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NOTEBOOK: Vikings Defense Ready for "Shifty" Threat in McCaffrey

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EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Expect the Vikings defense to see a steady dose of Christian McCaffrey this weekend in Carolina.

The Panthers list the rookie first-round pick as a running back. But the No. 8 overall selection this past April is more like a jack-of-all-trades weapon as he is a threat rushing, receiving and in the return game.

McCaffrey is averaging more than 14 total touches per game and has racked up more than 1,000 all-purpose yards this season.

"Tremendous, him being able to run the ball and also in the passing game, he's a tough matchup for linebackers, safeties," said Vikings Defensive Coordinator George Edwards. "That'll be interesting this weekend for our guys to be disciplined as far as leverage on him in coverage, being able to tackle him in the open field and those types of deals."

McCaffrey has 82 carries for 284 yards and two scores on the ground this season, but has primarily made his mark as a pass catcher.

The former Stanford standout and 2015 Heisman Trophy finalist leads the Panthers with 64 receptions and is second on the team in yards (501) and touchdown catches (four). He's also added 162 yards on 22 punt returns and 58 yards on three kickoff returns.

If anyone on the Vikings knows McCaffrey's strengths, it's Vikings linebacker Eric Kendricks. The two faced each other in college in the PAC-12.

"Yeah, I played against him in college," Kendricks said earlier this week. "He's a very talented player, very shifty out of the backfield catching the ball.

"I haven't really watched a lot of film on him in the NFL, so I'm looking forward to it," Kendricks added. "But I definitely know what kind of player he is."

The Vikings have had to game-plan for numerous threats at running back this season, including players who excel at both running and catching the ball.

McCaffrey will be the latest challenge for the Minnesota defense.

"McCaffrey adds another dimension," said Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer. "They scat the backs a little bit more. When he's in there, they use him a little bit more as a zone-read guy.

"Send more screens to him," Zimmer added. "They're a little bit more spread out when he's in there, usually."

Showing up late in games

It's no secret that the Vikings boast one of the league's top defenses.

Minnesota ranks first in the league in third-down percentage (27.2), second in points allowed per game (17.0), second in yards allowed per game (289.1) and second in rushing yards allowed per game (77.1).

But for all those accolades and stats, Zimmer praised the unit in another area — the ability to get the job done in crunch time.

"Probably the biggest thing is winning the game in the fourth quarter, being able to take over the game," Zimmer said. "You think about the teams that can get constant pressure on the quarterback, and I guess that would be it."

The Vikings rank 14th in the NFL with 30 total sacks, although that stat doesn't always tell the entire story.

Minnesota didn't record a single sack last week in Atlanta, yet kept the Falcons and quarterback Matt Ryan on their toes with a consistent pass rush. Atlanta, which entered the game as the NFL's top third-down offense, converted just one of 10 tries.

Morgan out; praise for Bell

The Vikings will be without tight end David Morgan this Sunday in Carolina as he is not out of the concussion protocol.

Zimmer on Thursday misspoke when said he was out of it in an informal session with beat writers, but the Vikings head coach clarified his comments Friday during a press conference.

"I messed it up. He didn't all the way pass," Zimmer said. "He passed one test, and I said it wrong yesterday, my fault."

Morgan's absence could mean an expanded role for fellow tight end Blake Bell. 

Bell played a season-high 27 snaps in Atlanta, more than he had in the previous three games combined. He had played 87 snaps in 11 games before seeing a workload increase Sunday when Morgan went out on the first offensive play of the game. 

"He probably played his best game last week, and he continues to get better each week," Zimmer said of Bell. "He's doing a nice job in blocking, one of his better blocking games. He's athletic in the passing game."

On Monday, Bell talked about*being prepared at all times* in case he was called upon to play extra snaps.

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