Carolina Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson didn’t need to see the Seattle Seahawks’ injury report to know Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson is back to his old running ways.
“He still looks the same to me. He’s still looks elusive to me. He’s still probably the best running back on their team,” Johnson said this week. “We’ve got a big challenge ahead of us.”
With the Panthers (4-7) preparing to face the Seahawks (7-3-1) on Sunday, this week marks the first time since Wilson hurt his ankle in Week 1 that Wilson hasn’t appeared on the injury report.
Since then he’s fought through knee and pectoral injuries, all of which combined to limit Wilson’s scrambling and running abilities through the first nine games.
But the former N.C. State standout had eight carries in each of the past two games, finishing with a season-high 80 rushing yards last week in a 14-5 loss at Tampa Bay. It was Wilson’s most prolific rushing game since Week 16 in 2014.
“He’s good, man. He doesn’t quit. He’s going to find a way,” Panthers defensive tackle Kawann Short said. “And that’s our job as a defensive line to take that way that he’s trying to find away.”
Wilson holds the top 11 rushing performances by a quarterback in Seahawks history, including four 100-yard games. Wilson’s ability to dart out of trouble, extend plays and find receivers is part of the reason he boasts a career passer rating of 100.4.
Only Aaron Rodgers (102.9) and Drew Brees (101.1) have higher ratings since Wilson entered the league in 2012.
Wilson is 3-1 with a 93.8 passer rating in four regular-season games against Carolina the past four years. The Panthers have limited him to four passing touchdowns, with three interceptions.
Wilson has only rushed for more than 35 yards once in seven career meetings (including playoffs) against the Panthers – an eight-carry, 53-yard outing last October in a 27-23 Seahawks loss in Seattle.
It was the first of two Panthers’ victories against Seattle – including a 31-24 decision in the divisional round – after Wilson had beaten them in his first four tries.
Panthers defensive end Wes Horton said the key to containing Wilson is knowing his tendencies, which Horton then rattled off.
“You have to know where he likes to scramble. And as rushers, it’s very important to know who’s the A-gap (between the center and guard) rusher,” Horton said following a practice Thursday at San Jose State.
“Guys have to continue to overlap each other. There can’t be any holes where he can step up into -- like stepping into the B-gap (between the guard and tackle) or reversing to the right,” Horton added. “Everybody has to be conscious of being in their (gap).”
Making the Panthers’ task of containing Wilson more daunting is the fact that they’ll be without two of their top three tacklers. Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly and safety Kurt Coleman are sidelined with post-concussion symptoms.
Seattle coach Pete Carroll said the Panthers without Kuechly are like the Seahawks with defensive end Michael Bennett, who returned this week after missing five games following arthroscopic knee surgery.
“A.J. Klein has done a pretty good job stepping in but when you lose Kuechly, that’s like us losing Michael Bennett. The guy that is most productive, the most active kind of guy in your scheme,” Carroll said. “You can’t help but miss that.”
Defensive struggle, or not?
Sunday’s game will be the seventh meeting between the clubs in five seasons, including playoffs. The first three were close, defensive-dominated games – all won by Seattle.
There has been more offense of late, punctuated by Seattle’s 405-yard outburst in the January playoff loss.
The Panthers jumped out to a 31-0 lead in the divisional game – getting a defensive score from Kuechly on a pick-6 – before fending off a furious Seahawks’ rally.
Wilson completed 31 of 48 passes for 366 yards and three touchdowns, but threw two interceptions and was sacked five times.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera said getting an early lead Sunday will be critical.
Johnson said Carolina’s front four to stay in its rush lanes – and on its feet.
“We know he’s a good athlete, so we’ve got to stay on our edges and make sure everybody is rush-oriented,” Johnson said. “We’ve got to make sure guys stay in their gap, guys can’t be on the ground. Just try to be active and try to stay motivated to get after him.”