Failing to capitalize on a prime opportunity to wrestle away control of the NFC South, the Carolina Panthers offense fell flat on its face when it mattered most against the New Orleans Saints this past weekend.
Drops, horrible and untimely penalties, and lacksidasical playcalling and overall coaching doomed the team to another divisional and conference loss. The stakes have now been risen to new heights and so have the challenges the team must face and overcome if they want to make the postseason.
This week’s challenge comes courtesy of the NFC’s current #1 seed, the Minnesota Vikings. A team that many considered to be second fiddle at best in the NFC North in the preseason has turned into a relative wrecking ball of efficient offense and shutdown defense. The shutdown defense might be the most concerning part of that equation, given the current nature of the Panthers offense.
If you follow our own Canadian Panther on Twitter, you might have seen his assertion that the offense is “maxed out” right now.
Mentioned this yesterday as well, but this Panthers offense is maxed out. Without a healthy Olsen and Samuel, the two biggest threats are Funchess and McCaffrey. That's not enough.— CanadianPanther (@CP_CSR) December 4, 2017
Hard to argue with that. This week, there is no rest for the weary and no room for error. If the Panthers drop this game, they will have to win out to have a shot at making the after party dance.
Let’s take a gander at the offense this week.
- Where art thou Olsen? The Panthers offense indeed looks like it is stagnating some. A big reason for that might be defenses are honing onto the only threats the Panthers have on offense aside from Cam Newton. The Panthers desperately need Greg Olsen back. While Devin Funchess and Christian McCaffrey are doing their best, it isn’t enough to make this offense a legitimate threat week in and out. Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes will likely be stuck like glue all day long to Funchess, while the linebacking corps of Ben Gedeon, Eric Kendricks, and Anthony Barr will be keeping an eye on McCaffrey. Both will get free occasionally, but another receiving threat needs to emerge.
If Olsen is good to go, he needs to play. If not, this Panthers air attack will struggle mightily. With Olsen, they at least have a chance. Keep in mind, this defense held the Atlanta Falcons to just 173 yards passing last week.
- Protecting Cam: If you look at the sack totals for the Vikings, you might expect them to have a bit more in that category given their tough defensive nature. That shouldn’t distract you from the fact this team still has defensive end Everson Griffen who leads the team with 12 sacks, good for 4th overall in the league. Behind him is fellow defensive end Danielle Hunter with 6, and eight other players with 2.5 sacks or fewer. Needless to say, much of the pressure the Vikings aim to generate comes from the edges. This is not good news, especially for Matt Kalil. The younger Kalil might be familiar with this week’s opponent, however I doubt that will have much bearing on how well he performs. Daryl Williams has been doing an admirable job on the right side, but protecting Cam’s blindside will be an issue, especially if Griffin rotates over there. Someone will need to be in to chip the defensive end or we will need to play away from Griffin’s side, or things could get ugly quickly.
- The Ground War: I don’t have a lot of expectations for this side of the offense this weekend. The Vikings have allowed a maximum of 115 yards this season on the ground (on two separate occasions). The majority of the time, this defense has held opponents to under 100 or even 80 yards on the ground. Running the ball might not be the best course of action, especially so if it becomes a fun guessing game of “when do we call the basic dive play” with Jonathan Stewart, a.k.a. the Shula Special.
If we can get some rhythm going on the ground, that would be fantastic. But if it starts to look like a dud out there, we cannot afford to waste downs calling runs we know won’t work.
- If ya have to throw, throw smart: The Vikings secondary is very good. With the aforementioned Rhodes, cornerback Trae Waynes and safties Harrison Smith and Andrew Sendejo round out the rest of the group. The football quartet has eight of the team’s nine interceptions and has defended a total of 29 passes on the year. They are a tough group to crack and thanks to their defensive line, often capitalize on the mistakes that are created by their disruption. Cam Newton had a good game last week passing, making smart decisions for the most part that his receiving corps couldn’t quite capitalize on. He will need to replicate that performance, sans drops by receivers, this week to have any sort of success against the Vikings pass defense.
- Don’t be a wuss: Ron Rivera, this little nugget is for you: if you have two timeouts and roughly 40 seconds to one minute left in the first half and you have the ball... DON’T. KNEEL. IT. OUT.
Much of the offensive gameplan will hinge on the health of Greg Olsen. If he can go and give at least 70%, the team has a bit of a chance to pull this one out. If he cannot go, the battle might be too much of an uphill climb for the offense to make. A loss this weekend won’t ruin their postseason hopes, but it means a two game losing streak to opponents they might end up facing again in January if they make it, and they must win out. At some point, this team needs to prove it can hang with and beat the big boys, at least on offense.