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Opposition Analysis and Research: Carolina Edition

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A statistical look at Minnesota’s opponent on Sunday, the Carolina Panthers

Minnesota Vikings v Carolina Panthers
Danielle and the Vikings defense beat the snot out of Cam Newton and the Panthers last season. Can they put on a repeat performance on Sunday?
Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

The Minnesota Vikings are now four-fifths of the way through the five-game stretch that everyone at the beginning of the season marked down as the hardest part and they have yet to lose. Of course they also won four games before this stretch started, so there’s more than a little continuity in winning going on right now. Anyway, the Vikings, though they didn’t score as many points as they could have against the Falcons, handled their business and did just enough for the win. Now let’s take a look at the team standing in the way of the Vikings going 4-0 against the NFC South this season, the Carolina Panthers.

Schedule

The Panthers have some of the same issues that people are giving the Eagles grief for, as they, having placed 4th in 2016, are playing a schedule that does not feature a particularly difficult slate of opponents. Their best win was easily their 33-30 victory over the Patriots in Week 4. Carolina’s other wins came against: the 49ers (2-10), Bills (6-6), Lions (6-6), Bucs (4-8), Falcons (7-5), Dolphins (5-7) and the Jets (5-7). So at the moment, though not their fault for a few of the teams, the Panthers have only beaten two teams that currently own a record over .500.

The Panthers do get the benefit of having their next three games, including Sunday’s game against the Vikings, at home. The Panthers haven’t taken advantage of playing at home as much as they could have, going 3-2 at home (beat the Bills, Falcons and Fins, lost to the Saints and Eagles). This will be Carolina’s first home game since Week 10 when they beat the Dolphins 45-21. The Panthers are averaging 22 points a game on offense at home and allowing 20.6. Pretty balanced, all things considered.

Most recent game

The Panthers traveled to the Big Easy for a divisional matchup against the Saints, with the winner taking over as the top dog in the NFC South. Unfortunately for the Panthers, they couldn’t handle New Orleans’ rejuvenated offense and lost for the second time in 2017 to the Saints, 31-21. Cam Newton went 17-27 for 183 yards and two touchdowns in the loss and led the Panthers in rushing with 51 yards on six attempts. The Panthers also got Jonathan Stewart’s 45 yards and a touchdown on 11 attempts and rookie Christian McCaffrey’s 16 yards on 6 carries to bolster their ground game behind Newton. As for Carolina’s pass-catchers, they were headed by Devin Funchess’ four catches on seven targets for 60 yards and a score, with McCaffrey snagging Newton’s other passing touchdown while totaling 33 yards on five catches (six targets). Oh, and the Panthers attempted a fake punt that fell incomplete.

The Panthers defense had a rough go of it with Brees and the Saints, as they allowed him to complete 25 passes on 34 attempts for 269 yards and a solo touchdown. The Saints’ new dual-headed monster of Ingram and Kamara on the ground combined for 145 yards and three rushing touchdowns against the Saints (Ingram with 14 att. for 85 yards and a score, Kamara with 60 yards on 9 carries and two scores). Michael Thomas headed up New Orleans’ pass catchers, catching five passes on nine targets for 70 yards and Brees’ one touchdown, with Kamara adding 66 yards on five catches (six targets).

So that’s a look at the box score from last Sunday’s game. Now let’s take a look and see what the Panthers will be trying to do against the Vikings this Sunday.

Offense

Ground Game

Jonathan Stewart had been the top dog in Carolina’s ground game for several years, but that seems to be changing this season. Stewart has surrendered some ground game work to Cam and rookie Christian McCaffrey, though he does still lead the Panthers in carries (164 to Newton’s 89) and yards (531 to Newton’s 515). Both Stewart and McCaffrey have played in all 12 games this season, so while the Panthers may still be trying to figure out what McCaffrey’s role in their offense will be going forward, they have seemingly found a balance that works out pretty well for them.

