The best thing about losing a game in the NFL is there’s always another opportunity to make up for the loss. The Carolina Panthers, after submitting maybe their most dismal performance of the Ron Rivera era last Sunday in Arizona, will get a chance to atone for the stinker in Minnesota this week.
The Vikings present a similar challenge to the one posed by the Cardinals last week: a superstar offensive weapon that needs to be accounted for, a shaky quarterback prone to mistakes and a well-disguised defense that can make for some difficult pre-snap reads.
If the Panthers learned from the loss last week, we'll know it by Sunday afternoon.
Adrian Peterson’s status for Sunday is still up in the air as he deals with a family tragedy; but if the best running back in the game does decide to suit up, it will take a collective effort by the Panthers defense to slow him down. That includes the safeties, who will be the last line of defense against the league’s best home run hitter.
Peterson has rushed for 421 yards this season, and 41 percent of them have come on only three plays. Take away those big runs, and Peterson averages only 2.77 yards a carry. The Panthers third-level defenders need to stay disciplined and not over-pursue if they’re going to keep Peterson from having a big day. Take a look at his biggest runs so far this season. In both instances, the safeties – Pittsburg’s Troy Polamalu and Detroit’s Louis Delmas – are too aggressive and the Viking speeds past them on his way to the end zone.
Against Cleveland, Peterson wasn't able to rip off a big gain and rushed for only 88 yards on 25 carries. If the Panthers can limit him to that kind of production, it would be considered a success.
Two weeks ago in London, the Vikings used a lot of play-action against the Steelers – about a third of their drop backs included a fake hand-off, according to Pro Football Focus – and attacked the middle of the field. Of Matt Cassel’s 24 attempts, 15 were thrown between the numbers. It is essential the Panthers linebackers stay disciplined on these play-fakes if they're going to limit the Minnesota passing game.
The Vikings will also use packaged plays that will give Cassel the option to abandon a run play for a quick slant if the defense allows for it. Here’s an example of one such play:
The Steelers commit eight in the box and play soft coverage on wideout Jerome Simpson. You can see the line run-blocking, but Cassel takes the quick slant for an easy 13-yard gain. It might be tempting for the Panthers to load up the box against Peterson, but these types of constraint plays will make it difficult to do so.
On the other side of the ball, we’ll see how much Cam Newton was able to learn from his worst start of the season. Against the Steelers, the Vikings did a great job of disguising their coverages and creating open lanes to the quarterback with well-designed blitzes -- the same challenges presented by Arizona last week.
Newton can sometimes struggle with his pre-snap read, and that will be put to the test on Sunday. The Vikings usually line up with two safeties deep, but they’ll play some Cover 3, some combination man, some straight man with one deep safety and a lot of Cover 2. But it all looks the same before the snap.
Here’s a third down play, which looks like Cover 2 but ends up being a five-man pressure with man coverage to one side and Cover 3 to the other:
Here’s another third down play where the Vikings are sending five after the quarterback, but they’ll play Cover 1 Robber – man coverage underneath, one deep safety and a defender "robbing" in the middle of the field:
And then we get what looks like man coverage with two safeties deep, but it turns out to be Cover 3.
That’s three different defenses all out of the same pre-snap look.
Given the amount of success the Cardinals had blitzing Newton, you have to believe the Vikings will try a similar approach. Cam will have a chance at redemption, and Panthers fans will learn a lot about their franchise quarterback.