Last year, the Vikings' tailspin from the NFC title game to a 5-11 record began with a home loss to the Carolina Panthers — the only win the Panthers would have all season. That loss still weighs heavy on the minds of those who were playing for the Vikings last year, and getting a return shot at the Panthers is going to be an opportunity to prove that lightning will not strike twice.
For Carolina, it will be their first road game of the season. In the opener they beat the hapless Ravens and beat Detroit last Sunday. The Panthers are looking to continue their roll, with four of their next five games on the road.
The changes on the Panthers from last year are numerous, but none bigger than the decision by new coach John Fox to make Rodney Peete his starter. An ageless veteran who hasn't been a full-time starter in a decade, Peete beat out Chris Weinke and for now has the starting job. No longer a scrambler, the Vikings will need to pressure Peete, because, old or not, you don't last 14 years in the NFL without talent, and Peete has it. He's not asked to make big plays, just not to make mistakes.
The running game was supposed to be the domain of DeShaun Foster, but a knee injury sidelined him in training camp. He may be ready for the Vikings game, but more likely it will be Lamar Smith. He should play into the Vikings' hands, because Smith is a straight-line runner who doesn't have great explosion, and the Vikings run defense should be able to swarm him and limit any long gains. Behind him is untested Dee Brown, so most of the action should come from Smith, who is going to carry the running game until Foster's return. Fullback Brad Hoover will be used in the passing game somewhat, but he will be asked primarily to open holes for Smith.
The questions on offense spread to the receiver corps as well. The Panthers have two sure things — WR Muhsin Muhammad and TE Wesley Walls. Although both have fought through injuries, each is a consummate receiver and finds the open spots in the defense. Beyond them is where the questions begin.
Steve Smith returned a kickoff 100 yards for a TD that was the margin of victory over the Vikings last year, but now he's in a battle for a starting job with Isaac Byrd. Neither possesses the great skills of a top-notch wideout, but both bring speed to the table and the capability of making big plays. At tight end, Kris Mangum is threatening Walls for his starting job, because Walls tends to break down, but Mangum should only see action in two-tight end sets Sunday.
The offensive line brings back former Viking Todd Steussie, who had a falling out with Dennis Green and was released. He's the anchor on the left side of the Panthers offensive line, which has many question marks. The line is young and worked all last season together with Chris Terry at the other tackle spot, Jeno Jones and Jamar Nesbit at guards, and Jeff Mitchell at center. While the line didn't fare well last year, all but Steussie (in his ninth year) have been in the league five years or fewer and, if signed, could be together for years to come. They're learning as a unit and will likely do nothing but improve in the coming years.
The big question for the Panthers defensively is how to improve. In their final 15 games, the Panthers allowed opponents 23 or more points in 12 games and 30 or more in four — including the final three. Considering the offense scored more than 24 points just twice, that's not acceptable.
That's why the Panthers used the No. 2 pick in the draft to grab DE Julius Peppers. He is expected to bring ferocity to the Panthers defense, which was missing last year up front. He joins veteran Brentson Buckner and young tackle Kris Jenkins (second year) and end Mike Rucker (fourth) to give the Panthers more youth and speed up front — something they will need to pressure Daunte Culpepper.
The same formula is being used at linebacker, where second-year man Dan Morgan patrols the middle, flanked by fourth-year man Hannibal Navies and eight-year veteran Mark Fields. Fox wants all of these players to be aggressive and take chances. While that could lend itself to creating turnovers, it also can allow for big plays to be made against them. Look for the Vikings to attack that aggression with misdirection plays.
The secondary is the Achilles heel of this team. Neither of the starting corners — Terry Cousin and Reggie Howard — was a starter last year. While safeties Deon Grant and Mike Minter were both starters, neither is viewed among the best at his position in the NFC, so the Panthers are vulnerable in the secondary and the Vikings will look to strike often in the deep secondary.
The Panthers' defeat of the Vikings was a serious blow to the team last year and a loss many thought, following the layoff after Sept. 11, stuck with the team long after it was over. If the Vikings are to return to prominence, beating a team like Carolina is a must. Don't expect the Vikings to play down to the competition. Look for some anger and revenge.
Randy Moss vs. Terry Cousin and Reggie Howard — Few players can inspire fear in defenders like Randy Moss. He is so talented that opponents diagram defensive schemes to control him — often opening up other players to restrict Moss' contribution. Nowhere may this fear be realized more than when the Panthers line up on defense.
A year ago, when Carolina beat the Vikings, the Panthers had Doug Evans and Jimmy Hitchcock — longtime NFL starters — facing off with Moss and Cris Carter. Both cornerbacks were cap casualties, and first choice for backup — Rashard Anderson — is also gone for the season. This time around, it's going to be Terry Cousin and Reggie Howard. Cousin has skills, but, playing in Miami, he was a nickel back who never got the assignment of covering a team's go-to receiver. That went to Sam Madison. Now, it's Cousin's job, along with Howard — a third-year man who made his first start two weeks ago vs. Baltimore.
When an offensive coordinator smells a weakness, he goes after it. Eric Kelly was seen as that weakness when covering Marty Booker in the opener, and Booker had nearly 200 yards receiving. The same will be true for Scott Linehan, who smells blood in the water for Moss, Derrick Alexander and D'Wayne Bates.
Look for the Vikings to tease the Panthers by not throwing early to Moss, instead loosening the defense by throwing short routes at Moss and deep passes at Alexander and Bates. Once the Panthers have to start making adjustments to take away the bombs to other players is where the fun will begin.
Expect to see Moss be the target of at least a half dozen passes of 20 yards or more and, if the Panthers try to bump him at the line, be on the receiving end of at least one TD and quite possibly more. The Randy Ratio will be in effect and the Vikings will get a win because of it.
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