Vikings know the score vs. Carolina

The Carolina Panthers bring a balanced offense with solid weapons in the running game and passing game, but the Vikings' defenders know what will be their first priority Sunday. See what the defenders and coordinator had to say about the Panthers offense.

Just about anyone who knows the NFL realized from the moment the 2008 schedule came out that the beginning stretch of games was going to be brutal. With Green Bay, Indianapolis, Carolina, Tennessee and New Orleans on the opening slate of five games, many believed that if the Vikings could survive that stretch at 2-3, they could be in pretty good shape all things considered.

Two games into that murderer's row of a schedule, the Vikings are 0-2. They were underdogs against both the Packers and Colts and performed like underdogs. Sunday against the Carolina Panthers, the Vikings are going to be facing one of the most complete offenses in the league. With quarterback Jake Delhomme, running backs Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams and receivers Steve Smith, Muhsin Muhammad, D.J. Hackett, Dwayne Jarrett and Dante Rosario, the Panthers have more weapons than most teams and are capable of beating you on the ground and in the air.

Although the Vikings have a strong reputation as a run defense, they know the Panthers aren't going to shy away from trying to run the ball. So it will start with Williams and Stewart. Defensive end Jared Allen said the team knows that Panthers like to run, but that the Vikings have faced such challenges before and have been able to stymie some of the league's best running threats.

"They've got strong backs," Allen said. "The way to stop backs like that that is to play your responsibility. If everyone plays their gap, they won't have a place to run. This defense has proved over the last couple of years that we can stop all kinds of different running back styles. Just about every time we've given up a big run of any kind, someone either missed a tackle or got out of their gap. When you play strong fundamental defense, you stop most of those plays."

The game plan coming into Sunday is going to be simple – try to shut down the run and make the Panthers one-dimensional. Unfortunately, having Steve Smith coming back in a lineup that did just fine without him will put even more pressure on the Vikings defense, but shutting down the run early will remain Priority One for the Vikings defensive wall.

"They do a great job of running the football," Frazier said. "It's exactly what you expect from a John Fox-coached team. They are going to pound the ball and now they have the addition of Steve Smith, so it is going to be harder to just line up in eight-, nine-man fronts, which is what they have been getting in these first two games. You have to pay attention to Steve for sure, but those backs are both really good backs – both Williams and Stewart (are) outstanding running backs. Their offensive line is doing a great job and the quarterback really knows how to manage a game. Those fourth quarter heroics have been pretty impressive from him."

The last thing the Vikings can afford to do is let the Panthers succeed in the running game. If they can get the Vikings defense on their heels, they can mix and match their offensive play-calling and take deep shots at the Vikings secondary. The Panthers will be expecting a difficult time running the ball, but they likely won't change their approach – at least not to start the game – unless the Vikings completely shut them down. If they can succeed at rushing the ball into the teeth of the Vikings defense, it will also open up the potential for big plays in the passing game.

"When you have a strong running game, it opens up a lot of things in the passing game," safety Darren Sharper said. "You get a lot more one-on-one coverage, so it definitely helps them in both ends and gives them a chance to make explosive plays."

Even if the Vikings can stop the run, it doesn't automatically mean that the Panthers will be crippled offensively. The team has a pair of top-flight receivers in Smith and Muhammad. Smith brings the threat of the home run and Muhammad is one of the top possession receivers in the league. They will be front and center Sunday and the Vikings know that they can strike for six points at any time.

"Both Muhammad and Smith are excellent receivers – Muhammad being the veteran guy that our guys know from his time in Chicago," Frazier said. "Steve Smith has been such an explosive guy. They both present different types of challenges. We'll have to be at the top of our game. You don't want them to be a balanced team where they can both run the football as well as they have been running it, then have the addition of a good passing scheme that could create a lot of problems for our defense. So we really have to be on it on Sunday and play our best game of the season."

It is this balance that has made the Panthers a favorite to make the playoffs and, with a 2-0 start under their belts, they will be looking to keep their early momentum building with a road win against the Vikings.

"There's a reason they're 2-0," cornerback Cedric Griffin said. "You look at their weapons and you see why they haven't lost. They can beat you in different ways and all of us have to step up and take on the challenges they will put in front of us."

Just as the Colts and Packers presented diverse offenses that can succeed on the ground and through the air, the Panthers fit into that M.O. nicely. The Vikings can ill-afford to fall any farther behind and not get their first win of the season notched. Some may believe that it is too early in the season to use the term "must win" for Sunday's game, but the players realize that a third straight loss to start the season could be a coffin nail that will be difficult to overcome.

"Every game is important," Sharper said. "But when you're 0-2 every game gets more important. You can't keep digging the hole any deeper. You have to win the games you should win. You never want to look back and say I wish I had done this different. We have to look at each game now like it's the most important game of our season."

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