intriguing matchup against Seahawks right tackle Sean Locklear, one of the biggest surprises of the season. Locklear is much better than people think. He only allowed 5½ sacks this season after filling in for an injured Floyd "Pork Chop" Womack. Locklear has been so surprisingly good that some think he's among the better young right tackles in the conference, which is a surprise because he was drafted in 2004 to be a guard. Locklear has faced great left defensive ends -- Leonard Little of the Rams, Jevon Kearse of the Eagles, Michael Strahan of the Giants and others. Peppers would be an interesting matchup if he can play, but you wonder if the injury will make him more than questionable. He told reporters after the game that he was fine and was going to be able to play. We'll see. That won't be determined until later in the week. If Peppers can't go, the Panthers might have a hard time attacking Hasselbeck from the left side of the defensive line. The Seahawks never give left tackle Walter Jones any help blocking. He's too good to need any help. In two years, he's allowed only 2½ sacks, and he's been on a mission since Osi Umenyiora of the Giants beat him for two of those. That never happens, so he's made it a point to shut out anyone else after that game. Jones draws Mike Rucker, who had 7½ sacks and is one of the savviest pass-rushers in the NFC. Still, the Panthers need Peppers. He's a big playmaker and every offensive line coach has to design packages to stop him. If he's out of the lineup, the Seahawks won't have to keep an extra back in to chip or line up a tight end on the right side. The Seahawks arguably had the best offensive line in football this season. With Robbie Tobeck also going to the Pro Bowl as a replacement, the Seahawks will have three offensive linemen in Honolulu. The Panthers' offensive line is much improved with the additional of Mike Wahle and the move of Jordan Gross to the right side after a year at left tackle. Travelle Wharton has done a nice job at left tackle, and Jeff Mitchell has held up well at center. Tutan Reyes is solid at right guard. Both teams are blessed with good offensive lines, which is why they are successful running the ball.
5. Stopping Steve Smith might be impossible. No one has been able to do it this season. He caught 103 passes for 1,563 yards and 12 touchdowns during the regular season. In two playoff games, he's caught 22 passes for 302 yards and three touchdowns. Because the Panthers do a good job of keeping him in motion, it's hard to have one cornerback cover him. Trufant is the best Seahawks coverage cornerback, but Henning will probably try to get him matched up in motion against Dyson and Herndon. Dyson is the smaller, coverage corner. Herndon is more physical, but he's not as quick. With Smith, though, it doesn't matter. He's so quick and good in routes, he destroys zones and he's hard to stop even in man coverages because he's so good running the routes. Smith is very productive after he catches the ball; this is why he blew everyone else out for the league's lead in yards after the catch (729). Unfortunately, the Panthers haven't done a great job of finding a consistent receiver on the other side of the field. Keary Colbert is no Muhsin Muhammad. He caught only 25 passes as a starting receiver. The Seahawks have to figure a way to double cover Smith and make sure he doesn't get into the end zone. The Seahawks aren't rich in coverage safeties. Their best coverage safety is Jordan Babineaux, who actually filled in as a starting cornerback late in the season. The problem is getting Babineaux on the field because the Panthers don't often go to three-receiver sets that require nickel defenses. The Seahawks will probably be in their normal 4-3 alignment with Michael Boulware and Marquand Manuel as the safeties. One of those two safeties will have to help out with Smith and make sure he doesn't burn them for touchdowns. With Smith, you also have to be aware of the reverse because he's such a good runner. It's almost as though teams are conceding Smith is going to get his 100 yards. They'll trade that number for no touchdowns, but Smith finds a way to get in the end zone and Delhomme finds a way to get him the ball. With Foster out of the game with a broken ankle, Smith is the focal point of the Seahawks defensive game plan.
John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.
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