Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera is a defensive guy.
In his playing days, he was a linebacker, with all the toughness that position implies. As a California Bear, he set the school career sacks record. As a Chicago Bear, he was part of six division winners, including the legendary 1985 team that won Super Bowl XX.
His coaching climb came exclusively on the defensive side: defensive quality-control coach with Chicago, linebackers coach with Philadelphia and San Diego, defensive coordinator with Chicago and San Diego.
And yet his Panthers will bring the league’s top-scoring offense into their NFC divisional-round playoff game against Seattle on Sunday. It is the Seahawks who feature the league’s top defense by points allowed.
“They’re just doing everything,” Seattle coach Pete Carroll said of the Panthers. “They’ve got more points than anybody. The defense has scored fairly consistently for them, but it’s been a great offensive juggernaut throughout the season: run and pass.”
In going an NFL-best 15-1 in the regular season, Carolina topped the league by scoring an average of 31.2 points. The Panthers average 142.6 rushing yards, behind only Buffalo and one spot ahead of Seattle.
“It’s a really diverse running game,” Carroll said. “It is the most (diverse) that we’ll see in the NFL. There’s nobody that does more stuff. And it’s basically because the quarterback is such a dynamic part of it. They’re willing to run the quarterback inside, outside, lead plays, powers, all of the read stuff. This is the most difficult offense that we face.”
That quarterback is league MVP favorite Cam Newton, who rushed for 636 yards. That’s good for second on the team behind 989 yards by tailback Jonathan Stewart, the one-time Timberline High standout.
In the Panthers’ 27-23 win at Seattle in October, Newton led a pair of 80-yard drives late in the fourth quarter. He capped the first with a 1-yard touchdown run to pull Carolina within three. Then he used his arm for the winner, a 26-yard pass to tight end Greg Olsen in the final minute.
“It just shows you his confidence and comfort in what we’re do more than anything else,” Rivera said of Newton. “… If you have confidence in what you’re doing, you’re going to have some success. And he’s playing with confidence right now, so that’s a huge plus for us.”
When the Panthers take to the air, Rivera said he believes the team’s diversity is a strength.
Olsen leads the way with 77 receptions. But four other players — Ted Ginn, Jerricho Cotchery, Devin Funchess and Corey Brown — have more than 30 receptions. Four others have more than 10.
“Teams don’t sit there and just focus in on one guy, and I think that’s been the one thing,” Rivera said. “Because if you go to our box scores, you’ll see Cam has hit five, six, seven, eight, nine different receivers sometimes.”
On Sunday, Carolina will face a different Seattle defense from the one it faced in October. Middle linebacker Bobby Wagner missed that game with a pectoral injury. The Seahawks compensated by shifting K.J. Wright into the middle and Kevin Pierre-Louis into Wright’s outside spot for what remains the only start of his two-season career. In the secondary, cornerback Cary Williams was still a Seahawk and still a starter.
Rivera knows enough about defenses to appreciate the challenge that awaits his offense.
“(The Seahawks) do have different people out there, but the truth of the matter is, they’re doing what they do,” he said. “They play the same style of defense, same style of offense. The truth of the matter is, they’ve played very well. Maybe we’ll get lucky and catch them on a bad day. But the truth of the matter is, they do what they do, and they do it very well.”