Vikings at Panthers Matchup Breakdown: Two Top-10 Defenses Collide
Week 14: Minnesota Vikings at Carolina Panthers
The Vikings (10-2) will travel to Charlotte, North Carolina this weekend to take on Panthers (8-4) at Bank of America Stadium. The game is Sunday at noon (CST).
The showdown will be a battle between two top-10 defenses.
Earlier in the week, we looked at how the teams stacked up by numbers. Now, let’s focus on the individual matchups that will be crucial in determining the game’s outcome.
Vikings defense vs. Cam Newton
The Vikings defense is ranked number two in the NFL. The unit leads the NFL in third down efficiency with a conversation rate of 27.2%.
Cam Newton is 228 for 377 (60.5%) for 2,583 yards, ranking him 15th in the NFL in passing yards. He has 16 touchdowns and 11 interceptions, with a QBR of 51.8 and a passer rating of 83.0. Newton’s Pro Football Focus (PFF) grade is 74.7 which ranks him 27th among NFL quarterbacks.
Newton has been sacked 28 times this season.
The Vikings defense has 30 sacks, ranking 14th in the league.
Newton has struggled this season against the blitz. According to ESPN’s David Newton, the Panthers quarterback has a QBR of 54 when opponents bring an extra defender, the second-worst mark of his career. Amongst NFL quarterbacks, Newton ranks 22nd against the blitz. He has completed 55% of his pass attempts for six touchdowns and four interceptions when defenses bring the heat.
The Vikings blitz only 24 percent of the time. But when they do blitz, they’re effective. Minnesota’s defense has forced a QBR of 34 against the blitz, fifth-best in the NFL according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Against the Vikings in the Mike Zimmer era, Newton has played very poorly.
In 2016, Minnesota’s defense brought down Newton eight times in Carolina, the last showdown between the Vikings and Panthers. Newton completed 21 of 35 (60%) passes for 262 yards with zero touchdowns and three interceptions. He had 26 yards rushing with a touchdown on the ground.
In 2014 at TCF Bank Stadium, Newton completed 18 of 35 (51%) passes for 194 yards with one touchdown and one interception. He had 49 yards rushing but was sacked four times.
Helping the Vikings defense this time around may be Newton’s odd home/away splits this season. He’s struggled at home, throwing five touchdowns compared to six interceptions. Those numbers are drastically worse than his numbers on the road: 11 touchdowns versus five interceptions.
The Vikings defense has nine interceptions this season.
Where Newton can hurt the Vikings is with his mobility. He ranks first among NFL quarterbacks with 515 rushing yards and five touchdowns on the ground. Newton has at least 50 rushing yards in 3 of the last 4 games. During that same stretch Newton has six touchdowns and zero interceptions through the air.
The Vikings defense has given up an NFL-best 56 rushing yards to opposing quarterbacks this season. However, the unit has allowed three rushing touchdowns to the position.
Newton is the clear number one threat of the Panthers offense. Being that he’s a dual threat quarterback, he has the ability to run whenever he feels pressured, which will keep the Vikings’ defense honest. He’s especially effective in the red zone. However, he’ll need to be efficient on third down and hit on some big plays in order to excel against Minnesota’s top-2 defense.
Xavier Rhodes vs. Devin Funchess
Xavier Rhodes once again showed why many consider him the best cornerback in the league. Last week, he shut down Falcons star receiver Julio Jones, but has another tough matchup this week.
Devin Funchess has been phenomenal since Kelvin Benjamin was traded by Carolina to the Buffalo Bills. According to Joseph Person of the Charlotte Observer he’s averaged 86.5 receiving yards per game on just over five catches with three touchdowns in the last four games.
Fortunately for the Vikings, Funchess has been the only wide receiver to get many targets from Newton. The Panthers’ number two receiver, Russel Shepard, hasn’t done much of anything this season. On 33 targets, the 27-year-old Shepard has 17 catches for 202 yards and a touchdown. His PFF grade is 43.0.
Funchess will be shadowed by non other than “Professor X“. Rhodes is expected to have similar success this week against Carolina’s version of Jones.
Eric Kendricks vs. Christian McCaffrey
Eric Kendricks may not have a good PFF grade (42.1), but don’t let the number fool you. He’s one of the more underrated linebackers in the NFL. He’s uncharacteristically missed a few tackles this season, but the 25-year-old leads the team with 56 tackles along with one sack and five passes defended. He also has eight tackles for loss, according to Yahoo Sports.
