The Panthers open up their final home stand of the season with a visit from the Minnesota Vikings. Coming into the season, expectations for the Vikings pegged them as a strong team riding the coattails of one of the league’s stingiest defenses. Those defensive projections came true. However, the offense has ascended to one of the best units in the league. It’s been so good, in fact, that Case Keenum has undeservedly been thrust into the MVP conversation. This is the same Case Keenum that threw more interceptions than touchdowns at the helm of the league’s very worst offense. Crazy how much can change in a year, especially when the scenery changes.
The Vikings are coming in hot. They’ve won eight games in a row, including wins over the Rams, and Falcons in recent weeks. They’ve vaulted up to 5th in total offense after finishing 28th in the league in 2016, and it comes down to one key factor: offensive line play. The Vikings revamped their offensive line last offseason with the acquisitions of offensive tackles Riley Reiff and former Panthers great Mike Remmers. The improved play in the trenches has opened up the running game and provided whichever quaterback is starting ample time to find one member of the Vikings talented triumvirate of pass catchers open down the field.
The Panthers defense is riding no such hot streak. Prior to the Saints game, the Panthers had allowed their opponents to go over their average offensive output in back to back games. Those were the first two instances of that happening this season. The Saints were held just below their average offensive yardage total last Sunday but still put up 400 yards on the Panthers defense. That’s not good. Panthers opponents are averaging 368 yards per game over the past three weeks, the eight worst mark in the league. The defense needs to turn it around, because they’re going to have to be the ones to win the game on Sunday. Here’s why and how:
- Keep the Vikings under 300 yards of total offense. The Vikings wins and losses this season can be measured by the team’s offensive performance. While the defense has allowed roughly the same amount of yardage in both wins and losses, the offense has been a different story. The Vikings have been held under 300 yards of total offense just twice all season. Those two games also happen to be their only two losses. They average 392.4 yards per game in wins and 260.5 yards per game in losses. The Panthers’ goal will be to hold them under that 300 yard threshold.
- Blanket Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen down the field. Stefon Diggs is very good wide receiver. He’s on pace for the first 1,000 yard receiving season of his career and is capable of breaking out for a monster game at any time. And he’s probably not the best wide receiver on his own team. Adam Thielen has risen from combine snub to one of the league’s best wide receivers in just four seasons. The former Minnesota State Maverick’s 1,056 yards through the season’s first 12 games is the fourth best mark in the league. Both receivers are incredible at tracking the ball down the field and have torched just about every defensive backfield they’ve faced. Kurt Coleman and Mike Adams need to be very disciplined in providing help over the top. The Panthers can’t afford to give up chunk plays.
- Maintain gap control in the run game. We saw Mark Ingram break free for a 70 yard scamper last week. Both Vikings running backs are capable of doing that same thing to the Panthers if given a crease. At least one of Minnesota’s running backs has reeled off a 25+ yard run in eight different games this season, including each of the last three games. Just like in the passing game, the Panthers defense cannot afford to give up chunk plays on the ground.
The Panthers are in the midst of a murderer’s row on their schedule, especially if Aaron Rodgers returns in time for the Packers week 15 visit to the Carolinas. The defense has played particularly well of late, but maybe a return home will be the potion the defense needs to get back to its dominant ways, and it’ll have to be if the Panthers want to win.