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Vikings-Panthers Preview, Prediction: Potent Defenses Could Lead to Low-Scoring Affair

Breaking down some of the top storylines and players to watch in this big Week 6 matchup.

Both the 2-3 Vikings and 3-2 Panthers will be hungry for a win on Sunday in a Week 6 matchup that could have major implications on the NFC wild card picture later this season. 

The Vikings are coming off a shaky win over the hapless Lions, but all three of their losses this season came by seven points or fewer to teams who currently have winning records, including a one-point road loss on a missed field goal against the Arizona Cardinals, the NFL's lone unbeaten team. The Vikings were firing on all cylinders on offense early in the season and have returned to playing great defense over the past couple games. They feel like if they can ever put both of those pieces together at once, they'll have a chance to be quite good this year, but time is already of the essence.

The Vikings really need to find a way to fix their struggles on offense after halftime. That's been a major focus this week as they evaluated their tendencies and areas for improvement in the second half of games. Patching up a shaky run defense has been another point of emphasis.

The Panthers got off to a surprising 3-0 start, albeit with two of those victories coming against the cellar-dwelling Jets and Texans. They've lost their last two games to the Cowboys and Eagles, but only by 11 combined points. Losing Christian McCaffrey to a hamstring injury has hurt Carolina's offense, and they'll once again be without their all-world running back this weekend against Minnesota. Sam Darnold has regressed without his McCaffrey security blanket, throwing five interceptions in the last two games. The Panthers' strength is their defense, particularly their speedy pass rush.

These teams sit eighth (Panthers) and ninth (Vikings) among NFC teams in projected chances to make the playoffs, according to ESPN's Football Power Index, making this a crucially important game for both sides. Although there's a ton of season left, a win would go a long ways towards getting in position to make the seven-team field, in part because of earning a potentially important tiebreaker against the other team. For the Vikings, given the difficulty of their schedule after next week's bye, this game almost feels like a must-win.

The injury news favors the Vikings, who will have their full complement of offensive weapons with Dalvin Cook returning to play. Both teams will be without a key piece on defense, as Panthers LB Shaq Thompson and Vikings DT Michael Pierce are hurt.

Let's dive into a few of the stop storylines to watch in this game.

The Vikings' defensive line has a huge mismatch to feast on

Through five weeks, with Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen back and looking like their 2015-19 selves, the Vikings are second in the NFL with 17 sacks. That's just six shy of their total from all of last season when Hunter was hurt, Griffen was elsewhere, and Minnesota's defensive line was completely inept. That duo has ten of those 17 sacks, but D.J. Wonnum, Dalvin Tomlinson, and Sheldon Richardson are also factors on a defensive line that is dangerous even without Pierce in the middle.

Andre Patterson's unit has a major mismatch to try to exploit on Sunday against the Panthers' offensive line. Outside of right tackle Taylor Moton, the entire rest of the line has struggled, an issue that will sound familiar to Vikings fans. LT Cam Erving and RG John Miller lead the team in pressures allowed, but LG Dennis Daley and C Matt Paradis haven't been much better. Sam Darnold has been sacked 14 times this year, tied for fourth-most in the league.

The path to the Vikings winning this game on the road starts with dominance up front from Hunter, Griffen, and the entire defensive line. If they can get after Darnold all day, they should be able to force him into making some bad decisions with the ball. He has thrown some ugly interceptions in the past couple weeks, and the Vikings have plenty of playmakers on the back end of their defense who can capitalize. Slowing down Chuba Hubbard in the running game and making the Panthers as one-dimensional as possible will also be a big part of the defensive line's focus.

If Hubbard is able to run the ball effectively and Darnold does have time to throw, the Panthers can be dangerous. D.J. Moore is one of the best young wide receivers in the league, while Robby Anderson's speed is always dangerous and rookie Terrace Marshall Jr. — Justin Jefferson's old teammate at LSU — is a nice complementary weapon. Darnold was averaging just shy of 300 passing yards per game prior to last week's clunker against Philadelphia.

"It’s probably going to be one of the better all-around groups [of receivers] that we’ve seen so far throughout the season," Patrick Peterson said. "We know we’ve got our hands full, these guys have a little bit of everything. They have the fast receiver in Robby, the possession receiver in DJ, and you’ve got Terrace, who is pretty much going to be lined up everywhere, X, Z and slot. He’s kind of like a wild card, so we have to make sure we’re on our Ps and Qs because these guys do a lot of motion and window dressing, so we have to make sure that we’re on the same page at all times."