The Panthers run somewhat of an unconventional offense, which makes them a little more unusual to defend. Unlike most NFL teams, they run a lot of option plays from the backfield and move the offensive line and pocket constantly. This is to take advantage of Newton’s mobility while also causing confusion in defensive assignments.
The versatile Christian McCaffrey has fit seamlessly into Carolina’s offense. His 63 receptions this season are 10 more than any other Panther. The Stanford product has seen 90 targets in the passing game, which is one less than Funchess, the team’s number one wideout. According to PFF, McCaffrey has a 91.6 receiving grade this season, third highest among NFL pass-catchers.
While he may not receive as many carries as Jonathan Stewart, he averages more yards per carry and has basically taken over as the lead back. He has five-plus catches in six of the last eight games, and will receive plenty of targets Sunday.
The rookie running back has been used all over the field, and will be key to Carolina’s offensive prowess against Minnesota.
Kendricks and the Vikings defense will need to make sure they blow up any screen passes to McCaffrey and limit his touches in the open field. Missed tackles against the speedy back would be costly.
Everson Griffen vs. Matt Kalil
Everson Griffen is having the best season of his career. The 29-year-old has 12 sacks through 12 games. The 12 sacks tie a career high for the defensive end. Griffen’s Pro Bowl-caliber season is evidenced by his 90.2 Pro Football Focus grade, which is considered elite by PFF standards. The grade ranks him ninth among NFL edge defenders.
Matt Kalil, on the other hand, has been… well, Matt Kalil. As demonstrated by this Panthers.com article, we’re hearing the same reports about the left tackle that we heard during his Vikings days. The consensus: he has to show improvement. A 45.7 PFF grade ranks Kalil as the No. 63 tackle in the NFL. Through 12 games, Kalil has allowed six sacks, been called for six penalties, and given up 54 yards on sacks allowed, the third-highest mark in the league.
Vikings defenders vs. Greg Olsen
Vikings linebackers Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks, and Ben Gedeon will be tasked with covering the All-Pro tight end. The purple may also rely on nickel corners Mackensie Alexander and Terence Newman, or safeties Harrison Smith and Andrew Sendejo, to cover Olsen. Although he’s only played in three games this season and has caught a total of four passes for 38 yards, he’s a legitimate threat when healthy.
Working in the Vikings favor is the fact that the defense has only allowed three touchdowns to tight ends this season according to Pro Football Reference.
Also, Olsen is recovering from a broken right foot that he suffered in Week 2. Olsen was on IR for nine weeks. He returned in Week 12 against the Jets only to leave the game after fear of re-injury. X-rays were negative. According to Joseph Person of the Charlotte Observer he still has a titanium screw in his foot. He did not play last week against the Saints.
The defense must also keep an eye on Panthers second-string tight end Ed Dickson, who had 28 catches for 415 yards with a touchdowns in Olsen’s absence and may be used in two tight-end sets.
Vikings rushing attack vs. Carolina run stuffers
A key to Carolina’s success this season has been their ability to shut down opponent’s running games. The Panthers boast the number four run defense in the NFL.
Two main reasons for the Panthers success against the run are Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis. According to PFF, Kuechly ranks as the number two linebacker in football. His grade is an elite 93.9.
Davis may be 34 years old, but he can still play at a high level, as illustrated by his 82.0 PFF grade (#14 LB). Between the two linebackers (and clearly Shaq Thompson, when healthy) and the strength of the interior defensive line, the Panthers are simply a tough team to run against.
Star Lotulelei and Kawaan Short anchor the interior of Carolina’s defensive line. Both are tough to move off the ball and will present the Vikings offensive line with a formidable challenge all game.
The Panthers also like to put free safety Kurt Coleman in the box on early downs for support against the run.
Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon will look to wear the Panthers defense down and take advantage of the fact that Carolina has allowed seven touchdowns to opposing running backs this season.
Case Keenum vs. Panthers defense
Case Keenum is 243 of 360 (67.5%) for 2,703 yards, ranking him 14th in the NFL in passing yards. Keenum has 16 touchdowns and five interceptions. He has a QBR of 77.2 and a passer rating of 98.6. Keenum’s PFF grade is 81.9 which ranks him 13th among NFL quarterbacks.
Keenum has been sacked 9 times this season.
The Panthers defense is tied for the fifth in the NFL with 34 sacks.