Carolina’s ground game

Player Attempts (Rank) Yards (Rank) Yards per attempt (Rank) Rushing touchdowns (Rank) DYAR (Rank) DVOA (Rank)
Player Attempts (Rank) Yards (Rank) Yards per attempt (Rank) Rushing touchdowns (Rank) DYAR (Rank) DVOA (Rank)
Jonathan Stewart 164 (13) 531 (25) 3.2 (t-184) 3 (t-28) 122 (34) -26.4% (34)
Cam Newton 89 (t-37) 515 (28) 5.8 (t-47) 5 (t-7) 111 (4) 13.8% (18)
Christian McCaffrey 82 (t-40) 284 (t-53) 3.5 (t-169) 2 (t-45) -50 (DNQ) -24% (DNQ)

The Panthers, usually known for having at least an okay ground game, are running an offense this season that is featuring a profoundly ineffective ground game. They are ranked 18th in run game DVOA (-8%), Stewart is dead last of the top qualifiers in ground game DYAR and DVOA and McCaffrey is fourth-worst in DYAR among the non-qualifiers (players who have fewer than 100 touches on the ground). About the only thing that saves them is that Newton is fourth in DYAR, but even Newton is 18th in DVOA among quarterbacks.

Newton has the longest run of the year among Panther players, 69 yards, and that came in their blowout of the Dolphins. McCaffrey has a 40-yard carry this season, which means on his other 81 carries, he’s gotten 244 yards (3.01 yards per carry) and Jonathan Stewart’s longest gain on the ground is all of 18 yards. This is a ground game that’s basically hoping to pound you into the dirt above actually being effective. The Panthers also have just two rushing touchdowns coming from more than 10 yards away from the end zone (a 16 yard rush by Newton and a 12-yard carry by Cameron Artis-Payne). Six other players on the Panthers have combined for 205 yards and a touchdown on 24 carries (8.54 yards per attempt), so the Vikings should be aware that while Newton, McCaffrey and Stewart are their main guns on offense, other players are capable of carrying the ball.

This bludgeon-you-to-death ground game has, however, the Panthers to rank fourth in attempts (361), fifth in rushing yards (1533), eighth in rushing touchdowns (11) and 11th in yards per attempt (4.2). The Panthers have rushed for 100 or more yards in nine of their 12 games, including two games (wins over the Dolphins and Falcons) where they rushed for more than 200 yards in the game. They are, however, 2-1 in games where they are held under 100 yards rushing, including a truly bizarre game for the Panthers where they beat the Lions 27-24 despite totaling just 28 yards on the ground. The Vikings have yet to allow more than 115 yards on the ground this season, whereas the Panthers have eclipsed that mark in six games and are 5-1 in those games.

Football Outsiders: Carolina’s OL, run-blocking

Carolina's Offensive Line Adjusted line yards (Rank) Power success (Rank) Stuffed percentage (Rank) 2nd level yards (Rank) Open field yards (Rank) ALY: Left End (Rank) ALY: Left tackle (Rank) ALY: Mid/Guard (Rank) ALY: Right tackle (Rank) ALY: Right end (Rank)
Carolina's Offensive Line Adjusted line yards (Rank) Power success (Rank) Stuffed percentage (Rank) 2nd level yards (Rank) Open field yards (Rank) ALY: Left End (Rank) ALY: Left tackle (Rank) ALY: Mid/Guard (Rank) ALY: Right tackle (Rank) ALY: Right end (Rank)
2017 3.66 (27) 69% (8) 21% (15) .93 (29) .46 (28) 3.33 (21) 3.26 (27) 4.11 (16) 3.02 (26) 2.43 (31)

So, like one would expect when you have the apprentice of human bowling ball Mike Tolbert as your lead running back and one of the most powerfully athletic quarterbacks in the NFL under center, the Panthers are pretty darn good at making sure they succeed in short yardage and suck eggs basically everywhere else. If the Panthers are running the ball, it’s almost a guarantee they are getting tackled within five yards of the line of scrimmage if not before.

Also helping them in the short-yardage situations is All-Pro center Ryan Kalil who, unlike his brother, does not need to have excellence demanded of him to succeed and is one of the reasons why, unlike when they run everywhere and anywhere else on their offensive line they actually succeed slightly more often when they go right up the middle.

As for Carolina in pass-blocking situations, they are currently 20th in the NFL with an adjusted sack rate of 7.3%.

