The Vikings were able to save their 2013 season in London with a victory over Pittsburgh two weeks ago. Now they're looking to get back into the mix of the division title race with a victory over the Carolina Panthers. While all the buzz this week has surrounded how the Vikings quarterback situation will play itself out in the coming weeks, the reality is that the bread and butter of the Vikings offense will remain running back Adrian Peterson, and his battle with Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly will be this week's key matchup.
When the Panthers made Kuechly the ninth pick in the 2012 draft, the original plan was to have him playing on the outside with Jon Beason manning the middle linebacker position. When Beason went down in Week 4 of the 2012 season, Kuechly moved into his place and the results have been obvious.
In the 16 games before Kuechly moved into the middle linebacker spot, the Panthers had the 26th-ranked defense in the NFL (25th rushing, 26th passing). In the 16 games since the switch, Carolina has the fifth-ranked defense (5th rushing, 8th passing). He has become the face of the Panthers defense – in the last 16 games, he has been on the field for all but five of Carolina's 1,024 defensive snaps (99.5 percent). He has averaged 14 tackles a game in that span and has been one of the primary reasons Carolina has moved from the bottom third of NFL defenses to the top third.
One of Kuechly's strengths has been to shoot gaps to stop running plays dead in their tracks. For the season, the Panthers are allowing just 3.6 yards a carry and have often forced teams to abandon the run because of the lack of consistent gains. He will be asked to take on the most daunting challenge a middle linebacker faces – stopping Peterson on runs between the tackles.
While it didn't get a lot of national publicity, the return of former Panther Jerome Felton to the Vikings offense against Pittsburgh was vital to the Vikings' rushing attack. In Felton's first season with the Vikings, Peterson averaged 131 rushing yards a game. In the three games without Felton to start the season, A.D. averaged less than 94 rushing yards a game. In the first game with Felton back, Peterson ran for 140 yards and scored two touchdowns.
There is little doubting that Peterson is going to get the ball early and often. Through the first four games of the season, Peterson has rushed the ball 92 times – an average of 23 carries a game. With the Vikings desperate for a home win to get their record to 2-3, it wouldn't be surprising to see Peterson have 25 carries or more against the Panthers. If Keuchly can consistently make plays to stop Peterson, the Vikings will find themselves in bad down-and-distance situations. If Peterson (and his bodyguard Felton) can make plays consistently against Kuechly, the Vikings will be able to dictate the tempo of the game and dominate time of possession.
In a battle of strength vs. strength, the Panthers encourage opponents to try to run the ball against them. They haven't come up against a running back like Peterson this season and he is ready to put the offense on his back and grind out yards and wear down the Carolina defense. Whoever wins this battle will likely win the game, making the ongoing war between Peterson and Kuechly this week's matchup to watch.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Key matchup: Kuechly vs. A.D.
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