Gap between Seattle, Carolina is secondary

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- We get it. Seattle's Richard Sherman is the best cornerback in the NFL. He told us so time and time again after Sunday's 23-17 victory over the San Francisco 49ers put the Seahawks in the Super Bowl.

And despite his over-the-top postgame comments and classless choke sign, Sherman's tipped pass that turned into a game-clinching interception is the reason Seattle is headed to New York.

Pay attention, Carolina. That's what you need to get there next season.

Not the over-the-top stuff.

Cornerbacks like Sherman.

Coach Ron Rivera and general manager Dave Gettleman said last week that Seattle and San Francisco were the models for what the Panthers (12-5) had to get to in order to win the NFC.

They didn't get into specifics, but as you watched the conference championship it became glaring the area Carolina most has to improve to reach the next level is the secondary.

The Panthers match up well with both teams in the front seven. Their run defense ranked No. 2 in the league, better than the Seahawks (seventh) and 49ers (fourth). They had more regular-season sacks (60) than Seattle (44) and San Francisco (38).

But where Seattle in particular holds an edge is the secondary. The Seahawks led the league in pass defense and interceptions. As Sherman showed with his clutch play at the end, the "Legion of Boom" is the best in the league.

Not that Carolina's secondary was bad. The Panthers finished sixth against the pass and fifth in interceptions, which considering injuries and the money spent there was solid.

But as we saw in the second half of a 23-10 loss to San Francisco in the NFC divisional playoff game, when Anquan Boldin broke free for a 45-yard catch that led to a touchdown and 20-10 lead, there were breakdowns.

This one happened in part because starting strong safety Quintin Mikell was injured and there was a communication issue with rookie Robert Lester.

But that wasn't an isolated case. In Carolina's final seven regular-season games, it gave up 25 pass plays of 20-plus yards. To put that in perspective, the offense had 14.

The Panthers don't have what you would call a shutdown corner as Seattle does with Sherman. As well as Captain Munnerlyn played this season, he was beaten twice by Miami's Mike Wallace for passes of 50-plus yards and would have been beaten a third time had it not been for an overthrow.

As well as undrafted rookie corner Melvin White played, much of that had to do with keeping the plays in front of him and taking advantage of help with Carolina's zone coverage. There never was a game in which the coaching staff felt it could relax and say he's got it handled.

So the secondary has to improve, and has to be addressed because three-fourths of a starting group that was nicknamed the "Legion of Whom" -- Munnerlyn, Mikell and free safety Mike Mitchell -- is scheduled to become unrestricted free agents.

Mitchell seems to be a no-brainer to bring back. He brought a level of physicality and attitude to the secondary that Sherman brings to Seattle's.

The others have to be nervous.

"We've got to evaluate those guys and see how they fit," Rivera said diplomatically when evaluating the secondary this past season. "I'm very pleased with the way our guys played. We finished ranked very well in pass defense. I know people say, 'Well, you also led the league in sacks.' Yes we did. We also led the league in turnover margin as well.

"So we did some good things defensively. Some of our guys that played really well were our defensive backs at times. But again we've got to get consistent. We've got a good group of guys. But again we've got to evaluate. That's probably the key word right now, we've got to evaluate."

In trying to close the gap on Seattle, the Panthers may have to get bigger and more physical in the secondary. The Seahawks average 6-foot-2 and 201 pounds at the corners. The Panthers average 5-10 1/2 and 200.

It's hard to imagine the 6-3 Sherman getting his hand on the pass to Michael Crabtree in the end zone had he been 5-8 like Munnerlyn.

Overall, Seattle's secondary averages 6-1 1/2 and 209 pounds. Carolina's averages 5-10 3/4 and 203 pounds.

And Seattle is without its other shutdown corner, Brandon Browner (6-4, 221), who is suspended for violating the league's substance abuse policy.

So as Carolina moves forward into the offseason while the Seahawks move on to the Super Bowl, the secondary must be addressed.

It doesn't have to get outspoken like Sherman.

It just has to get better.