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Vikings at Panthers Preview: Do You See?

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As the Vikings look to take down the up-and-down Panthers to finish a perfect road trip, they’re forcing the rest of the NFL to take notice.

NFL: Carolina Panthers at New Orleans Saints
Cam Newton and Christian McCaffrey are the focal points of a dangerous yet inconsistent Panthers offense.
Daily Advertiser-USA TODAY Sports

Lately, when I think about the 8-game win streak the Minnesota Vikings are currently enjoying, I keep being reminded of a particularly poignant scene from the movie Red Dragon. (Because quite frankly, who isn’t reminded of a Hannibal Lecter prequel that came out 15 years ago when they think about the Vikings?)

Ralph Fiennes plays main antagonist Francis Dolarhyde, known better as the Tooth Fairy serial killer or “The Great Red Dragon.” Dolarhyde claims that he “changes” his victims in order to get closer to becoming the Dragon. Ed Norton’s character, FBI agent Will Graham, tries to lure the Tooth Fairy out of hiding by giving a salacious interview to tabloid reporter Freddy Lounds, played by the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman. The tactic works, and the psychopath kidnaps the reporter to set the record straight.

In the macabre scene in question, Dolarhyde has Lounds glued to an old wheelchair as he shows a slideshow of his victims. (You can watch it here; it’s probably for the best if I don’t embed it since it’s pretty NSFW.) As the pictures become more and more gruesome, the killer keeps asking his captive, “Do you see?” The horrified Lounds can only look on in horror as he realizes that he’s about to be the next victim. (And is he ever.)

So why the hell does this grim snippet come to mind when I think of the game against the Carolina Panthers this Sunday?

Because it’s how I imagine Ron Rivera and his coaching staff watching Vikings game film.

“This is Julio Jones in human form. Do you see?”

“Y-yes.”

“This is Todd Gurley in human form. Do you see?”

“Yes.”

“This is Matt Ryan changing. Do you see?”

“Oh my God...”

“This is Aaron Rodgers changing. Do you see?”

[Starts weeping]

“This is Joe Flacco reborn! Do you see?!”

“Oh no...”

“This is Matthew Stafford, reborn. Do you see?”

“Please no...”

“No? No what?”

“Not me...not me...”

OK, so it might be a bit of hyperbole to say that Carolina is watching game film like they’re about to be murdered. But they certainly can’t be thrilled about what they’re going to face from the red-hot Vikings either. While I lamented on Monday that the Vikings still aren’t garnering the amount of national headlines that they should, the rest of the league surely must be taking notice of the current top seed in the NFC playoff picture.

So what is it about how the Vikings are playing that should have opponents so petrified? On both sides of the ball, you can’t narrow it down to just one or two things, which is precisely why they’re so scary right now.

On offense, they’re excelling in some very important facets of the game:

  • Taking care of the ball
  • Avoiding negative plays
  • Converting on third down and in the red zone
  • Keeping opponents guessing

Minnesota hasn’t turned the ball over since Case Keenum’s two ill-advised interceptions at the end of the Washington game nearly a month ago. Only two teams in the league turn the ball over less. Thanks to vastly improved pass blocking and Keenum’s excellent pocket presence, they’re still first in adjusted sack rate despite giving up two in Atlanta. The Vikings are tied for the seventh fewest penalties against—yes, even after the Thanksgiving game. They currently have the best third down percentage in the league (46.0%), which has helped put them in the top six in points, time of possession, plays, and yards per drive. They have also been incredibly efficient in the red zone since the bye, which has vaulted them into the top ten in red zone scoring percentage.

Most of all, they’re remaining unpredictable in Pat Shurmur’s offense. The Vikings employ play action as much as anyone in the league for good reason: they’re excellent at selling the run. One of the more underrated parts of Keenum’s game is how well he hides the ball on those plays. There is an art to it, and Case does his own little version of David Blaine street magic. The offensive line generally does a nice job of showing run at first as well.

This play from last week is a good example of two strategies Minnesota uses very often: play action and screens. Keenum shields the ball well, the line sells the run and hesitates just long enough before breaking out, and the guys in the back hold their blocks long enough to allow the play to develop.

Of course, even the best run simulations won’t work if you can’t run the ball for real. Andrew Krammer of the Star Tribune wrote about how the Vikings’ run game is improving historically—from dead last to sixth overall so far. Despite losing Dalvin Cook after 312 games, Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon are combining to provide the balance this offense so desperately craved a year ago. Their run blocking numbers and success rates aren’t spectacular by any means, but the Vikings are doing more than enough to keep Shurmur’s playbook wide open.

