Despite being a flawed team, Carolina is 8-4 and in good position to make the playoffs. The Vikings roster is better on both sides of the football, without question. But Carolina has beaten some good teams and Minnesota is playing its third road game in as many weeks. Overlooking this team would be a grave mistake.
Here are five keys for the Vikings to avoid falling into that trap.
Pass Protection needs to get back on track
The Viking offensive line has been plain bad in pass pro the last few weeks. The stat sheet does not necessarily reflect that as Case Keenum‘s ability to maneuver the pocket mask their deficiencies. But a look at the film shows that all five men are getting beat with relative consistency. Riley Reiff has been the most notable since he was so strong for the first eight weeks of the season. Lately, however, it has been a rough go of it. Takkarist McKinley and Adrian Clayborn worked Reiff hard in last week’s win over Atlanta, but Keenum bailed him out with his pocket presence.
This week, it does not get any easier. Carolina’s front four is probably the best Minnesota has seen since Pittsburgh in week two. Julius Peppers and Mario Addison each have 8.5 sacks and Kawann Short is absolutely dominant in the middle. With the pressure coming from left, right and center, Keenum will have a tough time avoiding the rush if the line does not step up its game.
Maintain balance, but throw downfield
Despite being a pass-heavy league, the top teams in the NFC maintain a balance close to 50-50 between run and pass. Minnesota is no exception, especially in recent weeks with Latavius Murray coming on. Even against an elite front-seven like Carolina’s, it is important to maintain that balance. Aside from controlling the pace and the clock, the running game sets up play action, where the Vikings get a lot of their big plays.
But there should be a heavy focus on downfield passing, as well. Keenum is somewhat limited arm strength-wise, but he shows no hesitation throwing deep. And the Vikings have the receivers to make it work. What is more, the Panthers have one of the least effective secondaries in football when it comes to forcing turnovers; they have just five interceptions this year. With that in mind, there should be absolutely no fear in taking a lot of shots.
Get the Panther linebackers out of the box
As far as linebacking corps go, there probably is not one as strong as Carolina’s. Luke Kuechly is, when healthy, the best interior linebacker in football and Thomas Davis and Shaq Thompson are right there with him. The Vikings will already have enough trouble as is with big men Short and Star Lotulelei at the tackles. If Carolina keeps regularly shows a seven-man box, running the ball will be nigh-impossible.
Kyle Rudolph will have a big role in opening the middle of the field. In man defenses, Kuechly will likely be on Rudolph so expect a lot of seams and go routes from the tight end. If nothing else, it will make Kuechly, who is elite as both a run-stopper and a coverage guy, think twice about what he should be doing. It is no easy task, scheming against the Panthers linebackers. But, as said above, they have to be able to run the football.
Edit: Shaq Thompson has been officially ruled out.
Do not leave the redzone empty-handed
This is mostly a key for Kai Forbath to make his darn kicks. Makeable field goals have to be made, plain and simple. Since this is figuring to be a defensive battle, every trip downfield has to come away with points. The Vikings finish their drives efficiently, scoring a touchdown on 70 percent of redzone trips the last three weeks. But if and when they fail to do that against a tough Panther defense, Forbath has to come through like he did early in the season.
Attack Matt Kalil
Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks are going to be busy in pass defense Sunday. Carolina’s running backs, Jonathan Stewart and Christian McCaffrey, average less than 3.5 yards per carry. As the eight overall pick in the 2017 draft, McCaffrey thus far is mostly a glorified slot receiver. The running game is not a major threat to the Vikings defense.
That being said, Carolina will rely heavily on McCaffrey and tight end Greg Olsen as Cam Newton‘s safety nets in the passing game. As a result, there may be a little less blitzing from the Vikings defense. Mike Zimmer will still strongly feature his double-A-gap looks as always. But if Newton counters it effectively, they may go with more four-man rushes or come off the edge with the blitz.
Vikings fans are quite familiar with Matt Kalil, the once-cornerstone left tackle whose career fell off a cliff. Kalil has been a major liability on the Panther line. This week, he gets Everson Griffen, who is fourth in the league with 12 sacks. Minnesota needs to hammer this mismatch with Griffen, blindside blitzes and stunts from inside. Once Kalil gets in the tilt-a-whirl and Newton is forced out of the pocket consistently, the Panthers are in trouble.
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