For more than three and a half quarters during a Week 8 matchup last season at Bank of America Stadium, the Carolina Panthers had an answer for Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson.
The Panthers had sacked Wilson, intercepted him and kept him from making any big plays.
Then the final drive happened.
Wilson accounted for 74 of the Seahawks’ 85 yards on the game-winning march, leading Seattle to a 13-9 victory, the Seahawks’ third consecutive regular-season win in Charlotte in as many years.
The final series was vintage Wilson, the fourth-year quarterback who started his college career at N.C. State.
He beat a blitzing Thomas Davis with a throw to the sideline. He saw the Panthers drop eight defenders into coverage on a second-and-long and took off running for 14 yards.
And he lasered a perfectly thrown pass to tight end Luke Willson between two safeties for the decisive, 23-yard touchdown, Wilson’s longest completion of the game.
Other than that last drive, I think we held him pretty much in check for most of the game. But it only takes one.
Panthers defensive tackle Dwan Edwards, on facing Russell Wilson in Charlotte in 2014
“Other than that last drive, I think we held him pretty much in check for most of the game,” Panthers defensive tackle Dwan Edwards said. “But it only takes one.”
As the Panthers try to end the Seahawks’ recent domination, they’ll have to endure a 5 1/2-hour flight, deal with the crowd noise in one of the NFL’s loudest stadiums and prepare for the 1-2 running punch of Marshawn Lynch and rookie Thomas Rawls.
But in a series that has featured close, low-scoring games, Carolina’s toughest task figures to be containing Wilson, whose .717 winning percentage is second to only Tom Brady (.777) among active quarterbacks.
“You’ve got to try to make him stay in the pocket, which he’s not going to do. So you do the best you can to try and corral him,” Panthers safety Roman Harper said. “He’s a great quarterback. There’s a reason he’s been successful, because of his big-play capability with his legs and his arm.”
Coming off back-to-back Super Bowl appearances, Wilson and the Seahawks (2-3) have looked a bit vulnerable this season. Seattle has blown three fourth-quarter leads, including a 17-point meltdown last week in a 27-24 overtime loss at Cincinnati.
Wilson, playing behind a reconfigured offensive line, has been sacked 22 times in five games. He’s on a pace to become only the third quarterback in history to be sacked 70 times or more in a season.
I feel great, can’t complain. We just have to keep working.
Russell Wilson on Seattle’s 2-3 start
But the unfailingly upbeat Wilson says he has full confidence in a line that lost a Pro Bowl center during the offseason when Max Unger was traded to New Orleans as part of the deal that brought tight end Jimmy Graham to Seattle.
“I feel great, can’t complain,” Wilson said. “We just have to keep working.”
Panthers coach Ron Rivera said the frustrating part in facing Wilson is 10 players will play perfect technique and the coverage will be sound, and Wilson will get one defender to miss and pick up positive yardage.
“I get it if a guy makes a great catch. There’s nothing you can do. But for a guy to be able to extend (a play), it is maddening,” Rivera said. “Because you can look at the tape and go, ‘We’re in a great spot here, we’re in a great spot (there).’ But there’s just the one breakdown.”
Rivera said he’s heard the Seahawks fine-tune Wilson’s scramble plays in practice by having receivers and backs go to certain spots on the field when Wilson leaves the pocket.
If no one’s open, Wilson can run for big yardage. Against St. Louis last season, Wilson became the first player in NFL history to pass for 300 yards and run for 100 in a game.
I get it if a guy makes a great catch. There’s nothing you can do. But for a guy to be able to extend (a play), it is maddening.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera on Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson’s escapability
Wilson, 5-11 and 206 pounds, also has an uncanny knack of avoiding the big hit.
Green Bay linebacker Clay Matthews drilled Wilson (and was fined for a shot to the head) during the NFC Championship Game in January. But the hit came after an interception when Matthews blind-sided him.
Most of the time when Wilson keeps on a zone-read play or scrambles, he’s able to steer clear of collisions.
“I think that when you run, you just get down, slide, be smart and move on to the next play and get out of bounds,” Wilson said in a conference call this week. “Knowing when to continue to keep fighting for a play and when to throw the ball away, I think that’s a huge part of it.”
Davis said Wilson has a good stutter step he uses against defenders.
Some guys just never take hits. He’s probably never taken a big hit in his whole life.
Panthers safety Roman Harper, on Seattle’s Russell Wilson
Harper says Wilson reminds him of running back Reggie Bush, Harper’s teammate in New Orleans, with his ability to elude crushing tackles.
“Some guys just never take hits,” Harper said. “He’s probably never taken a big hit in his whole life.”
How would Wilson react to one?
“I don’t know. I don’t think it’ll happen this week, and I’m just being honest,” Harper said. “If it does, I’ll be happy. But I don’t think it’s going to happen. He just doesn’t take them.”
Big hit or otherwise, the Panthers will have to find a way to stop Wilson, especially if Sunday is another close, low-scoring game.
“They want the ball in his hands at crunch time to let him create something,” Rivera said.
Panthers defensive end Jared Allen faced Wilson three weeks ago when Allen was with Chicago. Allen, who is not expected to play Sunday because of a pinched nerve in his back, said the Panthers’ pass-rushers can’t be tentative when going after Wilson.
“You’ve got to understand where he wants to escape and you have to try to get to that point before he does. Because if you start breaking down, you start thinking about it, he’s going to make you look silly out there,” Allen said. “So you have to rush him up as if he’s not moving, knowing that he’s going to, and hope you don’t end up on a highlight reel.”