In approximately 24 hours the Vikings will have (hopefully) returned to winning ways against the Carolina Panthers in a battle of 0-3 teams down in Charlotte.
The game is crucial for both teams, but from a neutral perspective I would argue that the Vikings need this win much more than the Panthers.
The Panthers of last season were clearly a team taking dramatic steps in order to rebuild, signified by their trade to take Chicago’s 1st overall pick, which landed them their starting quarterback in this matchup, Bryce Young. They finished last year 7-10, their fifth straight losing season, and are likely headed for another regardless of the outcome of this game.
The Vikings finished last season 13-4, but are clearly in some kind of multi-season arrangement with the football gods to be heading into this one winless on the season. It’s like we made a deal with them for all the bounces last season, and now pay is due. As we all know, it’s below average defensive play and crucial turnovers that have been killing this team.
Let's take a look at positions and phases of the game to see where the Vikings can earn a win tomorrow.
Quarterback: Kirk Cousins (MIN) against Bryce Young (CAR)
As we all know, Cousins is having an absolute belter of a year so far under center, but has nothing to show for it. Beyond the record setting pace he is setting for passing yards and touchdown passes, Cousins is also up there with the best QBs in the NFL in terms of completion percentage and is well above a 100 passer rating (3rd in the NFL, 108.2).
While the missed communication on last week’s game-ending play is obviously not a great look, all but the staunchest Cousins detractors are coming to realize this guy is off to a heck of a start this season. Couple that with an offensive line that is doing better than what most people might say, as my compadre Warren Ludford pointed out, and it’s easy to give Cousins the edge in this matchup.
That isn’t to take anything away from Young, though, who is still very much settling into life in the NFL. He has a lot of talent - you do not get picked 1st overall otherwise - but is still putting it into practice. As a young QB he has all the scrambling/running ability you’d expect but likely lacks the pocket awareness to make those game changing throws. His offensive line also isn’t doing himself any favors.
Receivers: Justin Jefferson/Jordan Addison (MIN) - Adam Thielen/Johnathan Mingo (CAR)
I’ll keep this short and sweet. The Vikings have the best wideout in football (a case for Tyreek Hill could be argued) and also the second-best rookie wide receiver. Most teams would kill to have the personnel that Minnesota has on the wide receiving front.
As for Carolina, you wouldn’t know it by the friendly way that he has answered questions leading up to the game, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Adam Thielen has a solid revenge game against Minnesota’s outside coverage. Those defenders were throughly exploited by the Chargers’ Keenan Allen last week. That doesn’t change the fact that Vikings receivers’ talent is on another planet compared to Carolina’s.
Running Backs: Alexander Mattison/Cam Akers (MIN) - Miles Sanders (CAR)
This is perhaps the biggest guessing game in this matchup analysis. Last week Mattison put up some pretty respectable numbers... But is also going through the fumbles (he’s extremely fortunate that only one has been able to be counted against him). As for Cam Akers, it is unsure what he will be able to do in Purple and Gold as his Vikings debut looks likely on Sunday. I also think Ty Chandler showed a lot of promise in a small run-out against LA last week, and should get some more touches tomorrow.
Miles Sanders is having a not-good-but-not-bad year for Carolina with 139 yards on 41 carries, good for about 3.4 yards per attempt and 46 yards/game. He’s also lost a fumble and picked up 6 first downs. I’m not expecting him to be too dangerous tomorrow but I would not be surprised if he comes alive against a decidedly not good Vikings D-Line. QB Bryce Young has also went for 51 yards on 5 tries and could very easily factor in to the Panthers rushing game (if he is as healthy as his status suggests).
I’m going to give this one a draw as both running games have been decidedly lukewarm.
Offensive Line: Vikings
The Vikings offensive line has been one of the most criticized units on the team, deservedly so at times, but the numbers are saying that this unit is actually not doing as bad as many Vikings fans think. I, an optimist, am hopeful that is the case, and the looming replacement of Ed Ingram (for Dalton Risner) will strengthen the weakest link of the group. Risner is available Sunday.
In terms of pass protection the Vikings O-line is doing pretty well especially given the sheer amount of times Cousins is passing the ball (he leads the league in attempts, 138). Cousins has been sacked 8 times (tied for 10th-most in the league) and hurried 12th most. Other QBs certainly have it worse.
The Vikings have also faced some stiff competition so far, namely the Chargers and Eagles. I’m not saying they’re going to do great, but it should be better than the first few weeks of the season.
Life on the O-line has been hard for Carolina, which has been making life tough for Young by not giving great protection. He was hurt during a game in which he got sacked 4 times. The Panthers have given up 9 sacks in total despite 10 less attempts than Cousins.
Defensive Line: Panthers
It was tough calling the Vikings the better offensive line in this matchup because the Panthers will go up against considerably less stout competition in the Vikings defensive line.
The Vikes D-line has scored only 6 sacks (five alone from Danielle Hunter) while the Panthers have 10, led by OLB Brian Burns with 3, much more spread out than the Vikings.
The Panthers D-Line is a pretty comparative in run defense, although the Panthers certainly have the edge in total yards allowed per game (329 yds/gm to 382.3) , showing that there is a big gap between the two units in terms of pass defense. The Panthers have a better pressure rate at 23.5% to the Vikings 16.8%. Knowing the Vikings will pass more than they rush will play to the Panthers advantage.
Secondary/Outside Coverage: Minnesota
Due to the difference in competition that the two teams have faced so far, one unit isn’t clearly standing above the other. Minnesota has taken on Justin Herbert and Jalen Hurts, by far two of the best QBs in the game. Carolina has went up against Derrick Carr and Geno Smith.
That being said, the Panthers have only given up 2 passing touchdowns (to the Vikings 7) and have significantly less yardage given up (MIN: 785 CAR: 577). Minnesota has also given up more Air Yards (444 to 356) signifying that the Panthers coverage is maybe just a bit stickier than Minnesota’s.
Carolina also leads the league in missed tackles (probably the only thing more frustrating and game-altering than turnovers) with 39 while the Vikes have only missed 18. I’m only picking the Vikings here because Justin Jefferson and co. present a much tougher matchup than vice versa.
Special Teams: Draw
Both teams have been pretty quiet in terms of special teams, and both have good punters in Ryan Wright (MIN) and Johnny Hekker (CAR). Carolina’s kicker Eddie Pinero has missed a 50+ yard kick, and is 7 for 6 on the year. Greg Joseph is 2 for 2 with the longest being a 25 yarder.