Carolina’s passing game

Player Targets Receptions Yards Receiving touchdowns Catch % DYAR (Rank) DVOA (Rank) DPI
Player Targets Receptions Yards Receiving touchdowns Catch % DYAR (Rank) DVOA (Rank) DPI
Christian McCaffrey 90 64 501 4 71.10% 100 (6) 5.4% (15) 0
Devin Funchess 90 54 703 6 60% 145 (21) 7.7% (28) 2/40
Ed Dickson 44 28 415 1 63.60% 66 (11) 15% (11) 0
Russell Shepard 32 17 202 1 53.10% -41 (DNQ) -29.8% (DNQ) 0
Jonathan Stewart 12 6 44 1 50% -14 (DNQ) -34.9% (DNQ) 0
Greg Olsen 10 4 38 0 40% -19 (DNQ) -33.2% (DNQ) 1/4

So....yeah, it’s basically a two-man show in Carolina now that Kelvin Benjamin is now in Buffalo. McCaffrey is being used a TON in the passing game this season and the Vikings will need to account for him on a play-by-play basis for what he can do to a team through the air alone. Funchess is the new top dog in Carolina with Benjamin gone and Newton has been targeting him with a single-minded obsession ever since. It certainly didn’t help that Curtis Samuel, who could have assumed a #2 or #3 WR role with Benjamin gone, is on IR after an ankle injury required surgery. He had drawn 2 PI calls for 61 yards total, so his potential as a deep threat is missed in this offense.

That’s because, well, the rest of their pass-catchers haven’t been very good this season. Greg Olsen, that usual picture of health that he is, has only just recently come off of injured reserve after breaking his foot in Week 2 and hasn’t done a whole hell of a lot. Ed Dickson has been the top tight end for the Panthers with Olsen out, but he just hasn’t been the same, only managing 415 yards this season. The lack of production from Carolina’s tight ends has been particularly noticeable considering Olsen is fresh off his third consecutive season with 1000+ yards receiving, the first tight end in NFL history to manage that particular feat.

I mean, really, it’s Funchess, McCaffrey, Dickson, Shepard and Olsen as Newton’s only pass-catchers right now, and that’s not exactly a promising stable of targets. This has meant that Newton has targeted 14 different wide receivers this season, with all of them making at least 1 catch.

Now let’s take a look at the QB leading this offense.

Quarterback

Cam Newton is, as far as I can tell, the first quarterback I’ll study in this weekly article that is NOT playing like a top-10 quarterback before facing the Vikings.

Cam Newton

Player Comp./Att. (Comp %) Yards TD/INT Y/A (Rank) AY/A (Rank) Quarterback rating (Rank) QBR (rank) NY/A (Rank) ANY/A (Rank) DYAR (Rank) DVOA (Rank)
Player Comp./Att. (Comp %) Yards TD/INT Y/A (Rank) AY/A (Rank) Quarterback rating (Rank) QBR (rank) NY/A (Rank) ANY/A (Rank) DYAR (Rank) DVOA (Rank)
Cam Newton 228/377 (60.5%) 2583 16/11 6.9 (22) 6.4 (t-24) 83 (25) 50.4 (t-20) 5.91 (22) 5.48 (24) 127 (21) -6.2% (23)

Newton has never exactly been an accurate passer in the NFL, with his best accuracy season coming in 2013 when he completed 61.7% of his passes. 2017 is currently his second-best accuracy season, though, as Newton is completing 60.5% of his passes. 2016 Sam Bradford he is not. Oddly enough, several of his numbers this season are scarily close to his 2016 season; his yards per attempt and adjusted yards per attempt are both exactly the same in both seasons and his net yards per attempt and adjusted net yards per attempt are within .01 and .02 of each other, respectively. Some numbers are slightly up and down from last season; his completion percentage has jumped from an unsightly 52.9% to its current mark of 60.5%, his interception percentage has jumped from 2.7 to 2.9, his yards per game has dropped from 233.9 in 2016 to 215.3 this season and his quarterback rating has jumped from 75.8 to 83.

Newton has not exactly had a lot of luck against the Vikings in his career, either. In four games against the purple and gold, Carolina’s star quarterback is just 1-3. He has gone 81/131 (61.8%) for 988 yards, seven touchdowns and four interceptions (three of which came in last season’s game, the fourth coming in 2014). The Vikings have gotten to Newton 16 times in their four games against him (a full half of those sacks coming in last season’s game), the most of any non-NFC South team Newton has faced in his career. Newton has to be particularly sick of facing a Mike Zimmer-led defense, as the Vikings have collected 12 of their 16 sacks and all four of their interceptions against him in the two games they have played him since Mike Zimmer took over as head coach of the Vikings. Now that’s domination!

