The Carolina Panthers have some impressive rankings, but they may not be quite the challenge for the Minnesota Vikings that their raw numbers suggest.
Ron Rivera’s team enters Sunday’s matchup with the Vikings in sixth place in total yards allowed and 10th in points allowed. However, the Panthers’ numbers may be inflated by very good performances against very bad offenses.
They allowed a total of nine points to the 49ers, Bills and Bucs, But against teams with more comparable offenses to the Vikings, they were much less effective, gaving up 65 points in two games against the Saints, 30 to the Patriots and 28 to the Eagles.
Two weeks ago, Josh McCown and the New York Jets dropped 27 points and 391 yards on Carolina. The Panthers gave up several huge plays, including 30-yard and 54-yard touchdown pass.
Overall, the Panthers’ pass defense has relied entirely upon its pass rush to have success. They rank fourth in sack percentage (sacks vs. dropbacks) but have also given up 18 touchdowns to only five interceptions and an opponent quarterback rating of 94.6.
Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer said that success for the Panthers’ defense starts with the blitz and run stuffing, but the Vikings may be able to take advantage of blitzes.
“They’re very high on blitz percentage on first, second, and third downs, so they pressure the quarterback,” Zimmer said. “[Luke] Kuechly and [Thomas] Davis they run around, their two inside tackles are hard to move off the ball and the ends are very good pass rushers.”
Lining up Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs in the slot will create massive mismatches with plenty of open field to work with. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see a play like this one, a quick slant by the Jets that went for 42 yards.
Zimmer pointed out that the Panthers use safety Kurt Coleman in the box and press with the corners. Both of those things would seem to benefit the Vikings’ top receivers. Carolina’s cornerbacks do not rate highly by Pro Football Focus metrics. James Bradberry ranks 94th, Daryl Worley is 75th and Captain Munnerlyn is 90th.
One explanation for their good overall numbers is that the Panthers rank second in the NFL in time of possession. On offense, Carolina has the fourth most rushing plays in the league and they have started using short passes more often. Quarterback Cam Newton averages 11.0 yards per completion, the lowest mark of his career.
Still there are some metrics which favor the Panthers’ defense. Football Outsiders’ DVOA, which adjusts yards for opponent strength, ranks them eighth against the pass and fifth versus the run. But the Football Outsiders’ numbers also rank Carolina 23rd against teams’ No. 1 receivers (and the Vikings have two of those).
Which defense will show up against the Vikings? The odds lean more toward the one we saw last week when they allowed 31 points to the Saints – that’s if Case Keenum handles the blitz.