During the offseason, the front office was very conscious to improve up the middle of the defense. In that regard, they were successful. They obtained large and in charge nose tackle Pat Williams, middle linebacker Sam Cowart and safety Darren Sharper.
The results haven't shown in the rankings, but after a miserable start the Vikings are beginning to make progress. While their rushing defense still ranks only 30th in the league, they have held their last two opponents, Green Bay and Chicago, to a combined 140 yards rushing.
"The No. 1 (thing), no matter who you're playing, is stop the run and run the ball," Cowart said. "If you do those two things, then you're going to have a chance to win the ballgame."
Sunday, the Vikings have to focus on Carolina's Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster. Davis is the NFC's leading scorer for rushing touchdowns, but the fact is the Panthers rank only 24th in rushing offense.
"The defenses are committing some people to stopping (the run)," Panthers head coach John Fox said. "It's not one of those areas where you can put blame on one thing – the backs, the tight ends, the fullback or the offensive line. If you run every play like it's diagrammed in the playbook, it will be a touchdown. The reality is the other team practices, too. It only takes one error technically or assignment-wise or them committing an extra guy to the run box (to stop a run). It's not just one area."
While the Vikings may be focused on limiting Davis and the Panthers' 3.1-yard rushing average – which is average at best – Carolina's biggest threat is wide receiver Steve Smith.
In assessing Carolina's offense, the presence of Smith was the first thing out of Sharper's mouth.
"I know that they have an excellent receiver in Steve Smith, who is playing at a Pro Bowl level at this point," Sharper said. "I know they have a strong offensive line, especially with one of the guys I've played with in the last few years, Mike Wahle. I know they have some strength and they can run the football, but with how our defensive line is playing, I don't know if anyone can run the ball on us too much, so we've got to really concentrate on slowing down their passing game."
That starts with Smith, who accounts for 48 percent of the Carolina offense, according to Vikings coach Mike Tice – "you remember the Randy Ratio; it is similar," Tice said, referring to his first-year proclamation that Moss should account for 40 percent of the Vikings offense.
"(Smith) is an excellent punt returner. He is definitely a priority for our football team," Tice said. "Hopefully they will close their eyes at night and they will see number 89."
Smith can create nightmares for defensive backs.
He is sixth in receiving yards and fifth in the NFL with 39 receptions, and his 15.3-yard average per catch is best among the top five in receptions. He is clearly the leading recipient in the Panthers' 15th-ranking passing attack – garnering nearly four times as many receptions as the next wide receiver on the team. And he knows how to score touchdown, having seven through six games.
"Both of our corners can match up with him (Smith), but we'll have to see how the game plan works and what we're going to do," Sharper said.
With Smith being such a dominating presence in the Panthers' receiving corps, look for Fred Smoot to once again shadow him, just as he did Donald Driver in the second half of the Green Bay game.
After letting Driver slalom through the Vikings defense in the first half, when he had 101 receiving yards, the Vikings altered their defensive strategy in the second half and put Smoot on Driver exclusively, with safety help. The result? Despite RB Ahman Green and WR Robert Ferguson lost for the game, Driver had only 13 yards receiving in the second half.
Smoot's assignment on Smith is likely the most important one for the Minnesota defense on Sunday.
"If we can go to Carolina and knock these guys off, it should really be a boost to us and hopefully get us kick-started for the second half of the season," Sharper said.
Stopping Smith is best way to do that.
BY THE NUMBERS: 10 — Number of second-quarter points scored by the Vikings this season. Opponents have score 77 in the same quarter.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "He's quite the character when it comes to using his mouth and getting guys going. The thing about it is I haven't played with a guy that talks as much as Jermaine and backed it up at the same time. When Jermaine speaks, you know he's going to go out there and make plays." — Receiver Nate Burleson on teammate and tight end Jermaine Wiggins, who leads the Vikings with 32 catches this season.
Syndicated content was used for the notes portion of this report.