Newton is averaging a respectable 7.54 yards per attempt and 7.24 adjusted yards per attempt against the Vikings and averages 247 yards per game against Minnesota. As for how he does on the ground against us, we are tied for the second-most non-NFC South rushing attempts against (31, and the team ahead of us, Seattle, has a game on us yet) and we have allowed just 158 rushing yards on those attempts (5.1 yards per carry) and two rushing touchdowns. So the Vikings, for the most part, have actually managed to limit and frustrate one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in the NFL.

As for how Newton does playing at home over the road, he’s basically playing about as well at home as he is on the road, so there’s not really that much of a benefit to playing him in one place over another. Newton has split his four previous games against the Vikings between home and road games, going 0-2 at home and 1-1 in Minnesota.

Offensive Efficiency

PFR Efficiency: Carolina Panthers

Organization Offensive scoring % (Rank) Average starting field position (Rank) Average time of drive (Rank) Avg. # of plays per drive (Rank) Avg. # of yards per drive (Rank) Avg. points per drive (Rank)
Organization Offensive scoring % (Rank) Average starting field position (Rank) Average time of drive (Rank) Avg. # of plays per drive (Rank) Avg. # of yards per drive (Rank) Avg. points per drive (Rank)
Pro Football Reference 37.6% (10) Own 29.5 (5) 2:58 (1) 6.02 (8) 29.6 (15) 1.94 (11)

Football Outsiders Efficiency: Carolina Panthers

Organization Yards per drive (Rank) Points per drive (Rank) Avg. starting field position (Rank) Plays per drive (Rank) TOP per drive (Rank) Drive Success Rate (Rank) Touchdowns per drive (Rank) Field goals per drive (Rank) Punts per drive (Rank) 3&Outs per drive (Rank) Average field position after kickoff (Rank) Pts. per red zone drive (Rank) TDs per red zone drive (Rank) Avg. lead at the beginning of drives (Rank)
Organization Yards per drive (Rank) Points per drive (Rank) Avg. starting field position (Rank) Plays per drive (Rank) TOP per drive (Rank) Drive Success Rate (Rank) Touchdowns per drive (Rank) Field goals per drive (Rank) Punts per drive (Rank) 3&Outs per drive (Rank) Average field position after kickoff (Rank) Pts. per red zone drive (Rank) TDs per red zone drive (Rank) Avg. lead at the beginning of drives (Rank)
Football Outsiders 30.28 (17) 1.95 (13) 29.48 (5) 6.04 (10) 3:00 (3) .697 (13) .205 (18) .174 (12) .386 (8) .242 (15) 24.66 (21) 4.84 (16) .541 (18) .36 (11)

Basically what I’m seeing from this is that this is a mid-level offense that isn’t particularly good at much of anything except dragging out the length of their drives, likely due to their running game being as ground-and-pound as it is. Compared to the last few offenses the Vikings have faced, the Panthers are a nice coming-back-to-Earth from the top-five and -ten offenses from the last four or five weeks. I’ll be keeping an eye on that pretty good overall field position number and whether Carolina’s been getting turnovers that would cause them to have such a good starting position for their offense.

Even their conversion percentages speak to their mid-range offense. They do have the sixth-best offense in third down conversions (43.7%), it is true, but they are only 17th in scoring touchdowns in the red zone (54.1%).

Carolina’s offense is 18th overall in DVOA (-2.3%), with the 17th-ranked passing game (8.5%) pairing with the 18th-ranked ground game (-8%), which backs up my idea of this being a mid-level offense. Nothing flashy, but not awful. Now let’s see what the Vikings will be facing when they take the field on offense.

