Three to Focus On – Vikings @ Panthers, Week 8

| October 27, 2011

An inspired performance last week by the Minnesota Vikings against the Green Bay Packers has been overshadowed by a whole host of off-field problems. Minnesota would prefer the focus to be on Christian Ponder’s decent inaugural start and near comeback win. Instead the media is abuzz with the Chris Cook arrest, Bernard Berrian’s drama-filled release, and Brian Robison’s unfortunate “footwork.” Oh yeah, and there’s still the whole stadium deal saga looming over everything.

A few wins would certainly help to get everyone back to talking about the Vikings’ on-field performance and if Ponder can continue to make strides, the Vikings might have an easier time keeping the franchise in Minnesota. If the team can match the intensity they delivered against their division rivals last Sunday, then why can’t they beat the Carolina Panthers?

After a string of “moral” victories, the Panthers now have two real ones in the win column. Last week’s win over the Redskins wasn’t always pretty (13 penalties), but the Panthers were able to put the game away when it mattered in the second half. Their chances for a playoff berth are slim to none in a loaded NFC South, but the Panthers are close to performing like a play off caliber team so find themselves in that rarest of positions: favorites.

Here are the matchups to watch this week:

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1) Vikings DEs vs. Panthers OTs

Carolina’s left tackle Jordan Gross (+9.3) is currently our top-rated tackle in the league, an honor earned on the basis of a solid overall performance in both the running and passing games. While his all-around game is impressive, his 18 total pressures allowed don’t put him in elite company for pass protection, ranking him only ninth in our Pass Blocking Efficiency signature stat.  His counterpart, Byron Bell (-14.3) has given up 13 total pressures in half as many snaps and is not performing well.  Whether it’s getting beat by speed rushes, like Ryan Kerrigan’s on first and 10 with 1:02 remaining in the first half last week – or just plain missing his assignment (see the 10:18 mark in the second quarter), Bell hasn’t been getting it done Cam Newton has been sacked or hit a total of 36 times this year, so keeping the face of the franchise upright and healthy has got to be a concern with two of the league’s premier pass rushers, Jared Allen and Brian Robison, coming into town.

First off, these guys just don’t leave the field with Allen playing on 93.1% of the team’s total defensive snaps and Robinson on 86.2% of them.  Allen is having a monstrous season, not only leading the NFL with 12 sacks, but also adding in 21 total hurries/hits and 20 stops.  He’s our top-rated 4-3 defensive end (+21.6) and has graded out strongly in not only pass rushing (+13.9), but run defense (+4.8) and coverage (+2.5) too. Robison (+13.0), who will likely be lined up on Bell most of the game, is tied for sixth in our ratings with Baltimore’s Terrell Suggs. When he’s not delivering cleats to the family jewels, he’s dishing out a more respectable punishment on opposing offenses. He has five sacks of his own and his 26 QB pressures lead all 4-3 DEs. If Bell and Gross can’t slow this duo down and give Newton time in the pocket, then it’s likely the Panther’s deep passing game will suffer.

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2) Cam Newton vs. Vikings Cover 2

In my week four “Three to Focus On” article, I suggested that Newton might have a tough time against the Bears’ Cover 2 schemes. He had just come off a horrendous (-4.9) game against a similar Jaguars defense and I thought that the Bears might be able to blanket his deep routes and force him into mistakes in the short passing game.   Well, that didn’t happen.  Newton had arguably his best game of the season and shredded the Bears for 374 yards and a touchdown.

Minnesota plays a Cover 2 defense as well, relying almost solely on their front four to provide pressure while their back seven play a bend-but-don’t-break soft zone. The Vikings will try to limit those deep completions that have become Newton’s calling card over the first seven games. A closer look at our Deep Passing – Signature Statistic, has  19.0% of Newton’s drop backs resulting in attempts targeted 20 yards or more downfield (second only to Eli Manning’s 19.4%.)  His 729 total yards on Deep Passing also tops the league. If the Vikings can keep everything in front of them, the hope is to force Newton into a shorter passing game that requires patience and accuracy – and then capitalize on his mistakes.

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3) Panthers Rookie Defensive Linemen vs. Vikings Interior Offensive Line

The Vikings have had injury problems on the offensive line for most of the year.  This week their interior run blocking should be stronger, even with starting right guard Anthony Herrera doubtful after reinjuring his knee.  Herrera had been struggling against the run (-3.4) and his likely replacement, journeyman Joe Berger (+3.4) has done well filling in at center for John Sullivan the past two weeks.  Sullivan (+5.1 run blocking) is expected to be back after missing time with a concussion. He will join Berger and Steve Hutchinson (+0.1 run blocking) against a young and overmatched Panthers interior.

Defensive tackle Sione Fua is definitely not setting the world on fire (0.0 in run defense) during his rookie campaign, but his fellow rookie-in-crime, Terrell McClain, makes him look all pro by comparison. McClain has the dubious distinction owning our worst run rating for defensive tackles on the season (-10.4). For some reason, that doesn’t stop him from getting more snaps than Fua (309 to 271) and then finding imaginative ways to do less with them – only four tackles, eight quarterback disruptions and three stops. If the Vikings offensive line can expose this soft underbelly of the Panthers defense, then look for Adrian Peterson to continue to dominate.

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