Countdown to kickoff

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Greetings from Bank of American Stadium, where the Seahawks are preparing to face the Panthers in a late-kickoff game this afternoon after a series of thunderstorms rolled through the area this morning.

All eyes on the Seahawks’ defense will be on No. 1, as the No. 2-ranked unit tries to content with – and contain – everything Panthers quarterback Cam Newton can deliver. The 6-foot-5, 245-pound Newton can cause problems running the ball as well as throwing it, and he has warranted special attention all week from coordinator Gus Bradley and his young, aggressive defense.

But also keep an eye on No. 54. That’s rookie middle linebacker Bobby Wagner, who isn’t as far removed from defending the read-option wrinkle in the Panthers’ offense as many of his teammates.

“He had no problem with the preparation,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. “He knows the offense. He knows where the ball is going.”

And that is good, indeed, because Newton will be coming right at Wagner after faking a handoff to another player and then darting through a gap in the defense. Newton has averaged 5.1 yards per carry in compiling his 167 rushing yards and also scored three times, in large part because of his ability to dupe the middle linebacker.

Wagner played at Utah State, which runs a variation of the read-option, and the Aggies also played a schedule last season loaded with offenses that use it. So Wagner knows the keys in reacting to it.

“The other guys don’t have that advantage, but it was certainly clear with Bobby,” Carroll said. “The guys up front are really the ones they attack, so you hope the linebackers can find the football and play fast.”

Wagner has been doing that with increasing regularity during the Seahawks’ 2-2 start. He had a team-high seven solo tackles in the loss to the Rams last week, including three for loses. The week before, in the Monday night win over the Packers, Wagner had eight tackles. In the Week 2 win over the Cowboys, it was four tackles, including one for a loss, and a QB hit. In the opener, when the Cardinals’ three-receiver sets limited Wagner’s snaps, he had three tackles.

But Wagner has taken the next step in his development and has been playing in the nickel this week in practice.

There will be more to this game than No. 54 on No. 1, of course.

Marshawn Lynch is the NFL’s leading rusher and will be running into a Panthers’ defense that already has allowed three 100-yard rushers – and could be playing without middle linebacker and leading tackler Jon Beason and cornerback Chris Gamble, the unit’s best cover man. Both are listed as doubtful because of injuries. The Panthers already made a just-in-case roster move because of Gamble’s shoulder injury by signing cornerback Ron Parker from their practice squad and placing guard Mike Pollak on injured reserve. Parker was with the Seahawks during training camp, but released on the roster cut to 75 players.

But also expect Lynch to be running into a defense stacked to stop him. So the ability of rookie QB Russell Wilson to hit some quick throws early will force the Panthers to back off and open more lanes for Lynch.

Then there’s the continuing saga of the Seahawks on third downs. The offense is having problems converting them (28 percent, 14 of 50), while the defense is having problems getting off the field by allowing opponents to convert too many (43 percent, 22 of 51) – especially on third-and-long. While opponents are converting 23 percent (7 of 31) on third-and-7 or less, they’re at 75 percent (15 of 20) and have passed for 232 yards on third-and-8 or more.

If those trends continue, so will the Seahawks’ problem of winning on the road. They’re 0-2 this season and 5-13 in three seasons under Carroll.

With that said, enjoy the game. Kickoff is scheduled for 4:05 p.m. here (1:05 in Seattle), with TV coverage on Fox (KCPQ/13) and the radio broadcast on 710 ESPN and 97.3 FM.

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