The Vikings schedule is ramping up. From the lowly Titans on the road, to the fierce rival Packers at home, to what could be the toughest game of the season for the Vikings- on the road at last year's NFC Champion Carolina.
Interestingly, at first glance it's not a terrible match-up for the Vikings, but one of strength vs. strength- and weakness vs. weakness. Here's what I mean:
Panthers Offense vs. Vikings Defense
For Carolina, virtually all the offense goes through reigning MVP Cam Newton. Running or passing, he is the biggest threat. Containing him will be key.
Like Green Bay, the Panthers have a pretty good pass blocking offensive line, with the exception of Mike Remmers at RT. Facing off against Remmers will be Brian Robison and Danielle Hunter, and they'll need to make the most of that match-up to help contain Cam and stop the Panthers rushing attack.
The Panthers go-to receivers are WR Kelvin Benjamin and TE Greg Olson, perhaps the best TE in the league after Gronkowski.
Benjamin is 6'5" 245 lbs., so he'll pose some match-up issues for the Vikings' smaller CBs. He's not a speed demon (4.61" 40) but he's a big target that is hard to bring down. After missing all of his 2nd year with an ACL, Benjamin has started the season strong.
Greg Olson at TE is also a tough match-up. He's had over 1,000 yards receiving the past two years, a big game on Sunday, and is also a good blocking TE.
Finally the Panthers have Ted Ginn in the slot matching up against Captain Munnerlyn, and Devin Funchess and Corey Brown filling out their receiver corps.
The Vikings do appear to have caught a bit of a break in that Jonathan Stewart, the Panthers main RB, looks to be out with a hamstring for the Vikings game. How much that will slow down their top-ranked rushing game remains to be seen.
It will interesting to see how Mike Zimmer game-plans against these multiple threats. Olson could command double-coverage, as could Benjamin. But with Cam Newton also a threat, there is a lot to cover. I'm guessing it's going to be a busy day for the Vikings linebackers, but this Carolina offense can stretch a defense so it will have to be a team effort to stop Carolina's potent offense.
It will also be interesting to see how aggressive Mike Zimmer is against Cam Newton, who generally is not as productive passing with pressure, but is one of the more effective QBs against the blitz. I"m guessing his defensive game plan may be similar to that against the Packers, emphasizing an aggressive, disciplined pass rush to attack and contain Newton, and using a LB to spy Newton and limit his rushing production.
In the secondary, they may be better off doubling Kelvin Benjamin (especially if Waynes is covering him), with a safety like Sendejo, and Anthony Barr matching up with Greg Olson. That would leave Kendricks to spy Newton, as he did Rodgers. Also wonder if Jayron Kearse could see any action against Carolina. His 6'4" 215 lbs frame may be a better match-up defending Benjamin and possibly Olson too.
But after two games the Carolina offense is #3 overall in yards/game, and #1 in scoring, so it will definitely be strength vs. strength going up against the Vikings #5 ranked defense. It would be nice if Xavier Rhodes is ready to go on Sunday.
Vikings Offense vs. Carolina Defense
The Carolina defense is centered around All-Pro LB Luke Kuechly. While a stout unit overall, the supporting cast is not as strong as it was last year, with the departure of Josh Norman at CB.
Still, the Panthers CB duo of rookie 2nd round pick James Bradberry and 2nd year, 5th round pick Bene Benwikere have fared well so far against less-than-stellar competition. We'll see how well they do against Diggs. Safety is probably the weakest group on the Carolina defense, with Kurt Coleman, whom the Viking let go a couple years ago, but seems to have found a home in Carolina, and Tre Boston (2nd year, 4th round pick) holding up the back end.
Up front, the Carolina defensive line is OK, but not dominating, despite a few top draft picks in recent years- Vernon Butler last year, Star Lotulelei, Kawann Short and Kony Ealy. 30-year old Charles Johnson is the edge rusher opposite Ealy. The group has produced a total of 4 sacks in their first two games, and allowed 106.5 yards/game rushing, and 3.9 yards/carry.
Carolina is one of the other teams that use the double-A gap blitz that Mike Zimmer uses, so it'll be interesting to see how well they can handle it. I would not be surprised if the Vikings had Bradford roll-out more often, blitz or not, as a way to relieve some pressure if the offensive line continues to struggle. Rolling-out is one of Bradford's strong suits.
If the Vikings offensive line can look more like the Titans game than the Packers game, and statistically over two games the Panthers are similar to the Titans, then Sam Bradford could have another good game passing.
I'm assuming Adrian Peterson will be out for this game, leaving the RB duties to Matt Asiata and Jerick McKinnon. I would not be the least bit surprised if they combine for over 100 yards rushing, and help get the Vikings running game back on track. Part of the reason is that the Vikings running game may be less predictable with Asiata & McKinnon than with AP. We'll see.
The Vikings will need that to help sustain more drives. They were only 28% on converting 3rd downs against the Packers, and that will need to improve if they are to beat the Panthers. Time of possession on offense may help in limiting Carolina's offensive production.
Looking at how Carolina may game plan against the Vikings offense led by Bradford, I wouldn't be surprised if they blitzed more. Bradford historically has not been very effective against the blitz, and I'm not sure how much confidence Ron Rivera has in his young CBs covering Diggs. We'll see.
Even if the Vikings match-up relatively well, this is still a very tough Carolina team. Playing on the road makes it even more difficult for the Vikings to emerge with a victory. Panthers are early 7 point favorites.
For the Vikings to win this game, they need to beat the Panthers in the following key metrics:
1. Turnovers. Both defenses have 6 takeaways, but the Vikings offense has yet to turn the ball over (I'm excluding Sendejo's lost fumble), while Carolina has committed 5 turnovers. They may need at least a 2 turnover advantage to beat the Panthers on the road.
2. Third-down conversions. The Vikings need to convert a higher percentage of third-downs than the Panthers to sustain drives, and keep the Panthers offense off the field.
3. Big plays. The Vikings need to stay even with Carolina in big plays (25+ yard pass plays, 10+ yard rush plays).
That's a tall order. If the Vikings are successful with #2 and #3, then they may not need a 2 turnover advantage, but winning each of these key metrics is key for the Vikings to beat a very good Panthers team.