Defense

Carolina’s run defense, ‘16 & ‘17

Year Attempts against (Rank) Rushing yards against (Rank) Rushing touchdowns against (Rank) Yards per attempt (Rank) Rush defense DVOA (Rank) Adjusted line yards allowed (Rank) Power success against (Rank) Stuffed (Rank) 2nd Level Yards (Rank) Open Field Yards (Rank)
Year Attempts against (Rank) Rushing yards against (Rank) Rushing touchdowns against (Rank) Yards per attempt (Rank) Rush defense DVOA (Rank) Adjusted line yards allowed (Rank) Power success against (Rank) Stuffed (Rank) 2nd Level Yards (Rank) Open Field Yards (Rank)
2016 376 (6) 1465 (6) 11 (10) 3.9 (9) -15.1% (9) 3.61 (4) 78% (32) 24% (5) 1.10 (10) .73 (17)
2017 263 (2) 1063 (4) 7 (7) 4.0 (15) -18.6% (5) 3.68 (9) 40% (3) 26% (4) 1.21 (20) .99 (26)

Ron Rivera has usually had his defense playing well against the run and this year’s squad is no exception. They have undergone a massive improvement in “power success” situations from dead last to third, improved from fifth to fourth in stuff percentage and teams are running against them less than they did last season. It’s definitely not an easy group to run on, not with Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis roaming the middle of the field.

However, the Panthers have declined in an area that your eye should immediately catch by now: 2nd level yards and open field yards. They have undergone a fairly significant decline in both of those categories, dropping from 10th (1.10) to 20th (1.21) in 2nd level yards and from 17th (.73) to 26th (.99) in open-field yards. That means that teams that can get past the big guns up front can get some room to work with against Carolina’s secondary. The Panthers have allowed 30 runs this season longer than 10 yards, so it is possible to run on them.

Pass defense: Carolina Panthers

Team Completions/Attempts (Comp. %) Passing yards against (Rank) Passing touchdowns against (Rank) Net yards per attempt against (Rank) Pass Defense DVOA (Rank) Adjusted sack rate (Rank)
Team Completions/Attempts (Comp. %) Passing yards against (Rank) Passing touchdowns against (Rank) Net yards per attempt against (Rank) Pass Defense DVOA (Rank) Adjusted sack rate (Rank)
Panthers 249/389 (64%) 2508 (7) 18 (14) 5.9 (12) -2% (8) 8.8% (3)

No ifs, ands or buts, this is a top-notch passing defense. Keenum will absolutely have to be on his game on Sunday against this top-ten Panthers defense. Thankfully, it has been shown recently that good quarterbacks and good offenses in general can put up points against this Panthers defense, so we will have to see if the Vikings can replicate some of what the Saints did last week and get into the end zone.

Carolina Panthers defenders

Player Solo tackles Assisted tackles Sacks Passes defensed
Player Solo tackles Assisted tackles Sacks Passes defensed
Luke Kuechly 53 36 0 5
James Bradberry 48 12 1 6
Thomas Davis 39 19 2 0
Mike Adams 34 15 0 9
Shaq Thompson 33 14 2 1
Kurt Coleman 33 18 0 1
Mario Addison 21 12 8.5 0
Julius Peppers 18 9 8.5 0
Kawann Short 20 18 4 0
Wes Horton 6 4 3 0
Daryl Worley 26 9 0 6

The Panthers, much like the Vikings, have talent up and down their defense. Unlike the Vikings, however, the Panthers are much more reliant this season on players that are at or over the age of 30, including 34-year old Thomas Davis, 36-year old safety Mike Adams, 30-year old Mario Addison, and 37-year old Julius Peppers. Peppers remains as talented as ever at rushing the passer and the Vikings, as they did when he was with the Bears and Packers, will have to account for his ability to rush the passer. Addison is on pace to break his single-season sack mark of 9.5 with four games remaining. His 18 sacks over the last two seasons leads the Panthers. As I said, talent is everywhere in this Panthers defense, and it is the best remaining defense the Vikings will face before they head to the playoffs.

Seven teams have broken 300 yards of offense this season against the Panthers and they are 4-3 against those seven teams. As for passing yards, the Panthers have allowed just one 300-yard passer this season: Matt Ryan. The Panthers have also allowed just five teams to break 100 yards rushing against them, though they have gone 2-3 against those teams. The Panthers have allowed three-100 yard receivers this season, with all three coming in their last four games: Julio Jones (6 receptions on 12 targets for 118 yards), Robby Anderson (6 receptions on 10 targets for 146 yards and 2 TD’s) and Jermaine Kearse (7 receptions on 11 targets for 105 yards and a TD).

