Coming off consecutive NFC North contests, the Vikings will hit the road this week to play the NFC South’s Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina. While this game features two teams with a combined record of 3-11, the hook is that both teams are led by promising rookie QBs, and it’ll be the first time in franchise history that the Vikings and their opponent start a rookie QB.
Panthers On Offense
The Panthers had the 1st overall pick in last April’s draft and it looks like first-year head coach Ron Rivera and the Panthers front office chose wisely. They selected Cam Newton, and the Heisman Trophy winner from Auburn stepped in right away and has impressed every step of the way. In his first game, Newton threw for 422 yards and 2 TDs in a loss to Arizona, and he followed that effort up with a 432-yard performance in Week 2. For the season, Newton is completing 60.3% of his passes and he has a TD-INT ratio of 8-9. Newton is also a lethal threat running the football, particularly on 3rd downs and close to the end zone. He’s averaging 4.7 yards per rush on 57 attempts and he has 7 rushing TDs.
Newton isn’t the only bright spot on this Panthers offense. Carolina ranks 5th in total offense at 416.6 yards per game, they have Top 10 rankings in both the running game and passing game, and they lead the NFL with 41 plays of 20+ yards (35 passing, 6 rushing). The rushing attack is paced by a two-headed attack that features starter DeAngelo Williams and wingman Jonathan Stewart. Williams, who signed a big contract this past offseason, is averaging 5.0 yards per carry, while Stewart is just a touch below with a 4.8 yard average.
The aerial attack features one of the NFL’s top downfield threats in WR Steve Smith and also a pair of productive TEs in Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey. Smith is the NFL’s leader in receiving yards (818) and he’s also the leader in yards per receptions (21.0) among pass-catchers with 15+ receptions. His 17 receptions of 20+ yards are also tops in the NFL. While he measures in at just 5-9, 185 pounds, Smith is a tremendous downfield threat because of his speed and his relentlessness in going up after passes. The Olsen-Shockey TE tandem has also been productive for Newton and the Panthers. Together they have 48 receptions for 577 yards and 3 TDs.
Setting the stage for all of these playmakers on the Panthers offense is a pretty sturdy offensive line. Carolina’s front five are especially solid in the middle and on the left side, as evidenced by the fact that Carolina averages over 2.0 yards more per carry running to the left than they do running to the right. C Ryan Kalil is among the best players at his position in the NFL, and to his left the Panthers feature Travelle Wharton at LG and 2-time Pro Bowler Jordan Gross at LT. Jeff Otah, a 1st-round pick from 2008 who plays RT for Carolina, is on the Reserve/Injured list, and his absence from the lineup is a big blow to Carolina’s offensive line.
A few more stats to consider about Carolina’s offense
— Newton leans heavily on Smith, as he has 13 more receptions than any of his teammates.
— Carolina ranks 14th in scoring, averaging 23.7 points per game
— The Panthers convert 42.0% of their 3rd downs, which is 10th in the NFL.
Panthers On Defense
Carolina isn’t as impressive on defense as they are on offense. This is largely because of injury, where their best defender – LB Jon Beason – is out for the year and another LB – Thomas Davis – has also been placed on the Reserve/Injured list. The Panthers are also going through a big transition on defense from a philosophical standpoint. Their new head coach, Ron Rivera, is a former defensive coordinator and he’s in the process of making significant changes to his defensive group. And trying to make changes to the defense while your top two LBs are out for the season because of injury is obviously a difficult charge.
Carolina ranks in the top half of the League in pass defense (12th), but there are areas to exploit. The Panthers yield 8.3 yards per pass attempt (30th in the NFL), they have just 12 sacks on the season and only 3 teams are yielding a better passer rating than Carolina’s 96.3.
The Vikings will work hard to find ways for rookie QB Christian Ponder to exploit Carolina’s pass defense, but their bread and butter should be using RB Adrian Peterson against the Panthers 29th ranked rushing defense. Peterson is the NFL’s leader in rushing yards (712) and rushing TDs (8), and he’ll be going against a Panthers run defense that yields 133.4 yards per game and has given up an NFL-high 9 rushing TDs.
From a personnel standpoint, Carolina’s best defensive player is right DE Charles Johnson, who signed a huge contract to remain with the team this offseason. Johnson’s break-through season was last year, when he tallied 11.5 sacks and replaced Julius Peppers, who left the club via free agency to sign with the Chicago Bears. The Panthers leading tackler is strongside LB James Anderson, and a name with whom fans will be familiar is CB Chris Gamble, who is in his 8th NFL season and has 25 career INTs.
A few more stats to consider about Carolina’s offense
— The Panthers have the NFL’s 3rd worst 3rd down defense, as opponents convert 45.5% of their 3rd downs
— Carolina has allowed 32 plays of 20+ yards (22 pass, 10 run), which is 27th in the NFL
— Carolina has the NFL’s 30th-ranked scoring defense (allow 26.1 points per game)
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