This is still very much a Mike Zimmer team, and the defense was on full display last week in Atlanta. The Vikings held the Falcons to 275 yards, 9 points, and one third down conversion despite not recording a sack or turnover. The Vikings are also best in the league at defensive third down rate. That’s simply a result of really sound play on that side of the ball.

I highlighted this play in my Monday recap, but seeing the teamwork on the coaches film is even more impressive. Everyone on the defense works together perfectly to combine for a crucial third down stop in the fourth quarter.

While the defense has been the backbone of most of this hot streak, it must be pointed out that the Falcons flat out missed some opportunities last week. Jones was held in check but had some uncharacteristic drops. Ryan missed a handful of throws that we’re used to seeing him make, even with the steady pressure the Vikings applied. If the good version of the Carolina Panthers shows up, they could be able to do some damage.

Fewer teams have had higher highs and lower lows this season than the Panthers. At times they have looked like true title contenders. After all, they’re 8-4 and currently holding on to one of the Wild Card spots in the NFC. They won a shootout with the Patriots in Foxborough and have held opponents to a single field goal on three different occasions this season. Other times, they have looked like a huge mess. They flat out laid an egg in Chicago, got unceremoniously swept by the Saints, and were lucky to escape with the win on a few occasions against some pretty substandard competition.

The play of Cam Newton this season has been the embodiment of the 2017 Panthers’ Jekyll and Hyde nature. Newton has had four games with a quarterback rating of over 100 and four games with a rating of under 60. When “Good Cam” shows up, he’s the stylin’, profilin’, high flyin’, read option runnin’, defense confusin’, Superman-posin’, win-stealin’, wheelin’ and dealin’ son of a gun (WOOO!) we saw for most of the 2015 season. But his valleys this season have been just as low as the peaks have been high.

The Vikings have seen (and caused) “Bad Cam” the last two times they have played the Panthers, both Minnesota victories. Matthew Coller of 1500 ESPN pointed out that while Mike Zimmer is preparing for “Good Cam” there has been a common theme of forcing sub-par play from the Panthers QB. The Vikings have sacked him twelve times in their last two meetings, including a whopping eight in Carolina last year. Struggling is no surprise when you’re constantly under pressure.

And with Everson Griffen going up against his old teammate Matt Kalil on Sunday, Griff should be good for eight sacks by himself, right? That’s what most Vikings fans seem to think heading into the game. While Kalil is by no means playing at an All-Pro level, his poor play is probably getting blown a bit out of proportion. I think we may be projecting our vitriol for his poor past with our favorite team a little more than he deserves. Kalil actually had a decent game against Cameron Jordan and the Saints last week apart from drawing a facemask penalty.

That said, Newton has still been sacked 28 times this season and Kalil has been a big part of that. He’s still incredibly susceptible to getting beat around the edge, his recognition of where pressure is coming from can still be laughably bad at times, and he can still be the turnstile that we had come to loathe over his past few seasons in Minnesota.

The Panthers have seemed to come to grips of the limitations of their $55 million man in recent weeks and are mixing it up a bit. Carolina has employed more plays where Kalil slides in to help the interior blocking off the snap, leaving the edge defender to get chipped by a tight end or back while Newton gets rid of the ball in a hurry. I would expect the Panthers to use a lot of quick-hit passes and screens to Christian McCaffrey on Sunday. Unless of course Cam has a death wish.

Speaking of McCaffrey, the Panthers have definitely put their first round toy to use through the first twelve games of his career, especially in the passing game. The rookie running back already has a whopping 90 targets this season, tied for first on the team with Devin Funchess. The run game hasn’t been nearly as fruitful for McCaffery. He has averaged only 3.5 yards on 82 carries this season. That’s actually better a better clip than top rusher Jonathan Stewart, and as Matt Harmon points out, he is improving of late. But he hasn’t proven to be the running threat that fellow NFC South rookie Alvin Kamara has already become. If it wasn’t for Newton getting over 500 yards on the ground, Carolina would have one of the worst running attacks in the league. It looks like start tight end and TOTAL CHEATER TV ANNOUNCER SPY Greg Olsen is due to return on Sunday, which should be a huge help to the offense. But if Carolina becomes one-dimensional against this Minnesota D, it could be a very long day for them.