Like the Atlanta Falcons, whom the Vikings beat last week, the Panthers have a stout group of pass rushers. Defensive ends Julius Peppers (8.5), Mario Addison (8.5), Wes Horton (3), and defensive tackle Kawaan Short (4) are Carolina’s leaders in sacks.
Also like the Falcons, the Panthers defense has not forced many turnovers through the air. The Panthers have just five interceptions this season, which is tied for 29th in the league. In fact, only middle linebacker Luke Kuechly (3) and 36 year-old safety Mike Adams (2) have interceptions for the Panthers.
Keenum also spreads the ball around well. He’s hit nine different receivers in two of the last three games, making it difficult for opposing defenses to hone in on any one threat.
Another key statistic is the Vikings’ success on third downs. Minnesota’s offense is number two in the NFL in third down conversion percentage (46%).
When Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer was asked about the third down success the offense has experienced this season, he said having multiple distinct targets has helped.
“I think part of it is the different options that we have,” Zimmer said. “Being able to have man beaters, zone beaters, being able to have those concepts in there.”
According to ESPN Stats & Information, Carolina is tied for 8th (with Pittsburgh) in defensive third down conversion efficiency (35.9%).
Adam Thielen vs. Captain Munnerlyn
Adam Thielen is fourth in the NFL with 1,056 receiving yards. He’s excelled from the slot, hauling in 36 catches for 465 yards while leading the league in target percentage (25.7%) according to PFF. He has three touchdowns on the season.
Captain Munnerlyn has not had a good season. According to PFF, he has allowed a passer rating of 107.6 when targeted by opposing quarterbacks. He ranks 90th among cornerbacks (47.5 grade).
In fact, none of the Panthers cover men are excelling this year. James Bradberry ranks 94th among cornerbacks (45.5 grade) and 22-year-old Daryl Worley ranks 75th (63.8 grade). Including Munnerlyn, the trio has zero interceptions.
Vikings receivers could be in for a big day if the offensive line is able to provide Keenum with time to throw the ball. The Panthers defense has allowed 12 touchdowns to wide receivers this season.
It’s going to be unusually cold in Charlotte, as the Weather Underground forecast is predicting game-time temperatures in the lower 40’s.
The game will feature two great defenses.
The Vikings defense will look to shut down the run first and make the Panthers offense one-dimensional. The key for Minnesota will be limiting big plays by Newton when he escapes the pocket.
Zimmer and defensive coordinator George Edwards have done a great job this season of mixing up looks at the line of scrimmage to confuse opposing quarterbacks.
“With each quarterback you pick your spots, try to get them off rhythm,” Zimmer said in Wednesday’s press conference. “I don’t know that there’s any guy that you wouldn’t try to get him off rhythm early. Heck, [Cam Newton] is a great player. Best player in the league two years ago.”
Look for the Vikings to blitz, or at least show blitz, often Sunday to try to get Newton off his game early. He’ll likely be spied by a defender all game to make sure he’s accounted for when he attempts to run.
Offensively, expect the Vikings to try to establish the run early on offense to gain control the time of possession. That may be difficult to do against the stout run defense of Carolina, so the Vikings will have to find ways to keep the Panthers defenders off-balance.
Luke Kuechly should NOT be overlooked.
The Panthers defense will look to shut down the run first as well. On passing situations look for blitzes to attempt to disrupt Keenum and the rhythm of the Vikings passing offense. The key for Carolina will be to make the Vikings offense predictable.
If the Vikings get shut down early in the run game they may have to find a balanced attack in the passing game, which won’t be very easy against Carolina’s solid secondary. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a trick play or two from offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur’s playbook.
Vikings win another close game on the road.
PREDICTION: Vikings 19, Panthers 17
Stefon Diggs has seen his production drop as of late but that should change Sunday. Diggs will matchup up against Bradberry, Worley or Munnerlyn depending on where he lines up. All have struggled lately. Look for a bounce back game for number 14, who hasn’t had 100 yards receiving since Week 3.
Danielle Hunter won’t be picked by many analysts to have a breakout game because he has a tough matchup. He’ll be lined up against Panthers right tackle Daryl Williams, who is having a very strong season. Williams has a PFF grade of 85.5, the 4th-highest rating for a tackle in the NFL. However, Hunter has been getting to the quarterback more often in the second half of the season. With a sack in three of the last four games, expect the ultra-athletic Hunter to be unleashed against Williams, who’s given up three sacks on the season.
Offensive line stats courtesy of FoxSports.com.
Third down percentages and player stats provided by ESPN.com.