Jared Allen and Ray Edwards vs. Travelle Wharton and Geoff Schwartz
There are few times when the defensive end tandem of Jared Allen and Ray Edwards are completely overmatched. But a team is missing both of its starting offensive tackles, it becomes potentially dangerous for its quarterback, making this week's battle between Allen and Edwards and Panthers offensive tackle Travelle Wharton and Geoff Schwartz this week's matchup to watch.
The strength of the Panthers offense has been its running game and much of the credit for its continuing success has been the play of the offensive line. But injuries to starters Jordan Gross and Jeff Otah have turned this strength into a potential liability.
There is no questioning the emphasis the Panthers put on the tackle position. Both Gross and Otah were first-round picks – Gross taken with the eighth pick in the 2003 draft and Otah selected with the 19th pick in the 2008 draft. Gross was so vital to the Panthers that the made him their franchise player rather than risking losing him to free agency and then re-signed him to a long-term deal. When they draft Otah last year, they appeared to have their bookend tackles set well into the next decade.
However, injuries have played a key role this season. Gross was lost early in the year and Otah was placed on injured reserve earlier this month. Without the two of them, the Panthers O-line isn't nearly as imposing. They have an experienced player in Wharton, who played left tackle for the Panthers until knee injuries forced Carolina to move Gross from the right side to the left side and slide Wharton inside at left guard. When Gross went down, Wharton was forced back to his old position, where his loss of agility due to multiple knee surgeries has taken its toll. He struggles the most against speed rushers who can explode off the ball, which is Allen's strength.
The right side is even more troubling for the Panthers. Otah was a mauler who could stand up defensive ends and be a force in the running game. Schwartz is an unknown still learning the nuances of the game. A seventh-round pick in 2008, he was released and re-signed to the practice squad last year and had seen very limited action prior to Otah going down to injury. He has been forced into the lineup and, with Wharton moving from guard to tackle, the team now has three linemen starting in spots they weren't envisioned – including new left guard Mackenzy Bernadeau.
Does this sound familiar to Vikings fans? The Packers had the same situation when Chad Clifton went down – being forced to slide three offensive linemen into new positions to make up for the loss of one stud player. Allen had a field day in both games against the Packers and Edwards came up big in the game at Lambeau Field. With two players out of position at the tackle spots, expect to see Allen and Edwards swarming around inexperienced quarterback Matt Moore and trying to wreak havoc in the Carolina backfield. Edwards is questionable with a back injury, but even if he can't play Brian Robison is the only Vikings with a sack in the last two games.
While a lot is said about the value of a franchise quarterback or a star running back, offensive coaches will likely agree that no position is as vital to the functioning of an offense as the tackle positions. If you have a weakness there, everything else can implode in a hurry. The Panthers rely heavily on their running game, but missing both of their star offensive tackles is a debilitating blow that the Vikings should be able to take advantage of – making this Sunday night's key matchup.
Key matchup: DEs vs. backup tackles
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