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Matchup Index Week 13: Vikings vs Panthers

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The Daily Norseman dives deep into statistical trends and player grades to highlight match up advantages and disadvantages for the Minnesota Vikings.

Cliff McBride/Getty Images

There is nothing more thrilling than watching two teams near the bottom of their respective divisions take the field for a mostly irrelevant game.  Unfortunately for fans of the Vikings and Panthers, that is what we're getting this week as the 3-7-1 Panthers travel to Minneapolis to take on our 4-7 Vikings.  Oh but wait...this game actually isn't irrelevant.  Despite the Panthers of 3-7-1 and the fact that they currently sit in 3rd place in the NFC South, they are miraculously only 1 game out of first place behind the Saints and Falcons (both 4-7) who are participating in a game of chicken for 1st place of the division.  Should the Panthers win this game on the road against our Vikings, and should the Falcons and Saints both lose (against the Cardinals and Steelers respectively), the Panthers would sit in first place in the NFC South with a record of 4-7-1.  Do the Vikings have a shot at playing spoiler to the Carolina Panthers and subsequently begin the start of an improbable playoff run, not unlike what we saw at the tail end of the 2012 season?  Perhaps the Matchup Index can give us some insight.

The Panthers offense on the whole is not performing very well this year.  They rank 22nd overall in total offensive yards per game (327.2) and 24th overall in points per game (19.5).  They have struggled some with turnovers, garnering a -2 turnover margin on the year and are not particularly efficient on 3rd down where they convert only 40% of their attempts (20th best).

Carolina's passing game is slightly better than their running game however, but both are below average.  In the passing game Cam Newton is a little short on weapons with tight end Greg Olsen and rookie Kelvin Benjamin his only real options after veteran Steve Smith was unceremoniously released and signed with the Ravens in the offseason, and free agent acquisition Jason Avant was recently released a couple weeks ago as well.  The Panthers throw the ball with some regularity averaging 35.5 attempts per game (14th most) but are below average in production with 230.8 yards per game (19th best).  Newton is having a little bit of a down year after dealing with a rib injury early on, and has only managed an 85.4 passer rating (20th best) and a 7.2 yards per attempt average (16th best).

Carolina's running attack has not been particularly effective as both DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart have missed time with injuries.  The Panthers run the ball an average of 26.4 times per game (18th most), but only generate 96.4 rushing yards per game (24th best) for a paltry 3.7 yards per carry average (27th best).  With all three of their most threatening rushers dealing with injuries, it should come as no surprise that they are struggling to get much going on the ground.  In any case, the Matchup Index below will start, as it always does, in the trenches with looking at the Panthers passing game, followed by their running game.

Matchup Index: Panthers Pass Blocking vs Vikings Pass Rushing

Panthers Player

RT David Foucault

RG Trai Turner

C Ryan Kalil

LG Amini Silatolu

LT Byron Bell

PFF Grade

-10.5

+1.3

-4.2

-0.9

-18.9

Vikings Player

LE Brian Robison

DT Shariff Floyd

DT Linval Joseph

RE Everson Griffen

PFF Grade

-4.3

+3.6

-2.7

+6.5

Well, well, well perhaps the Carolina Panthers offensive line could give our own offensive line a run their money in "who can get the worst PFF grades possible" contest.  The Panthers might have the worst pair of offensive tackles in the league in terms of PFF grades.  PFF ranks their offensive line 30th overall in Pass Blocking Efficiency (one spot ahead of Minnesota incidently).  Football Outsiders ranks their offensive line 27th in adjusted sack rating allowed (4 spots below Minnesota).  Just about any way you look at it, their offensive line is struggling to pass block and protect Cam Newton.

The Vikings defensive line, meanwhile, is ranked 5th best in adjusted sack rating by Football Outsiders and are tied for 4th in the NFL for total sacks with 31.  Looking at the individual matchups, Everson Griffen has an excellent matchup against Byron Bell.  Griffen is ranked 14th overall (out of 52) among 4-3 defensive ends in "pass rushing productivity" that looks at the total number of sacks, hits and hurries based on the total number of pass rushing snaps.  Conversely, Byron Bell is ranked dead last (out of 77) among offensive tackles in Pass Blocking Efficiency.  I would be very surprised if Everson Griffen doesn't have at least 1 sack in the game this Sunday.  While Brian Robison is having trouble getting sacks so far and has a generally bad pass blocking grade, his matchup also looks good.  The rest is pretty much a wash.  Hopefully our ends can apply pressure and collapse the pocket around Cam Newton.

