Pregame: Cook, Sanford return to boost secondary in Vikings-Panthers
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The 'Kalil Bowl,' as it's been dubbed, comes at a pivotal place for both the Minnesota Vikings (1-3) and the Carolina Panthers (1-3) in their respective schedules.
For the Vikings, their quarterback situation is week-to-week, but they'll have these next two games against relatively easy opponents to see what quarterback Matt Cassel has left and what quarterback Josh Freeman can do in their system.
Now two games back in the NFC North after the Chicago Bears' Thursday night victory, the Vikings need to capitalize on a combined 1-9 record of their next two opponents in the Panthers and New York Giants (0-6). After that, the Vikings' final 10 games are against teams with a current .541 winning percentage, including road trips to the Seattle Seahawks, Dallas Cowboys and Baltimore Ravens.
Cornerback Chris Cook (groin) and safety Jamarca Sanford (hamstring) should return to the starting lineup in a Vikings' secondary that has allowed 326 passing yards per game (30th). No defensive changes were made over the bye week as the Vikings will continue to roll with cornerback Josh Robinson, who is the most-targeted in the NFL after four games and has also allowed a league-high 35 receptions.
The Panthers boast the third-best defense in the league in terms of yardage, allowing just over 301 yards per game. However, they returned from their bye in Week 4 to lay an egg at the Arizona Cardinals, allowing seven sacks in the 22-6 loss.
Vikings left tackle Matt Kalil will play against his older brother and Panthers center Ryan Kalil for the first time in their NFL careers. Matt Kalil said he already laid down the game plan with his family in the stands.
"I made it very clear to my family, this is a home game, it's at the Dome, you're wearing all purple," Kalil said. "We're going to have a nice family dinner [on Saturday], have a lot of family friends in town. I'm excited; I've never played on the same field as my brother. Obviously, I don't want to go easy on him."
Obviously, the Kalil's won't be physically competing against each other on Sunday, but both offensive lines have proven to be suspect so far. The Panthers have allowed 15 sacks, while Vikings quarterbacks have been brought down 11 times in four games.
Let's take a look at the five key matchups heading into Sunday:
For the purple
Adrian Peterson vs. the Panthers - Vikings running back Adrian Peterson has already shot out to a better clip in terms of yardage and touchdowns than he did during last season's miraculous 2,097-yard campaign. Now dealing with the death of his infant son, Peterson said on Friday he will play. However, it's unclear whether he will stick with that decision as it's been reported he may change his mind. No matter what Peterson chooses, he shouldn't be scrutinized for any football decision as he deals with this tragedy. Should he play, Peterson said he uses football as a stress release and he'll have plenty to unload. The Panthers only allow 14.5 points per game, third best in the NFL, while holding opponents to 92.2 rushing yards per game. Peterson can eclipse those numbers by himself on Sunday, as he's on pace for 1,684 rushing yards and 20 rushing touchdowns this season.
Interior DL vs. Ryan Kalil - For a short distance, the quickest way between two points is a straight line. So the fastest path to Panthers quarterback Cam Newton will be through center Ryan Kalil. A veteran, Kalil has allowed just one sack and three pressures through four games. But defensive tackles Fred Evans and Letroy Guion don't need to take down Newton to affect the game. The Vikings defensive line showed what it can do when abusing a center, as they did to Pittsburgh Steelers' backup Fernando Velasco in London when they sacked quarterback Ben Roethlisberger five times. But the defensive line also has seven pass deflections, three of which have turned into interceptions. Evans, along with veteran defensive tackle Kevin Williams and rookie Sharrif Floyd, have shown a knack for batting the ball into the air, which often results in turnovers.
The Panthers are without both their starting guards, Amini Silatolu (knee) and Garry Williams (knee), for the season. Look for defensive coordinator Alan Williams to mix up various stunt packages with defensive end Everson Griffen and the interior linemen to confuse backup guards Chris Scott and Travelle Wharton. Silatolu suffered his season-ending injury last week against the Cardinals, when the offensive line allowed seven sacks on Newton.
Matt Cassel vs. Injured secondary - The Panthers will be without two reserve secondary members on Sunday as cornerback D.J. Moore will miss his third straight game from a knee injury and rookie safety Robert Lester is listed as doubtful with a hamstring injury. Starting safety Quintin Mikell (ankle) and cornerback Josh Thomas (concussion) have already missed time this season, but are expected to play on Sunday. Despite these injuries, the Panthers still have only allowed 209 passing yards per game - but have also faced Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer and the 2013 version of Eli Manning this season. Cassel will get his second straight start on Sunday after completing all of his second-half throws against the Steelers two weeks ago in London. Cassel escaped without any turnovers in the win, but might not be so lucky against a Panthers defense that has six interceptions in four games. The Panthers are one of the few teams Cassel has never faced in his nine-year career. It's debatable whether he has a realistic shot to win the starting job with Freeman in the mix, but he's coming off of Vikings' season-highs in yardage (248), touchdown passes (2) and quarterback rating (123.4) against the Steelers.
For the blue
Greg Olsen vs. Vikings' pass D - The most-targeted weapon in the Panthers offense, tight end Greg Olsen is likely licking his chops after watching film of his position abusing the Vikings defense. Olsen has 21 receptions on 30 targets for 273 yards and a touchdown, but he's primarily used to get out of tight spots - as 13 of his 21 catches have gone for first downs. Tight ends have burned the Vikings over their linebackers, nickel cornerback and even safety Harrison Smith, who was beat on the game-winning touchdown against the Cleveland Browns to tight end Jordan Cameron. They've allowed six touchdowns to opposing tight ends in four games.
Fleet-of-foot Newton vs. Vikings' front seven - The Vikings defense allows more than 430 yards per game, but that's due in part to being on the field so much. Their offense's 26:57-of-60:00 average T.O.P. is fourth-lowest in the league, contrasted with the Panthers' third-highest 32:49. If the Vikings continue that trend, look for Newton to take advantage of a tiring defense with his feet. Newton is on pace for career lows in nearly every rushing category this year, but the Vikings have yet to face a dual-threat quarterback this season. Newton lost his first and only meeting with the Vikings during his rookie season, but he threw for three touchdowns and a 117.6 quarterback rating and will get a chance to beat those numbers on Sunday against a porous secondary. However, Newton has a hand in six turnovers through four games this season and the Vikings' opportunistic defense should get many chances for takeaways.
Questionable: K Blair Walsh (hamstring), TE/FB Rhett Ellison (knee)
Probable: CB Chris Cook (groin), QB Christian Ponder (ribs), S Jamarca Sanford (hamstring), DT Kevin Williams (knee)
Out: CB D.J. Moore (knee)
Doubtful: RB Kenjon Barner (foot), DT Dwan Edwards (hamstring), S Robert Lester (hamstring)
Probable: DT Colin Cole (shoulder), S Quintin Mikell (ankle), TE Greg Olsen (foot)