PFR Defensive Efficiency: Carolina Panthers

Organization Scoring % (Rank) Avg. defensive starting field position (Rank) Avg. drive time allowed (Rank) Plays allowed per drive (Rank) Yards allowed per drive (Rank) Avg. points per drive (Rank)
Organization Scoring % (Rank) Avg. defensive starting field position (Rank) Avg. drive time allowed (Rank) Plays allowed per drive (Rank) Yards allowed per drive (Rank) Avg. points per drive (Rank)
Pro Football Reference 30.8% (t-8) Own 27.7 (12) 2:26 (5) 5.3 (4) 26.8 (8) 1.68 (10)

Football Outsiders defensive efficiency: Carolina Panthers

Organization Yards per drive allowed (Rank) Points per drive allowed (Rank) LOS per drive (Rank) Plays allowed per drive (Rank) Time of possession allowed per drive (Rank) Drive Success Rate against (Rank) Touchdowns allowed per drive (Rank) Field goals allowed per drive (Rank) Punts per drive (Rank) 3&Outs forced per drive Defensive LOS after kickoff (Rank) Points allowed per red zone trip (Rank) Touchdowns allowed per red zone trip (Rank)
Organization Yards per drive allowed (Rank) Points per drive allowed (Rank) LOS per drive (Rank) Plays allowed per drive (Rank) Time of possession allowed per drive (Rank) Drive Success Rate against (Rank) Touchdowns allowed per drive (Rank) Field goals allowed per drive (Rank) Punts per drive (Rank) 3&Outs forced per drive Defensive LOS after kickoff (Rank) Points allowed per red zone trip (Rank) Touchdowns allowed per red zone trip (Rank)
Football Outsiders 27.26 (6) 1.74 (11) 27.76 (16) 5.45 (4) 2:31 (6) .657 (7) .195 (14) .125 (8) .453 (7) .273 (7) 25.58 (22) 5.19 (27) .630 (27)

Carolina’s defensive efficiency has been pretty good so far this season. They have done a good job of keeping their opponent’s drives short, force lots of punts (and on three-and-outs to boot) and they don’t allow their opponent to score much (as one would expect when they are 10th in points against and sixth in yards allowed.

Carolina also has a pretty good third-down defense, allowing just 35.9% of opponent’s third downs to be converted. Where they struggle, however, is in red zone defense. This is a defense that becomes bottom-ten in quality once you make it past their 20-yard line. Allowing 17 of 27 drives that have reached the end zone to score puts the Panthers at 27th in the league, a number that is backed up by Carolina also being 27th in points allowed per red zone trip. So basically, if you make it into the red zone against the Panthers, there’s a fair chance you’re going to score.

Turnovers

Like I will say at the beginning of this section in every analysis, turnovers are usually what separate the average teams from the elite teams. The average teams have games where they lose the turnover battle and games where they win it. Elite teams are almost always winning the turnover battle, even if they turn the ball over once or twice themselves. For the second week in a row, the Vikings are going up against a team that has given the ball away more than it has held onto it, a promising sign considering the Vikings have not had particularly good turnover luck so far this season.

Turnovers: Carolina Panthers

Side of ball Interceptions (Rank) Fumbles (Rank) Give/take (PFR) Turnover % (Rank) (FO) Turnovers per drive Interceptions per drive (Rank) Fumbles per drive (Rank)
Side of ball Interceptions (Rank) Fumbles (Rank) Give/take (PFR) Turnover % (Rank) (FO) Turnovers per drive Interceptions per drive (Rank) Fumbles per drive (Rank)
Offense 11 (22) 6 (11) 17 giveaways 12% (21) .121 (21) .083 (24) .038 (12)
Defense 5 (29) 6 (14) 11 takeaways 8.3% (27) .086 (26) .039 (30) .047 (13)

Newton has thrown 11 interceptions this season and has thrown four in his last two games against the Vikings, so I would assume the Vikings will be hunting for more on Sunday. Opponents have also recovered six of the 16 fumbles that the Panthers have had this season, so there is potential there for the Vikings to add to their fumble numbers as well.