Matchup Index: Panthers Run Blocking vs Vikings Run Defense

Panthers Player

RT David Foucault

RG Trai Turner

C Ryan Kalil

LG Amini Silatolu

LT Byron Bell

PFF Grade

-2.5

-0.8

+6.6

-2.4

-6.5

Vikings Player

LE Brian Robison

DT Shariff Floyd

DT Linval Joseph

RE Everson Griffen

PFF Grade

-0.8

+11.6

-0.9

+7.6

Carolina grades out a little better in run blocking, but that isn't saying much as they are still bad.   Football Outsiders ranks them 27th overall in Adjusted Line Yards (which measures how many yards the line blocks for independent of the running back).  Based on their 28th ranking in yards per carry, I think it's safe to say that the Panthers offensive line is struggling to run block.

We missed defensive tackle Shariff Floyd last week, as he is our highest graded run defender.  The Packers took advantage of his absence by running Eddie Lacy up the middle of our defense on 15 of their 20 rushing attempts for a 4.6 yard per carry average.  With the Vikings in the nickel most of the game, middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley only played 14 out of a possible 66 defensive snaps as well.  Shamar Stephen got the start with Floyd out, and PFF graded his run blocking -0.7 on the week.  Tom Johnson also got some snaps and scored the highest run defense grade of the week.  Despite their valiant efforts though, it amounted to one of the worst performances by our run defense all year and it surely contributed greatly to the Packers victory.  It remains to be seen if Floyd will play or not, but if he's healthy and can play at the same level he's been playing, he'll have a distinct advantage in run blocking against the Panthers, as will Everson Griffen.  All that said, Football Outsiders ranks our defensive line dead last in Adjusted Line Yards allowed.   Our run defense is currently ranked 21st overall as we allow 118.9 yards per game and 4.3 yards per carry (18th lowest).  So we haven't been particularly good at stopping the run anyway.

Matchup Index: Panthers Receivers vs Vikings Defensive Backs

Panthers Player

WR Jerricho Cotchery

WR Philly Brown

TE Greg Olsen

WR Kelvin Benjamin

PFF Grade

-0.3

+1.1

+9.2

-2.9

Vikings Player

Xavier Rhodes

Robert Blanton

Harrison Smith

Captain Munnerlyn

PFF Grade

+2.2

-1.9

+3.7

+3.0

Greg Olsen has an extremely high receiving grade, and with good reason as he's one of the better receiving tight ends in the league and Cam Newton's most reliable target in the passing game.  At 6'5" and 253 lbs he has the potential to present a mismatch for our shorter cornerbacks and safeties.  But Captian Munnerlyn should have some familiarity with Olsen since he was a member of the Panthers for the five years prior to joining the Vikings this season as a free agent.  Still our secondary grades out pretty well against the rest of their receiving options on an individual basis.

The Vikings defense allows an average of 22.2 points per game, ranked 15th in the NFL and allows 342.5 total yards per game, ranked 12th.  They have the #7 ranked passing defense allowing only 223.5 passing yards per game.  Based on the matchups above, I expect the Panthers passing game to struggle and their running game to find moderate success, depending on the health of Shariff Floyd.

The Vikings offense has been ineffective for most of the year, unfortunately.  Only able to generate 309 total offensive yards per game (ranked 30th) they struggle to generate points consistently, averaging only 18.4 points per game (ranked 27th).  They have been able to maintain a 0 turnover margin, but struggle on 3rd down where they convert only 35% of their attempts (27th best).  The Vikings offense, on the whole, averages only 4.9 yards per play (29th best) more than a full yard below the leader (Broncos at 6.2).

Teddy Bridgewater has had mixed results so far in his rookie year, and on the whole the Vikings passing game continues to struggle, averaging only 192.5 passing yards per game (29th best).  Norv Turner likes to call pass plays though, as we average 34.3 passing attempts per game (18th most), but are not particularly effective averaging only 6.2 yards per attempt (30th best).  Our 3-headed quarterback monster has a season quarterback rating of 70.3, ranked 31st in the league with an absurdly low TD to INT ratio (9-13).

The Vikings running game continues to be effective though, as we average 116.4 yards per game (13th best) and 4.6 yards per carry (tied for 6th best).  I do not for the life of me understand why we only run the ball an average of 25.4 times per game (23rd most) when it is clearly the most effective way for our team to move the ball down the field.  Not only are we efficient running the ball, we're explosive too tied for 6th most runs of 20+ yards (9) and tied for 2nd most runs of 40+ yards (3).  The indices below start in the trenches by first looking at the Vikings pass blocking, and then run blocking.

