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NOTEBOOK: Vikings Murray, Panthers Kuechly to Meet Again

Posted Dec 7, 2017

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — The Panthers rallying cry in home games is “Keep pounding.”

The Vikings offense will aim to keep humming along on Sunday when Minnesota (10-2) visits Carolina (8-4).

Minnesota has been balanced on offense, but the running game has revved up the engine, helping the Vikings control the clock in most games and setting up significant gains on play-action passes.

Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon have hit their stride.

Murray has rushed for 475 yards and five touchdowns in the past six games, ranking third in the NFL in both categories in that span.

McKinnon has added 224 rushing yards and a touchdown and caught 22 passes for 168 yards in that span, including a 2-yard scoring reception last week in his hometown.

Murray said credit for success in the running game should be shared.

“I just think the game plans we’ve had, the coaches and the offensive line, receivers, in total, everybody is really doing their job and playing their role,” Murray said. “You see receivers blocking down the field the way they are — Adam [Thielen], I’ve run into him a few times, and the o-line just getting you to the second level. I just think everybody right now is buying in. Everybody is sold on doing their job and attacking what we have in the game plan. I think that’s really been the main factor.”

The Panthers rank fourth in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game and have only given up 1,063 on the season, but Carolina ranks 15th in the league in rushing yards allowed per attempt (4.0).

The Vikings rank sixth in the NFL in rushing yards per game (122.8), and their total of 1,474 through 12 games has exceeded the total of 1,205 in 16 games a year ago.

Murray played against the Panthers last season when the running back was still with the Raiders. He rushed 19 times for 45 yards and a touchdown and added three receptions for 43 yards. 

Murray said the Vikings expect a tough challenge from the Panthers defense and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly.

“He’s very smart. He studies his butt off,” Murray said. “He’s flying around, even when the ball is on the other side of the field. He’s going to find a way to get there and be a part of it, so you just see him flying around. He’s active and has a nose for the ball. We’re facing a really good defense. This is a really big game for us.”

Murray’s Central Florida squad faced Kuechly’s Boston College team in 2011. Murray rushed 10 times for 72 yards and a score in a 30-3 win, but he saw plenty out of Kuechly, who was credited with 17 tackles (12 solo) on the day.

“He’s a really good player. I played against him in college and thought it was the same thing,” Murray said. “He made every single tackle, so just continue to do what we’ve been doing, trust the O-line to get up to him, and when we’ve got to make him miss, make him miss.”

Vikings Offensive Coordinator Pat Shurmur said Kuechly is “super instinctive.”

“You can tell by the way he plays that if you’ve got a formation tendency, or there’s a down and distance you’re going to do certain things most of the time, he gets a bead on it,” Shurmur said. “It’s important that we try to change some of that up. … It’s obvious by the way he plays that he is very productive. He gets a lot of tackles. He’s picked up fumbles and returned them for touchdowns. He’s got interceptions. I don’t know what there’s not to like about him.”

Another problem in Peppers

Kuechly, a four-time Pro Bowler in his first five seasons, isn’t the only perennial all-star on the Carolina defense.

Julius Peppers, a nine-time selection, has returned to the Panthers, for whom he played from 2002-2009. Peppers then played for the Bears from 2010-13 and Packers from 2014-16.

He is tied for the team lead with 8.5 sacks and has recorded 7.0 or more in 15 seasons, pushing his career total to 152 and moving past Vikings Hall of Famer Chris Doleman (150.5) for fourth all-time among players since 1982.

“He seemed to have stood the test of time,” Shurmur said. “I can remember him back there in his first go-around. He is a really good player. He has good size. He shows up in the run game and certainly when it is time to throw the ball, he can still pass rush. He is a legitimate top level defensive end.”

Being a No. 1 seed

The Vikings enter Week 14 atop the NFC in the quest for home-field advantage and with an opportunity to clinch the NFC North with a victory.

Division winners earn the opportunity to host at least one postseason game, and all Minnesota needs to clinch is one win in any of its final four games or a loss or tie by Detroit and a loss or tie by Green Bay down the stretch.

There’s more at stake than that, since Philadelphia is 10-2 and also trying to earn home-field advantage.

Stefon Diggs was a rookie in 2015 when the Vikings won the division and hosted a Wild Card game. He wants more, but re-emphasized a point that multiple players and coaches have made about keeping focus on Carolina. 

“That’s something that any team would want,” Diggs said of earning home-field advantage. “Going into a year, everybody has goals on what they want to be. But over here, my coach preaches the ‘one week at a time’ thing, so of course it sounds good.

“Especially if I was outside looking in as a fan, of course that’s what I want. But seeing that I’m in the building, we have to beat Carolina,” Diggs added. “That’s the thing that’s in our way right now. Tomorrow we’ve got practice, we’ll do everything we can tomorrow and line it up.”

Injury reports

For the Vikings: Mike Remmers (low back) did not practice. David Morgan (concussion), Pat Elflein (shoulder), Shamar Stephen (shoulder) and Mackensie Alexander (chest) were limited. C.J. Ham (neck), Linval Joseph (knee), Andrew Sendejo (shoulder) and Eric Kendricks (hip) were full participants.

For the Panthers: After resting on Wednesday, Mike Adams and Julius Peppers were full participants Thursday. Tyler Larsen (foot) and Shaq Thompson (foot) did not practice for a second straight day. Kaelin Clay (shoulder), Thomas Davis (hamstring), Ryan Kalil (neck) and Cam Newton (right shoulder) were limited. Jonathan Stewart (foot), Devin Funchess (shoulder), Christian McCaffrey (shoulder) and Greg Olsen (foot) were full participants.