What To Watch For: Vikings vs. Panthers

Posted Oct 27, 2011

Outside of Aaron Rodgers, there may not be a more impressive performer in the NFL this year than Carolina rookie QB Cam Newton. The No. 1 overall pick in last spring’s draft has exceeded even the most optimistic of expectations, ranking behind only Rodgers, Drew Brees, and Tom Brady in passing yards through the first seven weeks, and re-writing the rookie record books with his running capabilities. In much the same way that Vikings rookie Christian Ponder energized the fan base in his NFL debut a week ago, Newton has done the same for Carolina since Day 1. This is a matchup between two teams with a combined record of 3-11, but it should still be a very entertaining game.

When the Vikings have the ball:
Ponder electrified the Mall of America crowd on the first play from scrimmage last week and then performed admirably during the 4th-quarter comeback attempt that came up just shy. In between, he was basically what you’d expect of a rookie signal caller making his first pro start; excluding the first two plays of the game (a 72-yard bomb to WR Michael Jenkins and a two-yard touchdown pass to TE Visanthe Shiancoe), Ponder completed just 11-of-30 attempts for 145 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. That shouldn’t diminish his overall performance, however, as he showed a strong arm, a quick release, and the toughness to stand in the pocket and make key throws while under heavy duress. If playing the defending Super Bowl champs in a bitter rivalry game in front of the home fans didn’t faze him, we can be fairly certain he’ll have his head on straight for this one.

Carolina has struggled to defend the pass all season long. Three different passers have eclipsed the 300-yard mark against them, and all but two have accounted for two touchdowns. If Redskins backup John Beck can manage 279 yards and a passing touchdown, along with a rushing score, you have to like Ponder’s chances for statistical success. If last week was any indication, he’ll favor Jenkins and Shiancoe, both of whom were the intended receiver on eight of Ponder’s pass attempts against the Packers. Jenkins, however, figures to draw a tough assignment in top Panthers cover CB Chris Gamble. According to Pro Football Focus, Gamble has allowed completions on just 32% of the passes thrown his way. Just one of the eight catches he’s allowed has gone for a touchdown, and opposing wideouts are averaging just 10.5 yards per reception against him. Overall, the Panthers secondary hasn’t let a receiver top 84 yards since Week 2, and none have scored in the last four weeks. With Percy Harvin continuing to nurse his sore ribs, the Vikings may focus even more attention on Shiancoe and fellow TE Kyle Rudolph. The middle of the field should be open against a very shaky set of Panthers safeties that have already surrendered some huge games to opposing tight ends such as Jermichael Finley (5 catches, 68 yards), Jimmy Graham (8 for 129) and Fred Davis (6 for 80 and a touchdown).

Adrian Peterson reminded the world just how explosive and powerful he is last week, breaking tackles and outracing defenders en route to a 175-yard, one-touchdown performance that was his best of the season. Assuming the ankle that he tweaked late in the game doesn’t hamper him this week, AP is primed for another huge game against one of the weakest run defenses in the NFL. Opposing RBs have averaged 5.1 yards per carry against the Panthers this year, and the Panthers have been gouged for huge games by the likes of Maurice Jones-Drew (167 total yards), Matt Forte (228), and Michael Turner (147), all while surrendering the most RB touchdowns (10) in the NFL. They’re particularly vulnerable up the middle, where they start two rookies at defensive tackle. Health permitting, Peterson has a real chance of equaling or bettering last week’s output in this one.

When the Panthers have the ball:
Just seven games into his NFL career, Newton has already reached “you can only hope to contain him” status. Outside of Michael Vick, there simply isn’t a QB on the planet that can beat you in as many ways as Newton. The knock on Newton coming out of college was the idea that he wouldn’t be able to throw the ball effectively at the NFL level. With just a hair over 300 passing yards per game and completing an even 60% of his passes, Newton has already put those doubts to rest. As if the gaudy passing stats weren’t enough, Newton has also shredded opposing defenses on the ground; he averages 4.7 yards per carry and 38 rushing yards per game and, while serving as the primary running option in goal-to-go situations, has scored seven rushing touchdowns as well. The only team to hold him in check were the Jaguars, and they needed a monsoon (literally) to slow him down in Week 3. The Vikings will have to assign a linebacker to monitor Newton on virtually every play in an effort to limit the damage he can do on the ground, and they’ll have to employ a disciplined pass rush to hopefully contain him within the pocket as much as possible. Easier said than done.

Much of Newton’s success in the passing game can be traced to the re-emergence of veteran Steve Smith as one of the most dangerous receivers in the game. Smith leads the NFL with 818 receiving yards and has had at least 143 yards in four different games already. A struggling Vikings secondary that will be without starting CB Chris Cook for a second straight game, and that could be missing veteran CB Antoine Winfield for a fourth straight contest, will have to do everything it can to double team Smith as frequently as possible. It’s a different task from trying to cover the four- and five-receiver sets employed by Green Bay a week ago, but it’s no less daunting. Vikings fans can only hope Smith doesn’t repeat the now infamous 201-yard performance (complete with rowboat pantomime after his touchdown grab) he dropped on former CB Fred Smoot back in 2005.

With the passing game firing on about 12 cylinders, the Panthers haven’t had to rely on either of their talented running backs. Both DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart have proven to be very good NFL runners, but neither has had an opportunity to get going this season. Combined, Panthers RBs have rushed for an average of just 89 yards per game, and only the Seahawks have handed off to their backs with less frequency. A top-notch Vikings run defense doesn’t figure to need much help shutting Stewart and Williams down, but both are capable of breaking off long runs when given the opportunity.

Fantasy projections
QB Christian Ponder –  200 yds, 1 TD
RB Adrian Peterson – 150 yds, 2 TD
WR Percy Harvin – 3 rec, 40 yds
WR Michael Jenkins – 3 rec, 35 yds
WR Devin Aromashodu – 2 rec, 30 yds
TE Visanthe Shiancoe – 5 rec, 65 yds, 1 TD