Matchup Index: Vikings Pass Blocking vs Panthers Pass Rushing

Vikings Player

RT Mike Harris

RG Joe Berger

C John Sullivan

LG Charlie Johnson

LT Matt Kalil

PFF Grade

-0.9

-3.3

-0.2

-9.4

-17.9

Panthers Player

LE Charles Johnson

DT Kawann Short

DT Star Lotulelei

RE Wes Horton

PFF Grade

+5.2

+8.7

+1.8

-6.9

This Vikings offensive line is simply bad at pass blocking, and now we've lost another starter for the year as Phil Loadholt tore his pectoral muscle in the game last week against Green Bay and is on injured reserve.  This line simply cannot catch a break.  As mentioned above, the Vikings offensive line is ranked 31st overall in Pass Blocking Efficiency by Pro Football Focus.  Football Outsiders on the other hand ranks our offensive line 24th overall in adjusted sack rating allowed.  While allowing 34 sacks on the year sure sounds bad...it could be worse.  The Jets have allowed 36 sacks and the Jaguars have allowed 43, both worse than the Vikings...so we have that going for us, which is nice.

The Panthers really miss starting right end Greg Hardy, as Wes Horton has not filled in very well in his absence.  But the other three guys have continued to perform at a high level in the pass rushing department.  Football Outsiders ranks their defensive line 12th overall in adjusted sack rating.  Kawann Short could cause us problems matching up against Joe Berger and John Sullivan.  We'll see how Mike Harris can handle Charles Johnson, but something tells me his -0.9 grade is misleading due to a small sample size.  Perhaps Matt Kalil can look serviceable against Wes Horton, but I wouldn't count on it.  The Panthers look like they might be able to get after Teddy Bridgewater and apply some pressure with their front four.

Matchup Index: Vikings Run Blocking vs Panthers Run Defense

Vikings Player

RT Mike Harris

RG Joe Berger

C John Sullivan

LG Charlie Johnson

LT Matt Kalil

PFF Grade

-1.7

+2.3

+3.8

-2.9

-6.5

Panthers Player

LE Charles Johnson

DT Kawann Short

DT Star Lotulelei

RE Wes Horton

PFF Grade

-6.0

+8.5

+5.0

-0.6

With the injury to Phil Loadholt, and Charlie Johnson slipping as of late, our individual run blocking grades suddenly look pretty pedestrian.  Football Outsiders ranks our offensive line 21st in Adjusted Line Yards and we are one of the better "power running" teams in the game with the 8th best "Power Success" percentage according to Football Outsiders.  Loadholt was our 2nd highest graded run blocker on the offensive line behind John Sullivan though, so it will be a major loss.  It remains to be seen how well Mike Harris can do in his place.

The Panthers defensive line is stout up the middle with a pair of defensive tackles that grade out very highly in run defense.  Football Outsiders ranks their defensive line 11th best in adjusted line yards allowed.  That said, on the whole their run defense is mediocre as they allow an average of 119.1 rushing yards per game (22nd, one rank below Minnesota) and an 4.4 yard per carry average (tied for 22nd).  We might have trouble running up the middle against the Panthers, especially with Luke Kuechley at middle linebacker, but out on the edges against their defensive ends, outside linebackers and cornerbacks, we should do much better, assuming Mike Harris and Matt Kalil are up to the task.

Matchup Index: Vikings Receivers vs Panthers Defensive Backs

Vikings Player

WR Greg Jennings

WR Cordarrelle Patterson

TE Kyle Rudolph

WR Charles Johnson

PFF Grade

-2.8

-4.0

-2.3

+0.3

Panthers Player

CB Antoine Cason

S Roman Harper

S Thomas DeCoud

CB Josh Norman

PFF Grade

-13.5

-6.7

+0.9

+0.4

If you had to guess which receiver had the highest receiving grade from Pro Football Focus after the first 11 games, would you have guessed Chase Ford?  I certainly would not have.   Charles Johnson is having a positive impact on the passing game after just two weeks getting the majority of the offensive snaps.  It's a small sample size to be sure, but if he can keep it up, he has a chance to be the most productive Vikings receiver at the end of the year.

The Panthers secondary is poor, plain and simple.  Antoine Cason is struggling mightily this season, and the Vikings would be wise to pick on him early and often, ditto for Roman Harper.  In fact, the Panthers pass defense allows an average of 254.9 passing yards per game (27th best) and a 7.5 yard per attempt average (tied for 18th best).   The Vikings wide receivers should have an easy time getting open this week.

When it is all said and done what we have are two bad teams going at it.  The Panthers offense should continue to struggle against the Vikings, especially with their passing game.  They could find some moderate success on the ground, but I would be surprised to see them go much higher than their scoring average of 19.5 points per game.  On the flipside, the Vikings offense will hopefully find success against a poor Panthers defense that allows 27.3 points per game (ranked 28th).  While Bridgewater will likely face consistent pressure once again, the Vikings receivers should be able to get open and find success through the air.  The Vikings running game should continue to be effective, especially if they can run out on the edges of the Panthers defense.

I expect yet another close game and I have to give a slight edge to the home team in my scoring prediction: Vikings prevail at home with a score of 23-20.