One immediate key against the Vikings playing in their now-hostile home: get up early and control the game. A home-field advantage in a dome is a key asset, but against a booing home crowd like last week and that team could implode - if Frerotte doesn't have some success, what are their options? If you see John David Booty on Sunday, something has gone horribly wrong.
Carolina offense v/s Minnesota defense is the critical matchup. Mistakes fly off the page when thinking about how long it took the Carolina offense to get started, and it can't afford to have the mental lapses against another good defense (or the false starts against the dome crowd). This is an offense that would've been much better if it could've stayed out of 2nd and 15, so it can't get back to those mistakes. Having Steve Smith back should help make 1st down and 3rd down easier, but it won't matter if it comes down to long conversions.
Minnesota's defense is a roided-up version of the Chicago defense it faced last weekend - both teams use cover-2 principles and neither stick them as strictly as Indianapolis or Tampa Bay. Compared to last week's opponent, the Vikings are much stronger up front, and more specialized on the second level. The Vikings finished first against the run last year, and 32nd against the pass, which is why they spent so much to get character problem Jared Allen on the team.
The Vikings only have two sacks on the year so far, but do bring a lot of pressure from its front four. Anemic rushing came somewhat from a lack of inside pressure - tackle combo Kevin and Pat Williams only combined for five sacks in 2007. Ben Leber had 5 sacks last year, and EJ Henderson had 4.5; Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier brought over a lot of blitz packages from his time with the Eagles, but hasn't shown anything exotic over 18 games as coordinator as much as well-timed calls.
Behind them, Cedric Griffin and Antoine Winfield are a solid combo at corner, and Darren Sharper is an experienced ballhawk safety. But the quartet sits in deep zones and don't contest that many balls - Griffin had 10 passes defensed in 2007, and only 2 INT in his career (0 last year). Winfield had 9 PD and one INT. Sharper had 4 INT, and doesn't have much weakness against the pass, but isn't an elite threat. Free agent pickup Madieu Williams is hurt, so rookie 2nd rounder Tyrell Johnson is the other safety. Johnson's been protected in these two games, and his Sun Belt/Arkansas State pedigree doesn't give a lot of background for high level competition. Both Johnson and Sharper play deep, so there's not much worry of stacking the line if the Panthers run effectively.
Winfield probably matches up against Smith, pitting the smaller (5'9 versus 5'9), more physical matchup together where Muhammad would draw Griffin, an athletic, physical but less nuanced player than Winfield. Muhammad will find that Griffin won't often get the better position when the ball's in the air, and Smith should see that Winfield can be beaten deep and Delhomme should notice single coverage where zone wouldn't reach. Playing the shorter game, Griffin's a player you throw at, where you throw to Winfield's man when more open.
Notes on how to abuse this defense come, once again, by following the lead of the Colts, who once again played our current opponent a week earlier. Reggie Wayne also had a lot of success after the Vikings had pushed the D to Wayne's side, by putting Wayne in the slot and there not being an adjustment. When Wayne was a split end, Anthony Gonzalez was found to be a reliable target, giving credence to the idea of giving Muhsin Muhammad a lot of targets as the Vikings roll coverage toward Steve Smith. It's not that likely that Smith ends up in the slot, however. DJ Hackett could pick up production from the slot, where he was featured in Seattle, and would face up against reliable but undertalented Charles Gordon at the nickel.
Notice of the back four should really include EJ Henderson, where the big man patrols deep as any Cover-2 ILB. As is common in the defense, Henderson will often key on the ideal of OL in their pass blocking stances off the snap to drop straight back, a methodology that Green Bay abused late last year. Unlike the Green Bay game, however, the Vikings won't line Henderson as deep - he traditionally lines up around 3-4 yards off the ball, shallower than average, and that game he was lined up 7-8 yards, deeper than average. Henderson and active (if not solid) WLB Chad Greenway aren't likely going to let crossing routes get behind them, and play generous zones on pass plays. Running quarterbacks would abuse this, but Delhomme's not as likely to pull the ball down. Well-executed draws, however, might have a chance, which essentially leaves the back in the open hole with an unblocked linebacker that was dropping to react to the pass. This puts a little less hope on crossing routes, outlets to the TE (Rosario, if healthy enough, on sideline passes would work), but could open up passes for the backs.
In nickel situations, the team tends to pull either Pat Williams (their best run stopper) or Ben Leber (their best blitzer), leading for various obvious mismatches. Spreading them out and running on non-3rd downs is a good matchup. Minnesota is allowing 40% third down conversions right now, solid for their pass D rating, but still something Carolina must exploit. So far, the Vikings' pass defense has gone from dead last in the NFL to 23rd this year, but this is still a matchup that Carolina wins.
