The Vikings face an extremely dangerous team when they meet the Carolina Panthers in the home opener Sunday – a team predicted by many to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl and a team in danger of falling to 0-2 (both conference losses) to open the season.
While on paper the Panthers look to have all component parts needed to be a legitimate Super Bowl team, on the field it has been another story. The big question surrounding this week of preparation is whether the Vikings will be lining up opposite wide receiver Steve Smith. Smith, who missed almost all of the preseason with a hamstring injury, suffered a setback prior to their Week 1 loss at home to Atlanta when he tweaked the other hamstring. He is listed as questionable, but the Panthers may not have the luxury of sitting him if he is close to being 100 percent – even if it means risking a recurrence of the injury.
While Smith is the focal point of the offense, he is far from the only weapon. With Muhsin Muhammad gone to Chicago last year, Smith produced another monster season, thanks to quarterback Jake Delhomme. Delhomme is adept at finding his top guys when they're open and he's added another valuable weapon in Keyshawn Johnson. While Johnson's ego would tell you he's in the league of Torry Holt or Randy Moss, the truth is that he is the league's best move-the-chains possession receiver – and the most expensive. But his strong suit is in the red zone and on jump balls in the end zone – perhaps Smith's only weakness as a receiver. He will likely be matched up with Antoine Winfield, where Johnson will have a 10-inch height advantage. The combination of Smith, Johnson and third-year man Keary Colbert gives the Panthers a ton of weapons if they have to pass. The question is whether the Vikings defense can put them in that situation.
The Panthers have a strong running attack that head coach John Fox prefers to use to beat down opponents. Without the strong inside running of Stephen Davis anymore, the burden has fallen to former first-rounder DeShaun Foster. Foster, when healthy, is a very good double threat as a runner and receiver and is capable of breaking off long runs at any time. But, the term "when healthy" has become a curse of Foster's. Since joining the league, he's never made it through a full season without a serious injury. As insurance against a potential recurrence of injury problems, the Panthers used their first-round draft pick this year on DeAngelo Williams. Although viewed as a little too small by some NFL scouts, he has many of the same explosive qualities as Brian Westbrook of the Eagles, which is one of the reasons draft experts tabbed the Vikings as taking Williams before the team signed Chester Taylor. Fox has been loyal to his veterans, so the Vikings will likely get a steady dose of Foster, but don't be surprised if Williams gets 10-12 touches Sunday.
The biggest question mark on offense for the Panthers is the offensive line. After losing veterans Jeff Mitchell and Tuten Reyes after the 2005 season, there were some questions on the ability of Justin Hartwig to move to full-time center and second-year pro Evan Mathis stepping in at right guard. But the thought was that premier with linemen like Jordan Gross at right tackle, Mike Wahle at left guard and Travelle Wharton at left tackle, the two could be protected without a dropoff in production. But, with Wharton gone for the season, there are some big questions at left tackle. Rookie Rashad Butler is likely going to get the start and he will be attacked from first play to last. One mistake, which is almost assured from a rookie OLT, and the Panthers could find themselves with either a turnover or Chris Weinke looking for his helmet. Look for the Vikings to bring added pressure up the middle and leave Butler on an island with Kenechi Udeze. Adding to the Carolina problems on the offensive line is the fact that Hartwig may not be able to go either. Losing a starting left tackle is bad enough, but if the Wharton and Hartwig can't go, it could present a real opportunity for the Vikings offensive line.
While the Panthers have put up some nice offensive numbers, it has been the defense that has been the difference maker for Carolina's recent success. Nowhere is that more evident than up front, where the front four of the Panthers can arguably be called the best in the NFL. On the outside, the Panthers have Julius Peppers and Mike Rucker. Peppers has incredible speed for a big man and is consistently required to be chipped by a running back or double teamed. On the other side, Rucker is a strong run stuffer, although his sack numbers have dropped in the last couple of years. Some of that has been attributed to the loss of Kris Jenkins, an All-Pro caliber defensive tackle. He's healthy (for now), and teamed with mammoth free agent signee Maake Kemoeatu the Panthers have four down linemen that potentially could be Pro Bowlers this year and in future years.
The Panthers defense sustained a severe blow when middle linebacker Dan Morgan was knocked out of Sunday's game due to a concussion sustained in Week 1. With Morgan out, the linebackers are pedestrian at best after losing Will Witherspoon and Brandon Short to free agency in the off-season. Na'il Diggs is likely just keeping the weakside position warm until rookie James Anderson is ready to take over. On the other side, Thomas Davis has great quickness and hitting ability, but doesn't read plays very well and gets out of position too often. This was a position of strength in 2005 and suddenly has become a liability.
The Panthers have invested a lot of money in the secondary, using a first-round pick in 2004 to get Chris Gamble and a lot of free agent money to sign Ken Lucas last year. Both are very strong in man coverage and are hard to beat in one-on-one situations. The safety position took a hit when Marlon McCree signed away as a free agent, but the combination of Mike Minter and Shaun Williams can get the job done, because their role is simpler with potential shut-down corners on both sides.
The Panthers have weaknesses on both sides of the ball that can be exploited by the Vikings. But one of the most dangerous teams is a very good team that is forced into desperation mode. The Panthers know that if they drop to 0-2, their hopes of winning a Super Bowl could take a big hit, because so few teams that start 0-2 make the Big Dance in the first place. With a team looking at the season potentially clinging in the balance – at least in terms of the lofty preseason goals the Panthers and the media that cover the NFL have placed upon them – expect to see the best the Panthers have to offer. If the Vikings can take them down, the rest of the league will start taking notice that the Vikings are a team to be reckoned with.
MATCHUP TO WATCH
Kenechi Udeze vs. Julius Peppers
While Kenechi Udeze and Julius Peppers don't play the same position or are on the field at the same time, their matchup perhaps more than any other will determine who wins the game Sunday.
There's no questioning Peppers' ability as a pass rusher. He is dominant and typically requires double teams or an assist from a tight end or a running back. He will be lined up opposite right tackle Marcus Johnson, who, while improved from a year ago, is still learning his position. That is always bad news when facing a player with Peppers' game-changing ability. If Johnson can't hold up, the Vikings will have to alter their gameplan completely to go with plays that will give Johnson additional help to keep him off of Brad Johnson. If Johnson can hold up and neutralize Peppers for most of the game, it will be a huge advantage to a Vikings offensive line that can hold up against the other three Panthers d-linemen.
On the flip side is Udeze. Last week, he went up against Chris Samuels and more than held his own – forcing Mark Brunell out of the pocket and several occasions and throw three passes to the sidelines to avoid sacks. With the injury to Travelle Wharton, Udeze will likely be matched up with rookie Rashad Butler, a sixth-round pick out of Miami. Having spent his training camp lining up opposite another Miami product – Vikings left tackle Bryant McKinnie – and enduring a Week 1 matchup with an excellent left tackle in Samuels, Butler is going to be a severe drop in opponent talent. Udeze should dominate this matchup and, in the process, force the Panthers to do what the Vikings will likely do with Peppers – assign extra skill-position help from running backs and tight ends to keep him off of Jake Delhomme.
While Udeze and Peppers will never match up head to head, the one of them that can most dictate the pace and flow of the opposing offense will go a long way to determining who wins. Both are capable of forcing the big plays that kill drives or result in turnovers. The one the steps up bigger will likely be on the team that wins, making this the Matchup to Watch on Sunday.
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