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Vikings at Panthers preview: Once in a lifetime

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Daily Norseman previews the Week 3 game between Minnesota and Carolina by asking ourselves “How did we get here?”

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Carolina Panthers
The Vikings will need to block out all the distractions and focus on all the unique problems Cam Newton presents on Sunday.
Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

And you may find yourself
Living without your quarterback
And you may find yourself
Losing your running back that’s all-world
And you may find yourself
Behind the blocking of a terrible offensive line...

But you may find yourself in a beautiful stadium
With a beautiful record
And you may ask yourself, well...
How did I get here?

Those of you that were around for the days when MTV actually played music videos may remember the song that I just took liberties with: “Once In A Lifetime” by Talking Heads. Not only is it a Grade A example of just how weird the 80’s were—seriously, just watch that video—it’s a solid metaphor for the 2016 Minnesota Vikings season thus far.

Teddy Bridgewater went down for the season with a horrific knee injury right before the season started. The Week 2 quarterback had all of 15 days to prepare with his new team. The Week 1 quarterback was an AARP member. Adrian Peterson had 57 total yards through six and a half quarters before tearing his meniscus and will probably miss most (if not all) of the rest of the season. The offensive line has offered about as much resistance as a wet paper bag, and that was before their $11 million left tackle got placed on injured reserve. And now the Week 3 game might need to be moved from its scheduled venue. All that’s missing from the beginning of this Vikings season is our pets’ heads falling off.

Yet here we are, with the Vikings 2-0 and for the moment alone atop the NFC North. Even for fans that are so versed in every imaginable crazy story line, this season truly is “Once In A Lifetime.”

How did I get here, indeed.

After over $23 million of offensive cap space went down for the foreseeable future in the span of one Wednesday morning, many of the Vikings faithful remained just that—faithful. The mood around Vikings Twitter was surprisingly upbeat and full of people convincing themselves that the team could still be in decent shape. After all, it wasn’t like Peterson’s 1.6 yards per carry this season couldn’t be duplicated. And there are plenty of tackles out there that can allow their defender to travel in a straight line to sack the quarterback like this:

See? Andre Smith did it on the same play!

I understand where people are coming from when they say the absence of Peterson might actually open up the offense. Sam Bradford prefers the shotgun (as did Bridgewater before him), something that AP isn’t very comfortable with. As great of a runner as Peterson is (was?), he remained a sort of one-trick pony in a league that’s asking its running backs to be increasingly versatile in the passing game. Just two years ago, Jerick McKinnon and Matt Asiata proved that they could do a serviceable job in Peterson’s stead.

Of course that was behind an offensive line that was good at run blocking. In 2014—the last time McKinnon and Asiata were forced to fill in—the Vikings finished 13th in the league in Adjusted Line Yards, a metric Football Outsiders use to measure offensive line performance in the running game. Through two games this season, they rank dead last. You could have Tecmo Bowl Bo Jackson in the backfield—driving his Kia—and he couldn’t gain yardage behind this line. The line needs to get a lot better before anything else in this offense does. If not, they could derail all of the lofty goals the Vikings set for themselves this season. As crazy as it sounds, the loss of Kalil might prove to be more damaging than the loss of Peterson.

But for argument’s sake let’s say T.J. Clemmings plays a lot better at left tackle than he did at his natural position of right tackle his rookie year. (Why would that happen? Who knows! Just amuse me here.) With Peterson out, defenses won’t stack the box against the Minnesota offense, which could mean more space for the backup running backs to operate. On the other hand, that might translate into a lot more help over the top against the NFL’s leading receiver, Stefon Diggs.

At least that was the narrative I was planning to go with until I did some research. It turns out that both parts of the narrative could be incorrect. All the perceived “stacked boxes” and “extra defenders” haven’t really changed much with the different running backs in recent years. Some stats from Football Outsiders’ Scott Kacsmar:

It turns out that the extra defenders in the box are much less a result of who’s running the ball and much more a function of who the Vikings have in blocking. From Arif:

So the blockers aren’t being outnumbered—they’re just being outplayed. (I think I liked the narrative better than the truth for this one.)

As for the “defenses will shift coverage to Diggs more” theory, that might have already been happening before Peterson got hurt. It turns out that the Packers already had safety help on Diggs for the majority of his receptions. Diggs and Bradford simply beat it on most occasions.

