The Carolina Panthers have been on the NFL's biggest enigmas this season. Coming off a 13-3 season in 2008 in which they were dominant on both sides of the ball, 2009 has been a different story. Injuries have played a big part, but the Panthers don't have the look or the swagger of the team that rolled over opponents with regularity last season. The Panthers matched their loss total after just three games this season and have yet to reach .500. They haven't been able to string together back-to-back wins since the fifth game of the season and have the look of a team about ready to wave the white flag of surrender – not by choice or lack of effort, but by force.
When a team struggles, one of the first places to look is at quarterback. The Panthers have been about as bad as any team in the league in that regard. Veteran Jake Delhomme fell apart late in the 2008 season and his playoff performance against the Cardinals was about as bad as any QB in postseason history. A rebound was expected, but he has stunk up the joint all season. Prior to going down to injury, he had thrown just eight touchdowns as opposed to 18 interceptions and, when thing would go bad early in games, they had a tendency to snowball on him. His passer rating of 59.4 is better than only Tampa Bay rookie Josh Freeman and Oakland bust JaMarcus Russell. He has missed the last two games with a finger injury and is out again this week, which opens the door for Matt Moore. An undrafted free agent in 2007, Moore was claimed off waivers from the Dallas Cowboys and, due to injuries at the position in 2007, started three games. He didn't play at all last year, but has started the last two games for the Panthers. The offense has generated just two touchdowns in those games and Moore's passer rating of 69.4 is little better than that put up by Delhomme. He will likely see plenty of blitzes and, if the Panthers are forced to pass, could find himself in the line of fire of defenders coming at him with bad intentions.
The Panthers have been able to keep the heat off their quarterbacks much of this season thanks to one of the game's top running tandems – DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. The two combined to run for 2,351 yards and 28 touchdowns last year. While their 2009 numbers aren't quite as gaudy, they're still extremely good. Williams has 210 carries for 1,104 yards and seven touchdowns, while Stewart has rushed 152 times for 693 yards and seven TDs. Add to that the fact that they have combined to catch 42 passes for 358 yards and it is clear that the offense runs through these two first, last and foremost. Leading the way is fullback Brad Hoover, who is one of the game's better blocking fullbacks. He is little more than a glorified blocker with Williams and Stewart carrying the load – has just three rushing attempts and one reception. If the Panthers are to beat the Vikings, don't be surprised if they try to run Williams and Stewart 35 times in the game in an effort to gain yardage, eat clock, keep the Vikings defense off balance and keep the Vikings offense off the field.
Nobody has suffered more from the lack of a consistent passing attack in Carolina than Steve Smith. A multi-time Pro Bowl selection, Smith has just 51 receptions for 750 yards and five touchdowns – solid numbers for most wide receivers, but not an electrifying player like Smith. Opponents have been able to consistently bring safety help over the top to prevent him from having the type of huge games he has been known for. Ageless veteran Muhsin Muhammad holds down the other starting spot. A big possession receiver, Muhammad is the guy the Panthers look for over the middle to move the chains and keep drives alive, but he isn't the player he used to be. The Panthers have been waiting somewhat patiently for third-year man Dwayne Jarrett to step up and be heard from, but he continues to be a player bordering on the "bust" moniker. This season he has just 12 catches for 128 yards and no touchdowns – not what you want or expect from the third receiver. To make up for his lack of production, the Panthers have used a two-man tandem at tight end to get receptions and touchdowns. Jeff King and Dante Rosario have combined to catch 45 passes for 480 yards and four touchdowns. They are both dangerous in the red zone and the Vikings will have to be aware of them at all times because of the damage they can do down the middle of the field.
The offensive line was supposed to be a strength of the Panthers as it was in 2008 when Williams and Stewart ran wild. Instead, injuries have forced the Panthers to modify on the fly. Compounding matters is that the injuries are to their starting tackles – Jordan Gross and Jeff Otah – both of whom are on injured reserve. As a result, the Panthers have been forced to slide sixth-year guard Travelle Wharton, who was replaced at left tackle two years ago because of ineffectiveness and knee injuries, back to left tackle, insert second-year practice squad player Geoff Schwartz at right tackle and fellow practice squader Mackenzy Bernadeau at left guard. The Panthers still have a pair of solid performers in the middle with center Ryan Kalil and right guard Keydrick Vincent, but the dropoff in talent and production has been noticeable since Otah went down three weeks ago. Under ordinary circumstances, this would be a strength of the offense. But with the rash of injuries to key players it has become much more of a liability.
The defensive front also suffered a major blow in the preseason, when team leader and nose tackle Maake Kemoeatu was lost for the year during the preseason. The Panthers still have a formidable defensive front, but the loss of Kemoeatu has been compared in Carolina to the loss of Troy Polamalu in Pittsburgh. They are players that simply can't be replaced. That isn't to say there isn't plenty of talent still there. Julius Peppers remains one of the top pass rushers in the league, having recorded 8.5 sacks this year, and seven-year vet Tyler Brayton can bring it from the left side as well. In the middle, the Panthers imported a couple of strong defensive tackles to clog the middle running lanes – Hollis Thomas formerly of the Eagles and Damione Lewis formerly of the Rams. Depth is decent with third-year man Charles Johnson and second-round rookie Everette Brown backing up at the end spot and first-year man Nick Hayden backing up at tackle. If the Vikings are to beat the Panthers, keeping Peppers away from Brett Favre and pounding the running game between the tackles will be essential.
At linebacker, the Panthers have a budding star in third-year pro Jon Beason in the middle. He is a tackling machine who can make tackles to the sidelines, blitz and drop back in coverage. He is now the centerpiece of the defense, as evidenced by his three interceptions on the season. He is flanked by former Packer Na'il Diggs and four-year vet James Anderson. Diggs has lost a step in his 10th season and Anderson is in his first year as a starter – taking over for the injured Thomas Davis. Depth is thin, with youngsters Dan Connor in the middle and Quinton Culberson on the outside. This is a group, especially on the outside, that can be exploited.
The secondary is solid, especially at cornerback – where Chris Gamble and Richard Marshall are a strong 1-2 punch. They have combined for seven interceptions and have the ability to take a team's No. 1 receiver out of the game – just ask Randy Moss about that. At the safeties, second-year man Charles Godfrey was thrown into the starting lineup as a rookie last year and improved throughout the season – a maturation that has continued this year. A player to watch is strong safety Chris Harris, who is gaining a reputation as one of the league's biggest young hitters and looks to deliver the knockout blow any time somebody crosses into his zone. Again, depth is thin here as well, with third-year special teamer C.J. Wilson and rookie Captain Munnerlyn providing nickel and dime help and rookie Sherrod Martin being the next line of defense at safety.
The Panthers have the tools to pull off an upset against the Vikings, but, unlike last season when Carolina got a roll early and cruised to a 13-3 season, this year has been a much different story. One more loss will officially eliminate them from playoff consideration and the Vikings would like nothing more than to be the team that puts them away. Considering their last Sunday night performance on the road, look for the Vikings to come out charging and look to put the Panthers down early, because with all the injuries they have suffered, they are close to being put out of their 2009 misery.