Clayton’s keys for Seahawks vs Cam Newton, struggling Panthers

Dec 2, 2016, 6:05 AM | Updated: Dec 4, 2016, 12:26 am

The Seahawks are expected to have Michael Bennett back for Sunday night's game against Carolina. (A...

The Seahawks are expected to have Michael Bennett back for Sunday night's game against Carolina. (AP)


It will be curious to see the national television ratings for Sunday night’s game between the Seahawks and Panthers.

Theoretically, this should be one of the network prizes for being a showcase game. It’s the annual meeting of Cam Newton and Russell Wilson, who are among the top five quarterbacks in this league. It’s supposed to be a meeting of two top defensive teams, although Carolina hasn’t done well on defense this year.

The Panthers are 4-7 and a loss to the Seahawks could all but knock them out of the playoff race.

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Here are four things to watch for Sunday night.

Newton versus Wilson. This is the seventh meeting in the past five years between Seattle and Carolina and between Newton and Wilson. The Seahawks won the first four games. The Panthers won two last year, including the divisional-round game in Charlotte that knocked the Seahawks out of the playoffs. It’s a great series. With one exception in 2015, the games end up close – decided by seven points or fewer – and usually low-scoring. But the games have been changing. The early scores were 16-12, 12-7 and 13-9. The developments of Newton and Wilson have meant more points. Recent scores have been 31-17, 27-23 and 31-24. As bad as the Tampa Bay loss was for the Seahawks, the return of Wilson as a runner was a big plus. The Panthers now have to account for his running ability. That should open things for the rest of the offense. The challenge for the Seahawks’ defense is containing Newton, which won’t be easy.

This could be a tough game for Newton. Michael Bennett is expected to return to the Seahawks’ defensive line. That gives Seattle at least three top players to rush Newton: Bennett, Cliff Avril and Frank Clark. Offensive line is a big problem for the Panthers. They’ve lost left tackle Michael Oher and centers Ryan Kalil and Gino Gradkowski to Injured Reserve. They currently have only one offensive lineman playing in the spot he did last year, when they had one of better lines in football. Newton has paid the price. The more he gets hit, it affects him. That could be said of most quarterbacks. His completion percentage has dropped from 59.8 to 55.8. He threw 35 touchdowns last year. He has 13 this year and he’s been sacked 27 times. The Panthers know this game revolves around Newton so the Seahawks will try to get as many hits on him as possible.

As the O-line goes, so go the Seahawks. Seattle’s offensive line played poorly against the Bucs last week, getting Wilson sacked six times and putting him in too many-third-and-long situations. The return of Justin Britt at center is huge. His absence because of the ankle injury was noticeable. Britt arguably has been the team’s best lineman. He’s done well with powerful blocking and with his line calls. His return is important because of how good the Panthers are at defensive tackle with Kawann Short and Star Lotulelie. Bradley Sowell takes over officially for Garry Gilliam at right tackle. Run blocking has to be the key for the Seahawks in this game. They need to get Thomas Rawls going for this week and the remaining final four games after that.

Attacking Carolina’s secondary. As much as the Seahawks would like to run the ball, you would have to figure they might think pass. The Panthers are giving up 275.2 yards a game through the air, 29th-most in the NFL. Rookie cornerbacks James Bradberry and Daryl Worley have been beaten for a combined 54 completions for 589 yards but only five touchdowns. Figuring the Panthers will play more zone, that could open the middle for passes to Jimmy Graham and Doug Baldwin. If coverage slants to either one of those two players, it could free up Tyler Lockett and Jermaine Kearse.

Want more John Clayton? Listen on-demand to his weekday and Saturday shows as well as his “Cold Hard Facts” and “Clayton’s Morning Drive” segments on 710 ESPN Seattle. Also, check out his all-new “Schooled” podcast and look for his columns twice a week on

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