That play came against Cover 1, even if that “1” was covering Diggs. What might change is that Carolina and other future opponents will have more defensive backs farther off the line of scrimmage. Of course, Diggs can find ways to beat that coverage as well.

Neither of these plays work without Sam Bradford’s passes being right on the money, which happened on most of his throws last Sunday night. Despite facing pressure on nearly half of his dropbacks against Green Bay, he was incredibly accurate under some very tough circumstances. In my Week 2 preview I highlighted how Bradford often had disastrous results when under duress. It was definitely a pleasant surprise to see how well he handled it from the Packers. This 4th and 2 dart to Diggs with Clay Matthews storming in unblocked was even tougher than it looked live, and extremely pivotal to the Vikings’ victory.

Will Bradford have this kind of performance week in and week out? His previous 63 career starts suggest otherwise. But again, we might not be able to see whether he can replicate Sunday’s effort if his offensive line gets him killed first. According to Pro Football Focus, Bradford faced pressure on 48.6% of his 35 dropbacks in the game. That means Minnesota’s pass blocking has to significantly improve just to reach the success rate of Sex Panther cologne.

Speaking of Panthers...what a great way to transition to this week’s opponent! After losing to Denver to start the season—the team that has handed Carolina two of their three losses over the past 20 months—the Panthers bounced back with a solid (if slightly sloppy) victory over the 49ers. Since the Vikings trounced the Panthers in their last meeting in 2014, Carolina has gone 23-4 including the postseason. So yeah, the Panthers are good, and they have been good for a while.

You’re going to be good as long as Cam Newton is your quarterback. The reigning NFL MVP is a lab prototype come to life. He’s huge, incredibly mobile, and he can make just about every NFL throw. But you already knew that. The beauty of Newton’s effectiveness is that he usually doesn’t have to make every NFL throw; he can succeed on just a handful of well-executed routes and concepts.

A lot of what the Panthers run on offense doesn’t differ much from what you’ll see on Fridays and Saturdays across the country. They just execute better than anyone else at this level, mostly because Newton is such a unique player to defend.

This play from last week illustrates how simple misdirection combined with the threat of Cam’s running ability can lead to big gains. A fake handoff to Mike Tolbert, then Newton bouncing outside to draw the outside defender, followed by a quick pitch to Fozzy Whittaker, and boom—a quick chunk of about 20 yards.

Cam’s ability to keep the defense honest on these option style runs (along with the body to endure the hits taken in some of those runs) basically creates another blocker in the run game. No fullback or extra tight end is needed on the edge rusher in the play above because Newton neutralizes him. (Newtralizes? No? I shouldn’t try to make that a thing? OK fine.) The loss of Jonathan Stewart will hurt the Panthers’ running attack a bit but Whittaker and Cameron Artis-Payne should pick up the slack just fine.

Much like the offense itself, defending the run against Carolina isn’t incredibly complicated—it’s just difficult to execute at a high level. The Vikings will need to be very disciplined and tackle very well in space to prevent the Panthers from making big plays on the ground.

Even if the run defense is sound, you still have to worry about Newton using play action and chucking the ball to one of his three favorite giants: Kelvin Benjamin, Greg Olsen, and Devin Funchess. All three are 6’5” and capable of making tough contested catches. (They also have Ted Ginn, who most Panthers fans consider a slightly better version of Troy Williamson.) Benjamin has had a great start to the 2016 season after missing last year with an ACL tear. His rapport with Newton hasn’t missed a beat and he’s making a lot of receptions he wasn’t making his rookie year.

Again, Carolina won’t run anything most football fans haven’t seen a thousand times before. They just have the personnel to run it like you’ve never seen before. Simply put, the Panthers have unconventional players that can hurt you in some of the most conventional ways.

The good news is that while the Vikings offense might lose eight more players between this post and kickoff on Sunday, the defense is still relatively intact. That side of the ball was always going to be the backbone the team this season; as long as they remain healthy the Vikings will remain a tough out. It looks like the Vikings might get Xavier Rhodes back, which could go a long way toward slowing down Benjamin and the Panthers’ unique attack. (Who knows, maybe Sharrif Floyd will be healthy enough to play a game or two this season too.) It will certainly take an all hands on deck approach to stifle Cam & Co.

