The Panthers currently sit 3-2, second in the NFC South and, as things stand, would sneak into the NFC playoffs as a Wild Card team. However, as good as that all sounds, after a painful and frustrating loss to the Eagles the Panthers’ 3-0 start now feels quite a long way away. In order to change that feeling, they are going to need to offer a far more convincing this Sunday when the Minnesota Vikings come to town. 

The Vikings sit 2-3 and required a last-second field goal to beat an 0-5 Lions team last week and while they are absolutely a team that the Panthers should beat if they want to be taken seriously as a postseason name, they have enough strengths to make them a team that should be taken incredibly seriously. 

With that in mind, what are the likes keys for the Panthers this Sunday?

Photo Credit: Chanelle Smith-Walker/Carolina Panthers

Offensive Line Has To Come Through

The Vikings’ defensive line is very good, almost as good as the Panthers’ defensive line in fact. They rank 2nd in the NFL in pressure rate (behind only the Panthers), 3rd in sack percentage (behind only the Bears and the Panthers) and 2nd in total sacks (behind only the Bears). The Panthers’ offensive line, by contrast, does not rank so highly…

It’s no secret that the Panthers’ offensive line isn’t amazing, and while they should be boosted by the return of left tackle Cam Erving this week, this is still a group that has been a conspicuous source of vulnerability through the first five games of the season. Nobody should expect this to suddenly change on Sunday but if the Panthers are going to do much more than punt on offense on Sunday then they are going to need to be able to protect Sam Darnold better than they have done in the past. 

This is ultimately going to come back to coaching, as aside from Erving’s expected return the Panthers’ unit isn’t going to be boosted by new faces this weekend. Instead, the coaching staff, and in particular offensive line coach Pat Meyer, is going to have to work with the players they have and try and help them get better week by week. Sunday will certainly be another big test in this regard. 

Photo Credit: Chanelle Smith-Walker/Carolina Panthers

Press Coverage Could Be Crucial 

In true Kirk Cousins form, the Vikings currently rank 6th in the NFL in completion percentage but 26th in yards-per-completion, indicative of an offense that looks to attack underneath with a quick passing game rather than consistently looking to push the ball down the field. There is nothing wrong with this approach, and it can be hugely effective if teams aren’t able to take the quick passing game away, but it also means that defenses can sometimes get away with being a bit more aggressive early on in plays without as much threat from the deep passing game. 

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Now, this could all change with the Vikings expected to have a full complement of receivers this Sunday but, given how much of a threat the Panthers’ pass rush poses, the Panthers need to make sure that they are able to force Cousins to hold the ball long enough for the pass rush to really come into play. The easiest way to do this, though it is not without risk, is to play a higher proportion of press. 

It’s not that the Panthers never play press coverage, but they have shown to be vulnerable to the quick passing game at times this season, especially against the Cowboys, and while they don’t want to press at the expense of giving up long plays, they would be wise to try and use the physicality of players like Keith Taylor to their advantage. 

Photo Credit: Chanelle Smith-Walker/Carolina Panthers

Run The Damn Ball

This is becoming a common theme of these previews, but the Panthers need to be able to allow Sam Darnold to work ahead of the sticks and with the defense having to respect the threat of the run game. If this becomes a battle of who can be more effective dropping back to pass fifty times a game, then the Panthers are going to struggle to be successful. Additionally, by running the ball effectively they give their own defense time to catch their breath on the sideline, giving them a better chance of being at their best late in games. 

Fortunately, in this regard, for as ferocious as their pass rush is, the Vikings’ run defense is not especially good. They rank 28th in the NFL in yards-per-carry allowed at 4.7 and though the Panthers aren’t towards the top of the NFL’s rushing yardage rankings, they would certainly hope to have a productive day on Sunday. 

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While Chuba Hubbard has struggled to replicate Christian McCaffrey’s impact in the passing game, he has done a solid job of running the ball effectively so far this season, and especially since McCaffrey was injured against the Texans. In the three games since then, he is averaging 70 yards-per-game at 4.4 yards-per-carry and, if he can build upon those numbers yet again on Sunday, then the Panthers have a genuine chance of being able to move the ball on offense.

It’s a big ask of a young player, but this is the exact job he was drafted to perform. 

Photo Credit: Chanelle Smith-Walker/Carolina Panthers

Make Kirk Cousins Feel Uncomfortable

As already mentioned, Cousins’ approach is more focused around getting the ball out quickly and limiting risks rather than pushing the ball down the field and, in a Vikings’ offense that has two elite receivers and a competent run game that has proven to be a reasonably effective recipe for success. This is backed up by the numbers as well, with Cousins having thrown just 2 interceptions on the season and the offensive line ranking 11th in the NFL in sack percentage allowed. 

However, if the Panthers are able to take away some of those security blankets, either by keeping the Vikings behind the chains in the run game or taking away his quick outlet passes underneath, then they have a chance to force Cousins to do what he likes doing least: pushing the ball down the field on long third-downs. 

If they can do this, it will not only bring their pass rush very much to the forefront, but will also give the likes of Donte Jackson, Jeremy Chinn and AJ Bouye a chance to make plays on the ball as Cousins is forced away from his preferred playing style. Doing this doesn’t guarantee that they will be able to generate a high number of sacks or turnovers, but the Vikings’ offense is most vulnerable when the ball is in Cousins’ hands, and he is forced to make a play down the field. 

Photo Credit: Chanelle Smith-Walker/Carolina Panthers

Sam Darnold Has To Be Better

There are a lot of excuses you can make for Sam Darnold’s performance against the Eagles; the offensive line struggled to protect him, receivers dropped passes and some of the play calling and play design was questionable (especially late on in the game); but all this cannot hide another fact, that he simple wasn’t very good. 

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While the missed deep ball to Robby Anderson was certainly not helped by pressure, even when he did have time to throw some of his decision making was really questionable. His first interception was completely baffling and the other two weren’t exactly excusable either. If he continues to play like he did in this game, then it’s going to be hard for the Panthers to beat many more teams this season.

However, there are also positive to focus on, as what he did well early in the season was to work the quick passing game, get the ball out early and take consistent low-risk decisions. Of course, this has to be compliment with a more effective downfield passing game at some point, but it is more important for Darnold to be competent than anything else right now, especially with how well the defense is playing. 

For the Panthers to be a threat come the postseason Darnold absolutely needs to be able to do more than dink and dunk, but right now he risks them missing out on the postseason by trying to hard to involve more aggressive decisions into his game. 

Photo Credit: Chanelle Smith-Walker/Carolina Panthers

It feels as though the Panthers are at something of a crossroads for their season over the next couple of games. Having started hot and then suffered a pair of tough losses it isn’t clear whether this was a blip that the Panthers will now move beyond or, as has been the case for the last few seasons, merely an indication of a team that has a chance to be competitive on any given Sunday, but still is a step removed from being an actual playoff team. 

Things will certainly be helped by the expected additions of Shaq Thompson, Christian McCaffrey, Stephon Gilmore and Juston Burris over the coming weeks, but right now the Panthers have to put away the Vikings at home, and more than anything that means going out and executing in a way they have struggled to do over the past two games. 

(Top photo via Chanelle Smith-Walker/Carolina Panthers)

Vincent Richardson on Twitter
Vincent Richardson
Managing Editor at Riot Report
Fan of zone coverage, knee bend and running backs running routes. Twitter: @vrichardson444