As for the defensive side of things, while the Panthers aren’t quite as incompetent as, say, the Falcons and Raiders at snagging interceptions, they also aren’t exactly talented at it either. Their five interceptions are tied with the Bears for the third-fewest in the NFL right now, so while they may play fundamentally sound defense, interceptions and fumbles have not particularly gone their way so far this season.

Special Teams

Injuries, or one injury in particular, anyway, has really affected Carolina’s return game. Let’s take a look at who the Panthers have been sending back for returns over the last few weeks.

Carolina’s return men

Player Punt returns (Rank) Punt return yards (Rank) Fair catches (Rank) Punt return TDs (Rank) Yards per punt return (Rank) Kick returns (Rank) Kick return yards (Rank) Kick return TDs (Rank) Yards per kick return (Rank)
Player Punt returns (Rank) Punt return yards (Rank) Fair catches (Rank) Punt return TDs (Rank) Yards per punt return (Rank) Kick returns (Rank) Kick return yards (Rank) Kick return TDs (Rank) Yards per kick return (Rank)
Christian McCaffrey 22 (t-6) 162 (17) 9 (t-19) 0 (t-9) 7.4 (19) 3 (t-56) 58 (63) 0 (t-4) 19.3 (70)
Kaelin Clay 12 (t-30) 117 (t-28) 4 (t-39) 1 (t-2) 9.8 (DNQ) 2 (t-69) 33 (82) 0 (t-4) 16.5 (86)
Fozzy Whittaker 0 0 0 0 0 4 (t-53) 91 (50) 0 (t-4) 22.8 (34)
Russell Shepard 0 0 0 0 0 3 (t-56) 65 (t-57) 0 (t-4) 21.7 (t-40)
Damiere Byrd 1 (t-65) 9 (t-63) 0 (t-67) 0 (t-9) 9 (DNQ) 0 0 0 0

While Atlanta’s return game was based around Andre Roberts, Carolina’s game has been going through some flux. Their top kick returner, wide receiver Curtis Samuel, is currently on IR, as I mentioned above. He had 10 returns for 221 yards for an average return of 22.1 yards. So that has left McCaffrey, Clay, Whittaker and Shepard to take over as Carolina’s kick returner. Ourlads.com has Whittaker as Carolina’s top return man right now, so let’s see if that remains consistent.

As for punt returners, ourlads.com has Kaelin Clay at the top of Carolina’s depth chart, and considering he has one of this year’s few punt return touchdowns, the Vikings would do well to have good punt coverage in this week’s game. Clay took over the punt return duties from McCaffrey, who had been struggling a little in the position, averaging just 7.4 yards per return. The Vikings did a good job of neutralizing Atlanta’s highly aggressive return game last week, so let’s see if they can put on a repeat performance against the Panthers.

Kicking

Player 0-19 FGA/FGM 20-29 FGA/FGM 30-39 FGA/FGM 40-49 FGA/FGM 50+ FGA/FGM PAT's made
Player 0-19 FGA/FGM 20-29 FGA/FGM 30-39 FGA/FGM 40-49 FGA/FGM 50+ FGA/FGM PAT's made
Graham Gano 0 6/6 9/9 8/8 0/1 24/26

Like the last few games the Vikings have played in, they will be taking on yet another top-notch kicker in Graham Gano. Gano, however, does not appear to have the range of some of the last few kickers the Vikings have faced, as he has only attempted one field goal from over 50 yards out and he missed it (55-yarder vs. Detroit). So the Vikings should be able to force a few more punts than usual if they manage to stall a Carolina drive out between their 30- and 40-yard line. Gano is also one of the few kickers the Vikings have seen in the last few weeks who has missed a few PAT’s this season, so that will also be something to keep your eye on. Those misses were both on the road, so Gano is still currently perfect on PAT’s at home.

