Vikings see opportunities defensively

The Vikings will concentrate on stopping Panthers QB Cam Newton, who is dealing with a different corps of receivers.

On face value, the Carolina Panthers don’t have the horses that the Green Bay Packers brought to TCF Bank Stadium last week, but as the Vikings prepare for the 3-7-1 Panthers, they are doing so with some caution because, while a lot of the faces have changed in the passing game, the Panthers still have an offense with the ability to put points on the board in bunches.

Cornerback Josh Robinson feels the back end of the Vikings defense did some good things last week in containing Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb from the Packers passing game, but the secondary isn’t anywhere close to being satisfied as it gets ready to take on the Panthers.

“Whenever you don’t get a win you can’t feel good about it, regardless of how well you think you played – you can always play better,” Robinson said. “We’re improving in a lot of different areas as an entire defense, as a whole. You take those things and you want to keep those going and try to correct the mistakes.”

The constants in the Panthers offense remain quarterback Cam Newton and tight end Greg Olsen – both of whom are critical to the Panthers offense. Last season, Newton was extremely effective, helping lead the Panthers to a 12-4 record as he threw for 24 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. Through 11 games this year, Newton has thrown just 12 touchdowns with 10 interceptions – five in the last two games.

At times this season, Newton has looked as though he is injured. At other times, he seems emotionless and almost disinterested. A former No. 1 overall pick, Newton is at a crossroads in his career and the Vikings have seen some things on film that can put pressure on Newton.

“We see a lot of things where we can pick up and try to make plays on him and that’s what we’re trying to do,” Robinson said. “We’re trying to make the plays that we’re supposed to make. He’s a good quarterback when he gets out of that pocket, so try to keep him contained and eliminate him running down the field and stuff like that.”

One of the biggest differences in Newton is that he isn’t running like he used to. In his rookie season in 2011, he ran for 706 yards and 14 rushing touchdowns. In 2012, he ran for 741 yards, but his rushing touchdowns dropped to eight. Last season, his numbers dropped to 585 yards and six touchdowns. To date this season, he has rushed just 64 times for 293 yards and two touchdowns – a far cry from his early career ground production.

It may be injuries that have contributed to his lack of running success, but Robinson is convinced it’s just as likely that defenses have figured out how to contain Newton and keep him in the cocoon of the pocket.

“I think a lot of teams are keying in on trying to box him in,” Robinson said. “They’re making sure their rush lanes are correct. That’s something we’re going to try to do as well to try to keep him in the box and keep him contained.”

While the Vikings have years of film on Newton in the Carolina offense, his receivers are another story. The Panthers’ top three wide receivers from last year – Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn Jr. – are all gone. Those three represented 149 of the team’s receptions (51 percent), 1,928 of the Panthers’ receiving yards (57 percent) and 14 of their 24 passing touchdowns (58 percent).

The one constant in the changing face of the Carolina offense is tight end Greg Olsen. Last year, he led the team in all three major categories with 73 receptions, 816 yards and six touchdowns. As impressive as Olsen was last year, he’s expanded on his role this year. At his current pace, Olsen will catch 81 passes for 1,046 yards and seven TDs.

In many ways, Olsen is used in the Panthers offense much like Rob Gronkowski is used by New England. He lines up as a classic in-line tight end. He lines up as a slot receiver. He lines up outside the hash marks like a wide receiver. He has at least one catch of 15 or more yards in 10 of 11 games. He has five or more receptions in eight games and has 60 or more receiving yards in eight games, including two 100-yard games.

“He’s a good receiver – a guy that can catch the ball, a guy that can run nice routes and has decent speed,” Robinson said. “He’s a guy that we’re definitely going to have to cover.”

With the Vikings showing incremental improvement defensively, the arrow appears to be pointing in the right direction, but Robinson and his teammates aren’t patting themselves on the back. They have a little more than a month to start building toward 2015 and that process begins Sunday against the Panthers.

“We’ve done some good things, but it hasn’t turned into nearly as many wins as we expected,” Robinson said. “We’re seeing some improvement and we’re coming together as a group, but we have a long way to go. We just need to keep playing sound defense and taking care of our responsibilities. If we keep doing that, the wins will come.”

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