Panthers needed just one play to trip up Seahawks’ top-ranked run D

Jan 17, 2016, 4:47 PM | Updated: 9:33 pm
Jonathan Stewart ran for 59 yards on the first play from scrimmage and scored three plays later. (A...
Jonathan Stewart ran for 59 yards on the first play from scrimmage and scored three plays later. (AP)
(AP)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The Seahawks’ top-ranked run defense slipped up on Carolina’s opening play from scrimmage.

Middle linebacker Bobby Wagner and free safety Earl Thomas literally did so, the first instance of what would be an issue with footing throughout Sunday’s divisional-round playoff game at Bank of America Stadium. And the Seahawks slipped up in a figurative sense, allowing a 59-yard run that would set a tone of sorts for Seattle’s 31-24 loss.

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As Jonathan Stewart ran away from Seattle’s defense, so too would Carolina in a disastrous first half for the Seahawks.

Stewart found the end zone three plays later, scoring the first of the Panthers’ 31 first-half points.

“We misfired on the first big run,” coach Pete Carroll said. “That was kind of a shock that we would give them (the ball) inside the 20-yard line right off the bat.”

It was indeed a shock considering how stout Seattle had been against the run, allowing a league-low 81.5 yards per game during the regular season before shutting down the NFL’s rushing champion, Adrian Peterson, for the second time in last week’s wild-card win over Minnesota.

Carroll called it a “masterpiece” of a performance by Seattle’s run defense to hold Peterson to 45 yards on 23 carries last week. He only had 18 yards on eight carries when the teams met in December, all of which made it so unexpected when Stewart broke free on the game’s first play.

The run was the longest against Seattle since Pittsburgh’s Willie Parker went 75 yards for a touchdown in Super Bowl XL.

“It was a good run by them,” linebacker K.J. Wright said. “They blocked everybody real well. I could have took on my block and made the play better. But it was a big play for them to set the game off.”

Stewart took the handoff and disappeared briefly behind a pile of bodies before emerging in the second level, where several Seahawks defenders had a chance at bringing him down. Wagner lost his footing and so did Thomas, who is typically Seattle’s last line of defense. Kelcie McCray was in at strong safety with Kam Chancellor on the sideline having been shaken up on the opening kickoff.

Stewart finished with 106 yards on 19 carries with two touchdowns, becoming the first running back to hit the century mark against Seattle’s defense since Kansas City’s Jamaal Charles did so in November of 2014. Carolina finished with 144 as a team.

Stewart averaged just over 2.6 yards on his other 18 attempts, which shows how impactful the game’s opening play was.

“A lot of that came on the first play, which was just a mistake,” said cornerback Richard Sherman, who tracked Stewart down at the 16-yard line. “They had him bottled up and I think guys kind of lost him in the scrum. Then he came out and a couple of guys that could have made a play slipped on the play. So you give him 59 yards on one play, that’s going to be tough.”

After being so good throughout the season, Seattle’s run defense slipped up at the worst possible time.

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Panthers needed just one play to trip up Seahawks’ top-ranked run D