CHARLOTTE, NC (Charlotte Observer) - Each week the Carolina Panthers play in 2018, the Observer will choose a potential gamechanger — the player most likely to make a huge impact on the game. This week’s choice:
Linebacker Shaq Thompson
The backstory: When the Carolina Panthers and coach Ron Rivera were first scouting quarterback Cam Newton coming out of Auburn in 2011, there was one thing about him that kept showing up on film.
Or rather, that didn’t show up ... at least not as Rivera expected. Even though the buzz around Newton, at 6-foot-5 and 245 pounds, was that he was a running quarterback, Rivera saw something else when he watched the tape.
“Everybody talked about him being a scrambling quarterback — he really wasn’t,” Rivera said. “When he broke down, we watched every one of his throws, a portion of those throws was staying alive behind the line of scrimmage and then throwing the ball downfield.”
The problem: Midway through Newton’s eighth season as the team’s starter since being drafted No. 1 overall, the Panthers have come to appreciate Newton’s multiple abilities when plays break down. With his size, Newton can easily drag defenders with him when he chooses to run ... or he can hold onto the ball, scramble to an open area when plays break down, and throw against an out-of-position defense.
Fun for the offense, sure. For defenses, not so much.
And this Sunday, the Panthers defense gets a taste of the same thing.
Get to know the opponent: Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, the former star at N.C. State, can attack defenses in a similar way to Newton, although with less physicality given his 5-foot-11, 215-pound frame. But the mobility to keep plays alive, whether by running it himself or just finding time to throw, is similar.
Carolina’s defense line will have to deal with Wilson, of course, but when the plan falls by the wayside, they won’t be the ones trying to chase Wilson around the field.
The Panthers’ linebackers, specifically the athletic Shaq Thompson, will.
What Thompson said: “A lot of quarterbacks scramble. A lot of quarterbacks you don’t game plan for, they scramble when they see something. But the real running quarterbacks — Russell Wilson, probably Patrick Mahomes, Carson Wentz, Dak (Prescott), Jameis Winston every now and again — those types of guys, those are the ones you really need to get ready for.
“And Russell Wilson is a big one.”
The context: Wilson has been running the ball less this season than in years past. He has yet to score on the ground and is averaging 22.7 rushing yards per game, which would be the second-lowest average of his career for an entire season. But Seattle still boasts the NFL’s top-ranked rushing attack even with Wilson’s reduced yards, instead providing him more opportunities to throw — with 23 touchdowns to just five interceptions, he’s on pace to post the best passer rating of his career.
Meaning when the man gets loose, you better watch for the pass.
What Ron Rivera said: “It’s something you can’t account for because once a guy breaks the pocket, anything can happen. The thing that you find, guys that have a lot of success don’t necessarily run the ball as much as they’re always looking downfield.”
How the matchup works: If anyone on this Panthers defense is equipped to handle the dual-threat issues Wilson presents, it’s Thompson. The Panthers’ second-leading tackler has the size and strength to play the run, but also the athleticism to chase Wilson or cover skill position players. Running backs out of the backfield, tight ends trying to wiggle off their routes — those are the types of players Thompson can lock onto, allowing Carolina’s other defenders to bring Wilson to the ground.
That, of course, is all easier said than done, but given Thompson’s increased usage this year — he started during Thomas Davis’ four-game suspension and still plays 72.3 percent of the team’s defensive snaps — and physical skills, he’s the type of versatile linebacker the Panthers need to have any hope of slowing Wilson.
“He’s one of the top people (in terms of escapability),” Thompson said. “He’s very good when he escapes, because all his wide receivers turn around and get open for him. They come back to the ball, they go deep. So he’s one of those guys you really have to practice for. Scrambling drills, making sure you plaster wide receivers, stuff like that.
“You’ve just got to contain him, you know?”