The Vikings have contended during their early 0-2 stretch that merely a handful of plays have prevented them from possibly being 2-0. When you lose two games by a combination of eight points, that argument can be made. The flip side of that has been the Carolina Panthers. Three years removed from being the NFC representative in the Super Bowl, injuries and poor play have prevented the Panthers from returning to the elite of the NFC. But, unlike the Vikings, the Panthers have rallied from deficits in both of their first two games to post wins over San Diego and Chicago by a combined total of five points – giving them a 2-0 start and a chance to make a statement with a win today against the Vikings.
One of the reasons for the Panthers' early-season success has been the return to health of quarterback Jake Delhomme. Last year, Delhomme had eight touchdown passes in less than three games as Carolina got off to a 2-0 start. But in that third game, he suffered a severe elbow injury that required Tommy John reconstructive surgery to repair. The result last year was that the Panthers had to use four different quarterbacks, including undrafted rookie Matt Moore and 43-year-old retiree Vinny Testaverde. With Delhomme back, the Panthers offense is operating with much more confidence and efficiency. He isn't the type of quarterback that worries defensive coordinators in the way Peyton Manning did last week during preparation, but he is a savvy veteran with a knack for making big plays. If the Vikings can't establish a pass rush and put pressure on Delhomme, he will pick the defense apart.
One of the staples of any John Fox-coached team has been a power running game. Fox was loyal to RB Stephen Davis even after it was clear that he had little left to offer as a power back. The Fox philosophy has been to pound big runners at a defense but, with the retirement of Smith and the free-agent loss of DeShaun Foster, the Panthers didn't have a big bruising back to pound at opposing defenses. They filled that void in April's draft, selecting rookie RB Jonathan Stewart in the first round. Stewart has lived up to his lofty expectations, rushing 24 times for 130 yards (a 5.4-yard average) and two touchdowns in the first two games. He is a big back who can gain tough yardage between the tackles. He is joined by fellow first-rounder DeAngelo Williams, a speed back who has settled into a time-share in the Panthers backfield in his first two seasons. Williams has more carries (29) than Stewart, but has gained at least a yard less per carry to date this season and has a longest run of just 11 yards. A classic "Thunder and Lightning" combination, expect to see both Stewart and Williams to get a lot of action. The team has its usual suspects of backup fullback/running back hybrids in Brad Hoover and Nick Goings, but the combination of Stewart and Williams will be the primary concern of the Vikings defense.
As deep as the Panthers receiver rotation is, it is going to take a big step forward this week with the return of Steve Smith to the lineup. Smith was suspended by the team for two games after a preseason fight in which he punched a teammate in the face. Smith has served his suspension and is ready to reclaim his spot as the team's go-to receiver. While known for his speed, Smith has surprising toughness and is as dangerous after he catches the ball as he is to take a pass deep over the top of the defense. With Smith back, there will be some shuffling to the Panthers receiver rotation. He will be paired with veteran Muhsin Muhammad, who is no stranger to the Vikings after spending the last three years with the Bears. He is a big possession receiver that has very good hands and moves the chains with almost every reception. Also in the mix is second-year receiver Dwayne Jarrett, who has made big strides after a disappointing rookie season, and free-agent signee D.J. Hackett, who is sorely missed in Seattle. There isn't a dropoff of talent anywhere among those receivers and the Panthers are also high on rookie tight end Dante Rosario, who had a huge week in the opener against San Diego. He can't be ignored or, like he did against the Chargers, he could have another 100-yard receiving game.
The Panthers offensive line has taken a hit with the loss of left tackle Travelle Wharton due to injury, but this is a solid unit that has a pair of first-round bookend tackles. Sixth-year man Jordan Gross was franchised before signing a long-term deal in the offseason to be a fixture at left tackle and the Panthers traded up into the first round of this year's draft to take right tackle Jeff Otah. The Panthers took a gamble by releasing veteran center Justin Hartwig and guard Mike Wahle in the offseason, but believe they have the players to make the system work. Second-year man Ryan Kalil is in his first season as a full-time starter at center, and eight-year veteran Keydrick Vincent won a veteran cattle call that included former Viking Toniu Fonoti at right guard. With Wharton down, former starter Jeremy Bridges, a six-year veteran who made 10 starts last year, will step into his spot. This is a battle that, especially in the middle, will have to be dominated by Pat Williams and Kevin Williams. The Vikings will need to shut down the Panthers running game, and that will be predicated on the Williams Wall getting penetration on the interior of the offensive line because it is expected that the tackles will more than hold their own.
The Panthers have one of the most feared pass rushers in the league in Julius Peppers, whom Jared Allen simply referred to as "a beast" when asked about him earlier this week. The retirement of DE Mike Rucker has opened a spot for sixth-year man Tyler Brayton. A career underachiever, his strength has been stopping the run and he did a solid job in the preseason to hold off a challenge from second-year man Charles Johnson. In the middle, the Panthers aren't dominant, but they have talent in eight-year vet Damione Lewis, who was a complete washout in St. Louis, and seven-year veteran Maake Kemoeatu. Both of them showed the ability to penetrate – tying for the team lead in tackles-for-losses with nine each last year. Nine-year veteran Darwin Walker provides a veteran backup who can fill in when needed, giving the Panthers some much-needed depth at the position. If the Panthers are to continue to be one of the top teams in the NFC South, this group will have to surpass expectations.
The linebackers are a strange mix that is led by second-year pro Jon Beason. As a rookie last year, Beason proved to be a tackling machine, making 160 tackles after replacing veteran Dan Morgan in the starting lineup. He did so well that the Panthers opted to release Morgan after the 2007 season, handing the starting job to Beason. He is flanked by Thomas Davis and Na'il Diggs, neither of whom likely factored into the starting lineup plans a few months ago at this position. Davis is a converted safety who is a bit undersized to play linebacker, but has a lot of positive intangibles and has proved to be a solid wrap-up tackler. Diggs is a nine-year veteran who was expected to be a backup, but took over for injured Landon Johnson in the preseason and hasn't let go of the job. The team has solid depth with Johnson and third-year man James Anderson on the outside and rookie Dan Connor in the middle, once again giving Carolina solid depth in case one of the front-line players goes down or needs a momentary breather at a key time during a game.
The secondary doesn't have a true star, but has three very solid cornerbacks that are expected to compete for playing time all season – Chris Gamble, Ken Lucas and Richard Marshall. Gamble may be remembered best by Vikings fans as the guy who ended Daunte Culpepper's Vikings career with a big hit that tore all of the ligaments in his right knee and Lucas is a savvy veteran in his eighth year that was one of the Panthers' big free-agent signings a couple of years ago. At safety, fourth-year pro Chris Harris and rookie Chris Godfrey are the starters. Harris, who was acquired from the Bears in the preseason last year, proved to be a solid addition and Godfrey, a college cornerback, is viewed as a playmaker that can make a difference at free safety. While the secondary is loaded with solid players, there isn't a true dominator among them and, at times, they can be burned and exploited over the top.
Although the Panthers could just as easily be 0-2 as 2-0, there is no questioning that the team has ability and talent on both sides of the ball. They don't have individual stars like the Vikings have in Adrian Peterson, Jared Allen or the Williams Brothers, but there isn't a glaring weakness anywhere on the roster. In an age of NFL parity, that is a recipe for success and the Panthers appear to be on the fast track to be one of the teams vying for the Super Bowl out of the NFC when January rolls around. To take them down would be a big feather in the Vikings' cap and a necessity to salvage a season that began with so much promise.
Panthers preview: Few stars, just solid
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