The Panthers have an awfully stout defense of their own

While there's always the possibility that both teams' offense show up and play well in this game, I think there's a solid chance that the current over/under of 45.5 points — the fifth-lowest of the weekend — will seem high when everything is said and done. The Panthers might struggle to score, for the reasons laid out above, but I'm not sure the Vikings will have a field day offensively either, even with Cook back in action.

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Carolina ranks second in the NFL in defensive DVOA (six spots ahead of the Vikings), led by the No. 2 mark against the pass and a solid No. 12 ranking against the run. Outside of a 36-point explosion by one of the league's most dominant offenses in the Cowboys, the Panthers' other four opponents have averaged just 12 points per game.

Their defense, as is the case with the Vikings, is led by a strong defensive line. The Panthers are right behind Minnesota in total sacks at 16, with standout edge rushers Haason Reddick and Brian Burns combining for 9.5 of those. Derrick Brown, DaQuan Jones, and Morgan Fox give defensive coordinator Phil Snow a trio of big bodies in the middle who can stop the run and create interior pressure. Burns (17), Reddick (15), and Fox (12) lead the way in the pressure department for Carolina.

These statistics from Arif Hasan's latest article at The Athletic jumped out at me:

[The Panthers] lead the league in opponent passing pressure rate at 41.3 percent. Not only that, they lead the league in quick-pressure rate (31.1 percent of opponent dropbacks) and in time to pressure (just 2.25 seconds).

In other words, they get after the quarterback right away. The Vikings' offensive line, which could see rookie left tackle Christian Darrisaw make his first career start, will have a tough task trying to keep the pocket clean for Kirk Cousins in this game. Oli Udoh has been struggling of late and the Vikings' entire interior trio is unproven, which is a reason for concern. The last time the Vikings faced a dominant defensive line, they scored just seven points in an ugly loss to the Browns.

But...Carolina's back end is vulnerable

If the Vikings can get a passable performance from their offensive line and scheme up ways to get the ball out of Cousins' hands quickly, they should have some advantageous matchups with their skill position weapons. The Panthers are without their top linebacker in Thompson, one of their top corners in rookie top-ten pick Jaycee Horn, and won't yet have former DPOY Stephon Gilmore, who they recently acquired in a trade but can't come off the PUP list until next week. Top healthy CB Donte Jackson has had a strong season, but the non-Thompson linebackers have struggled, as have safeties Jeremy Chinn and Sean Chandler.

Running into the teeth of the Panthers' defensive line with Cook is unlikely to be very effective, but the Vikings should be able to find ways to get him the ball in space. They also need to scheme ways to get Jefferson at least 8-10 targets, considering the way he's playing right now. If Snow and the Panthers lock in on Jefferson, Cousins has Adam Thielen, Tyler Conklin, and K.J. Osborn at his disposal as well. Carolina likes to blitz and show a lot of looks with a single high safety, which could create opportunities for one-on-one matchups in the secondary if Cousins can get the ball out.

"If they’re blitzing, it means that somebody is man-to-man, so that definitely rings a bell for us," Jefferson said. "That’s trigger-happy for us."

Another thing Zimmer mentioned this week is that Cousins may have to use his legs to pick up yards when the blitz creates those lanes.

One potential reason to be bullish on the Vikings' offense this week is that the one time the Panthers played a top offense this year, the Cowboys gashed them for 245 yards on the ground and four passing touchdowns in putting up 36 points. Dak Prescott wasn't sacked once in that game, although the Vikings' offensive line isn't nearly on the same level as the Cowboys'.

This game will likely come down to which offensive line holds up better against the opposing team's outstanding pass rush. The Panthers might have a slight advantage in the overall talent and depth of their defensive line, given that Pierce is out for Minnesota. They do a fantastic job mixing up their pressure looks and have five guys who can get after the quarterback. The offensive lines and pass-catcher units are probably a wash for both sides.

However, the Vikings appear to have advantages in their LB and secondary groups on defense and their quarterback and running back quality on offense, with Cook playing and McCaffrey out. Those areas, plus the usual things like turnovers and special teams, could make the difference in a game that projects as a physical, low-scoring affair that will likely come down to the very end. As usual, the Vikings will likely go as far as Cousins, OC Klint Kubiak, and their offensive line take them.

Prediction: Vikings 20, Panthers 17

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