Even if the Panthers offense doesn’t accomplish much, their defense could keep them hanging around on Sunday. Football Outsiders has them neck and neck with the Vikings in defensive DVOA. Luke Kuechly is a vortex in the middle of the defense that gobbles up tackles with ruthless efficiency. Kawann Short is a force on their defensive line. Julius Peppers is still productive despite being around since the days of Y.A. Tittle. Old friends Kurt Coleman and Captain Munnerlyn aren’t exactly having career years but are still important parts of a solid secondary. When this defense is on, they can be incredibly tough. The Vikings may find it especially difficult to run the ball consistently against Carolina’s fourth-ranked run defense.

They aren’t infallible though. Billy Marshall of Cat Scratch Reader provided an excellent film breakdown of the Saints victory over the Panthers last week. While Minnesota’s offense might not have the firepower of New Orleans, some of the concepts that the Saints used could definitely be employed by the Vikings on Sunday. Common themes of Carolina’s troubles were play action and pre-snap motion that confused their coverage, two facets that are used often in Shurmur’s offense. If the pass blocking holds up well enough, the Vikings pass catchers should be able to find space pretty frequently.

It’s tough to predict how a game will go against a team that can vary as much as the Panthers have this season. It isn’t too difficult to envision a dominating Vikings win. It’s just as feasible to see the Panthers being more than they can handle at the end of a grueling stretch of away games. But in the end I can’t pick against a team that has been as consistently efficient as the Vikings have during this win streak. They keep making plays on both sides of the ball when it matters most. I think the defense will force “Bad Cam” to show up with unpredictable pressure while the offense will move the chains enough with unpredictable play calling.

By about 3:15 on Sunday afternoon, I think the Vikings will be able to point to their 11-2 record and unblemished road trip, screaming one simple question to the rest of the league:

DO YOU SEE?!

Prediction

Vikings 24, Panthers 16


And now for the rest of my Week 14 NFL picks (home teams in ALL CAPS):

FALCONS over Saints

Atlanta is at home on a short week, they’re going to throw everything and the kitchen sink at New Orleans to stay in the playoff hunt, and this result would help our playoff seeding. Why not?

BILLS over Colts

They should play this game at the same time of day that the Senate passed that hand-written tax bill. Especially if Nathan Peterman plays again.

BENGALS over Bears

Watching recent film on Cincinnati for next week’s game is going to be a nightmare. I’ll get to choose between this garbage and last Monday’s bloodbath against Pittsburgh. Wheee!

Packers over BROWNS

Yo. Cleveland. This would be a reeeeeeally nice time for that ol’ first win of the season. But you’re the Browns, so it’ll never happen, and we’re going to be subjected to 8 million “HERE COME AARON RODGERS AND THE PACKERS!” stories. Thanks for nothing.

Cowboys over GIANTS

My Survivor Pool pick of the week, only because I already picked the Packers earlier in the season so I can’t jinx them against the Browns. Eli Manning is back, but so is the rest of that putrid Giants offense.

BUCCANEERS over Lions

I’m worried about Matthew Stafford’s hand and Detroit’s offensive line. I’m also worried that won’t matter against Tampa’s non-existent pass rush, but I’ll take a flier on the Bucs to pull it off.

CHIEFS over Raiders

The 2016 Vikings won their Week 14 game to go 7-6 and keep their feeble playoff hopes alive. Since the 2017 Chiefs are obviously a carbon copy of that team, I’ll pick them to do the same.

49ers over TEXANS

Jimmy Garoppolo baby! He led the Niners to FIVE field goal drives last week! QUARTERBACK OF THE FUTURE!!

Jets over BRONCOS

Raise your hand if you had the Jets as a road favorite in Denver before the season started. Also, I would like to nominate Trevor Siemian saying “I’m kind of out of sync at times” for Understatement of the Year.

Titans over CARDINALS

I really wanted to pick the upset here since the Titans continue to be one of the least impressive 8-4 teams ever. Plus Adrian Peterson is probably going to miss the game, and we know how removing AP has helped his previous two teams. But I just can’t bring myself to do it.

CHARGERS over Redskins

Admit it—you care much more about the fantasy playoff implications of this game than its real-life playoff implications.

RAMS over Eagles

GIVE US THAT NUMBER ONE SEED, RAMS! (Although it makes me extremely nervous to pick LA knowing that the crowd will likely be 75% Philly fans.)

Seahawks over JAGUARS

When are we going to stop being surprised at Seattle making a late-season run behind the wizardry of Russell Wilson?

STEELERS over Ravens

You know that Pittsburgh/Cincy rivalry is getting out of hand when you look at this game and think “oh good, this one should be much tamer.”

Patriots over DOLPHINS

STOP. PUTTING. MIAMI. IN. PRIME. TIME. GAMES.

Last week: 13-3
Season so far: 124-68