Punting

Player Punts (Rank) Punt yards (Rank) Longest punt (Rank) Average punt (Rank) Net punt length (Rank) Blocked punts (Rank) Punts inside the 20 (Rank) Touchbacks (Rank) Fair catches (Rank) Punts returned (Rank) Punt return yardage (Rank) Punt return avg. yards
Player Punts (Rank) Punt yards (Rank) Longest punt (Rank) Average punt (Rank) Net punt length (Rank) Blocked punts (Rank) Punts inside the 20 (Rank) Touchbacks (Rank) Fair catches (Rank) Punts returned (Rank) Punt return yardage (Rank) Punt return avg. yards
Michael Palardy 51 (22) 2387 (21) 63 (t-14) 46.8 (t-11) 43.5 (5) 0 (t-8) 19 (20) 4 (t-10) 15 (t-13) 19 (t-23) 89 (28) 4.7 (6)

Palardy doesn’t have the name recognition of guys like Hekker or Martin or Lee, but he’s quietly been one of the better punters in the NFL this season. His net punt length in particular is impressive, as it speaks to the quality both of his punting and to how well Carolina covers punts. This is not a team that allows much in the way of punt return yardage, so I would expect Sherels to be waving for plenty of fair catches if or when he gets the opportunity to be back for returns on Sunday.

Penalties

This is a new section I’m adding to the OAR this week, as I thought that penalties are just as important to know about as everything else I’ve already covered here. So let’s take a look and see how the Panthers have done in penalties this season.

Carolina penalties, pt. 1

Team Penalties For (Rank) Penalty Yardage For (Rank) Penalties Called Against (Rank) Penalty Yardage Against (Rank) Net Penalty Count (Rank) Net penalty yards (Rank) Pre-snap count (Rank) Declined (Rank) Offsetting (Rank) Total flags (Rank)
Team Penalties For (Rank) Penalty Yardage For (Rank) Penalties Called Against (Rank) Penalty Yardage Against (Rank) Net Penalty Count (Rank) Net penalty yards (Rank) Pre-snap count (Rank) Declined (Rank) Offsetting (Rank) Total flags (Rank)
Carolina 74 (t-25) 677 (17) 61 (1) 509 (1) 13 (3) 168 (3) 22 (t-26) 13 (t-13) 1 (t-2) 75 (1)

Carolina penalties, pt. 2

Year Delay of game (Rank) False start (Rank) Offensive holding (Rank) Offensive pass interference (Rank) Offsides (Rank) Defensive holding (Rank) Illegal contact (Rank) Defensive pass interference (Rank) Roughing the Passer (Rank) Unnecessary roughness (Rank) Other (Rank)
Year Delay of game (Rank) False start (Rank) Offensive holding (Rank) Offensive pass interference (Rank) Offsides (Rank) Defensive holding (Rank) Illegal contact (Rank) Defensive pass interference (Rank) Roughing the Passer (Rank) Unnecessary roughness (Rank) Other (Rank)
2017 4 (t-19) 7 (t-2) 8 (t-5) 3 (t-15) 3 (t-6) 5 (t-4) 0 (t-1) 5 (t-12) 0 (1) 5 (t-15) 21 (t-11)

These stats are courtesy of nflpenalties.com and footballdb.com. From the numbers alone, this is a disciplined Panthers team we will be facing this week. They have been called for the fewest penalties in the NFL this season and, thusly, have tallied the fewest penalty yards against in the NFL. The Vikings, conversely, are currently tied for 7th in the NFL in drawing first downs off of penalties (28, tied with the Jets), so this will be an underrated part of Sunday’s battle. Terry McAulay will be our referee in this one and Chris will let you know in the summary post on Saturday when the last time we had him was and how things went in that one.

Conclusion

This will be an interesting game for the Vikings. Carolina’s defense is one of the tougher matchups the Vikings will face this season, and the Vikings will have their hands full with an experienced back end. The Panthers have been one of the best in the business this season at getting pressure and sacks on quarterbacks so Keenum and the Vikings’ offensive line will have to be on their game on Sunday to keep protection up to the level it has been at this season.

However, if the Vikings can score a few touchdowns on this defense, Minnesota’s defense should be able to shut Carolina’s defense down without too much effort. Their passing game is heavily centered around McCaffrey and Funchess right now, so I would assume that Rhodes will be assigned to Funchess to take him out of the game, Kendricks will take McCaffrey and Barr will be one of several players spying on Newton to keep him in the pocket as much as possible.

Injuries could also play a factor in this one, as the Panthers had four non-rest related DNP’s yesterday, so let’s see how much injuries are a factor on Sunday.

I think Minnesota has their second consecutive game of holding their opponent out of the end zone and win their ninth consecutive game.

Vikings 24, Panthers 12.