The Carolina Panthers will travel to Minnesota to play the Vikings for their third regular season game on Sept.21. Many are projecting the Vikings to be a very good team, but the Panthers are only expected to be average. Who knows what will happen come gameday, but let's see if I can predict what will happen.
It's good for the Vikings that offense starts with the offensive line. Minnesota had two Pro Bowl offensive linemen last year, left guard Steve Hutchinson and center Matt Birk. Hutchinson started, and Birk backed up Andre Gurode of the Dallas Cowboys. The offensive line opened up a ton of holes for Pro Bowl running back Adrian Peterson last year as he had an amazing rookie year.
The Panthers defensive line may have considerable trouble putting pressure on Vikings quarterback Tarvaris Jackson—it is inexperienced and/or inept, with the exception of Julius Peppers.
I expect the Vikings to go at Peppers with Hutchinson and left tackle Bryant McKinnie, leaving the rest of their offensive linemen to go man-to-man with the rest of the Panthers' defensive linemen.
That means Minnesota field general Tarvaris Jackson, who amassed nearly 2,000 yards and 9 touchdowns on 171 completions and also ran for 260 yards and 3 touchdowns on 54 attempts last season, can just sit in the pocket and take his sweet time finding an open receiver. Or if he doesn't find an open receiver—or he somehow gets hurried—he can just scramble out of the pocket and make a play on the run.
But even if Jackson can get the ball downfield, there's no guarantee that anyone but Bernard Berrian will catch it.
No.1 receiver Bobby Wade only recorded 54 catches for 647 yards and 3 touchdowns last year. That was a lackluster year, and it was the best season of his six-year pro career by far. Despite the fact that Wade is currently listed as the No.1 receiver, I doubt he will be the top receiver at the start of the season. I look for cornerback Chris Gamble, who notched 47 tackles, 6 deflections, and 1 interception last season, to hold Wade to five catches for 60 yards.
No.2 receiver Berrian, a top-25 NFL receiver who played for the Bears in 2007, posted 71 receptions for 951 yards and 5 touchdowns last season. Berrian may currently be listed as the No.2 receiver on the Vikings' depth chart, but he will likely be Minnesota's top receiver once the regular season rolls around. That means he will probably be paired with corner Ken Lucas, who had 61 tackles, 12 deflections, and two interceptions, who I predict will hold him to eight catches for 80 yards.
Then there's tight end Visanthe Shiancoe, who compiled 27 catches for 323 yards and a touchdown in 16 games last season. At 6'4", 250 lbs, he's a big guy—even for a tight end. While he doesn't look particularly good, receiving tight ends simply kill the Panthers.
Or if Jackson doesn't find an open receiver or he gets hurried, he can just scramble out of the pocket and make a play on the run.
That forces the defense to stay home on him and the receivers, giving star running back Adrian Peterson, who picked up 1341 yards and 12 touchdowns on 238 carries, plenty of room to run. When that happens, watch out.
The Panthers should aim to shut the Vikings' receivers down early so they can pour everything into stopping Adrian Peterson before he does too much damage.
The Vikings need to establish the passing game early, and then go to Adrian Peterson for a change of pace. After that, the Vikings will have the Panthers guessing and on their heels. If Minnesota was able to what I just suggested, they will be not only unpredictable offensively, but impossible to stop.
The Panthers offense will be enhanced significantly just because of the fact that Steve Smith will be back starting this week from his season-opening two-game suspension lowered because of a fight in training camp with teammate Ken Lucas.
But that's the passing game. The running game, what the Panthers would like to become their bread-and-butter offense, will be incredibly difficult to get going against a defense that was the best in the league last year at stopping the run.
Led by nose tackle Pat Williams, who compiled 62 tackles in 2007, and middle linebacker EJ Henderson, who posted 118 tackles and 4.5 sacks last season, the Vikings defense averaged 74.1 rushing yards allowed per game. I anticipate Panthers running backs will collectively get held to 75 yards and no touchdowns—or less.
However, Williams is the only one of these three players on the left side of the field. The Panthers could conceivably block for starting running back DeAngelo Williams with behemoth right tackle Jeff Otah, but the effectiveness of a strategy like that is hard to predict.
Now, going back to the Panthers passing game—it won't be a walk through the park for them by any means.
The Vikings acquired league-leading pass-rushing defensive end Jared Allen, who recorded 15.5 sacks, 64 tackles, and 10 pass deflections last year for the Chiefs, in the offseason. Allen will be lined up across from Panthers franchise left tackle Jordan Gross. This matchup will be pretty even, both Allen and Gross are elite linemen.
Also cornerback Cedric Griffin is solid—he notched 92 tackles and 10 deflections in '07. Strong safety Darren Sharper racked up 63 tackles, 8 deflections, and 4 picks last year. Free safety Madieu Williams compiled 74 tackles, 7 deflections, and 2 interceptions last season.
This solid secondary will make it hard for the Panthers to connect for a long touchdown pass, which means that they will have to settle for short to medium aerial gains.
Overall, the Panthers' gameplan should be to run a ball-control offense featuring runs by running back DeAngelo Williams to right tackle and short 10- to 15-yard passes in order to maintain possession as long as possible, which eventually may tire out the defense enough to open up more of the field for deeper passes. This strategy also keeps Adrian Peterson off the field as much as possible, giving him less of a chance of having a huge game.
The Vikings should look to contain the running game with Pat Williams, Jared Allen, and EJ Henderson at the start of the game. If that works, then when the Panthers realize the run isn't working, play pass coverage-heavy zone defense.
This game will be won and lost based on how well the Panthers can contain Adrian Peterson and how effectively the Panthers can run their rushing offense. Unfortunately it looks like the Vikings will win this game.