Carolina’s defense is still very good even after the ballyhooed departure of Josh Norman. Their corners are young but talented. Their linebacking corps of Thomas Davis, Luke Kuechly, and Shaq Thompson is a force. Charles Johnson (the Carolina defensive end, not our wide receiver) is probably going to find his way into the backfield a time or two. That said, they have made a couple pretty notable mistakes in the first two games. (Allowing a 75-yard touchdown to a tight end last week wasn’t a good look.)

Could the Vikings offense find a few big plays on offense and keep Cam in check on defense? Sure. But in the end I just don’t see how the Vikings can overcome the black plague of injuries that has spread through their locker room over the past month. Asking Clemmings to anchor an already porous offensive line and protect a quarterback with a rich injury history of his own against a very tough front seven while adjusting to the loss of the main focal point of your offense on the road against the reigning NFC champions? That is an order taller than Carolina’s receivers.

I’m all about #InZimmerWeTrust as much as anyone else, but man, this franchise just can’t seem to catch a break.

Same as it ever was.

Prediction

Panthers 24, Vikings 13

(Of course I was wrong picking against the Vikings last week too.)


And now for the rest of my Week 3 NFL picks (home teams in ALL CAPS):

Texans over PATRIOTS

If the Pats can conquer Houston’s tough defense with a third-string quarterback and Rob Gronkowski not playing or being less than 100%, just slot them in the AFC Championship Game right now.

Cardinals over BILLS

Yep, Rex, your team giving up a billion yards to the Jets last week was totally your offensive coordinator’s fault. Good move. Can’t wait to see you on a network pregame show next year!

BENGALS over Broncos

This is the game that Denver will finally rue the day they cut superstar Vikings running back Ronnie Hillman! OK maybe not but I still like Cincy at home.

DOLPHINS over Browns

My Survivor Pool pick of the week, still alive at 2-0 after Carolina took care of business last week. I know the Dolphins aren’t good, but when has a terrible 0-2 Browns team ever gone on the road and beaten another 0-2 team? Oh wait. Don’t answer that.

PACKERS over Lions

Too many “What’s wrong with Aaron Rodgers?” articles have been written this week for me to pick against him now. (Although I have certainly enjoyed reading every single one of them.)

Raiders over TITANS

I still don’t understand how Oakland lost that game last week and how Tennessee won that game last week. I’ll pick the market to correct itself for now.

GIANTS over Redskins

Norman vs. Beckham II will probably be as disappointing as most boxing rematches. But I like what I have seen from New York’s defense so far; I haven’t liked much of anything I have seen from Washington so far.

JAGUARS over Ravens

Baltimore has beaten two of the league’s worst teams to start the season. That might not cut it against Blake Bortles and his three career first quarter touchdown passes. (Seriously. Only three. That’s a real stat!)

BUCCANEERS over Rams

If only the Rams could play that pushover Seattle every week.

SEAHAWKS over 49ers

Seattle is favored by 9 points even though they’re averaging only 7.5 points per game. So congratulations on that, Niners. Vegas expects you to score negative points.

Chargers over COLTS

San Diego might not be terrible even if they’re competing with the Vikings for the Most Exploded Knees By Crucial Offensive Players title this season. Meanwhile Indianapolis is an Andrew Luck injury away from having the worst roster in the league.*

* Non-Browns division.

CHIEFS over Jets

I think Kansas City’s disappointing loss was more a function of how good Houston is. So guess what I think the Jets’ impressive win over Buffalo was a function of.

Steelers over EAGLES

Did you know Carson Wentz went to the same college as I did?! And did you know that the college we went to beat Iowa last weekend?! Oh, you did and you’re sick of hearing about it?! Well maybe a Pittsburgh win will reduce all the noise of Wentz’s impending Hall of Fame induction.

But just a little. Because he’s still totally going to Canton, you guys. Goooooooo Bison!

COWBOYS over Bears

How many more starters do you think the Vikings would have to lose to make them as bad as the Bears? I’d put the over/under at about 6.5.

SAINTS over Falcons

“Why yes honey, I’d love to help out with whatever you have planned on Monday night. Isn’t there football on? Nope, none that I can think of. I’m free all evening.”

Last week: 10-6
Season so far: 21-11