- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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Here are five things to look for in next weekend's NFC championship game:
Carolina Panthers at Seattle Seahawks (Sunday, Jan. 22, 6:30 p.m. ET)
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.
2. Middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu finished second to Shawne Merriman in defensive rookie of the year voting, but he is one of the keys to the Seahawks in the matchup against the Panthers. Like the Bears, the Seahawks are an undersized defense, featuring light defensive ends and some undersized defensive tackles. Like the Redskins, the Panthers bring to Seattle a big, physical offensive line that has the ability to overpower them. This is where Tatupu plays a big role. In the victory over the Redskins, the rookie played like a 10-year vet. He constantly adjusted the positioning of the defensive linemen to make sure they covered potential weaknesses against certain runs. Just before every running play, Tatupu would move a defensive tackle to the right or left by tapping him on the rear. Because of those instructions, the Seahawks usually had enough bodies in the right spots to stop the inside runs and take away the strengths of the Redskins' running offense. And remember, this guy is a rookie. He also showed the range to cover the deep middle of the field in zone coverage. He broke up one of the key deep passes of the game and prevented the Redskins from being in position to get an easy touchdown. The Panthers' offensive scheme can usually drive a middle linebacker crazy. Offensive coordinator Dan Henning has an extra tight end or two execute "Wham" blocks in which they will try to come at a middle linebacker on the run and overpower them, trying to open a hole for a running back. Linebackers had Wham blocks because the defender is usual going against a bigger body who is moving at him at full speed. The Seahawks have completely turned around their run defense. Tatupu lines everyone up correctly. Undersized defensive tackles Rocky Bernard and Chartric Darby have done a surprisingly good job of keeping their bodies low and having the leverage to stop the run. Last year, the two players struggled in run defense. The Seahawks gave up only 94.4 yards a game on the ground, a 33-yard improvement over last year. For the Panthers to win, they have to run the ball and that might be tough without DeShaun Foster, who broke his ankle and is out. The Panthers are down to their third-string running back, Nick Goings, a tough, physical runner who doesn't have a lot of speed.
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.
Seattle's ability to cover Steve Smith and Carolina's ground attack will be among the key issues during the NFC championship game.