Indianapolis struggled a bit in the first half running, but had more success in the 2nd half by going to pitches instead of sweeps, feeling that they could get to the edge faster against Vikings linebackers that tend to set up toward the line. The Colts were rumored to have liked the stretch play (which for us would have a cutback option) but can't run it with Peyton Manning's knee limiting him, so the stretch play may be worthwhile as well. These plays tend to feature Deangelo Williams' ability to get to the corner over Jonathan Stewart's power inside.
Inside, Williams and Williams will be tough to block against the run - a pair of 315 lb penetrators, they outweigh the Panthers' interior front. Keydrick Vincent may be physical enough to stand up to Pat Williams, but it's to be seen whether Ryan Kalil or Geoff Hangartner can. Outside, Jeff Otah can handle Ray Edwards or sub Bryan Robison. Edwards has a good first step, and Otah can't let him get upfield too quickly, but otherwise it should be a better matchup than last week for the rookie. Former Panther Otis Grigsby isn't a threat as a backup. The key on the line will be facing Jared Allen, a very good rusher who doesn't give up anything in size, speed, or strength. If Jordan Gross needs help, it will be a long day on the line as Carolina adjusts.
You can change quarterbacks all day, but it's all Adrian Peterson, all day. Carolina has stopped a back of this caliber already, and with a better offense around him; containing the playmaking Peterson is just as hard a task without a good O to compliment him. 28th in passing yards last year, and their money spent this year doesn't seem to have aided them much - 25th in the league this year.
One place the Frerotte change helps Carolina is in turnovers - the Vikings were safe with the ball last year (11th in INT) and Frerotte tends to throw INTs. He also had a fumble per game started in every action since his time in Denver. Frerotte, overall, is a game managing quarterback that should help them be more consistent. They'll look more for drives to be long and get Peterson more attempts as a result. Third down has to be key
Carolina matches up oddly statistically - 20th in run defense (albeit facing good backs) and 9th in pass defense, against a team that's 3rd in run offense and 20th in pass D. Getting the Vikings into 3rd and long is key, obviously, and getting a lead to force them to abandon the run would be even better. Carolina's third downs are average this year - 37% allowed despite a top pass defense, so third down is a huge situation this week.
Playing into that will be Frerotte and the health of the young receivers. Bernard Berrian is banged up but will probably start - Sidney Rice and Aundrae Allison probably won't suit. This probably starts Bobby Wade (formerly wth Bears/Titans), who had 50 receptions/3 TD last year, and puts Robert Ferguson (long since removed from success with the Packers) in the 3rd spot. So, looking for change, the Vikings' key players are second stringers.
Another key backup is Artis Hicks, starting at left tackle against Julius Peppers. Hicks is large (6'4, 335) and not especially nimble, so one-on-one Peppers should win every time. But don't expect that matchup. Jim Kleinsasser has been the help that Hicks has needed, and that's an effective way to stop Peppers anyway. By keeping Peppers in front of him, Hicks can control him without having to worryabout the edge. Peppers may be moving around more to counter this, andprobably should be. People who criticize peppers dropping into coverage have a point, but if you can blitz 5 or 6 and now suddenly you have two people blocking Damione Lewis instead of spreading to pickup the blitz, it's good theory. I'm not an advocate of dropping him to cover, but there's reasonable philosophy. The team just needs to execute its blitzes better, and finish strong with plays. The team isn't putting Peppers out there to cover - it's putting him out there to confuse the quarterback.
The middle of the Vikes' line is, as you'd expect, a potent run blocking combo. Steve Hutchinson and Matt Birk are Pro Bowlers, and have a total of 21 years experience between them. Both gave up more sacks last year than you'd expect (total of 7), but are generally solid and savvy in pass blocking as well. Ma'ake Kemoeatu needs to take up a lot of space this week, since Birk is generally a devastating blocker on the second level, right into the heart of Carolina's strengths. Damione Lewis faces Anthony Herrera, a squatty run blocker on the right side that gave up 4 sacks in somewhat limited time last year; Ryan Cook is another widebody (6'3, 340) that gave up seven sacks last year but will probably give Tyler Brayton and Charles Johnson trouble holding contain.
Adrian Peterson is, of course, as complete a runner as they come. He leads the league in yards, he runs well inside or out, and he hits the hole before you've located him. But an odd anomaly came out this past week - Peterson had 160 yards last week, but only 42 on 15 carries in the second half, which cost them the game. He got the necessary carries, but the Colts found a way to adjust to him and keep things close enough to win the game. I couldn't find the adjustment, but it's another statement of the Vikings not being able to adjust to the Colts' success and being unable to push the issue in other ways.
As well, the Vikings have an odd substitution pattern for Peterson. The Vikings tend to put backup Chester Taylor in on odd situations where you'd want your carries to count - giving Taylor the ball on 3rd down, after Peterson is doing well in the drive. Taylor tends not to get inserted on average first or second down runs.One key factor will be the health of Chris Harris - who would most likely be in the box for at least half of the defensive snaps. Harris is questionable for the game this week (so is Peterson, but there's no doubt in my mind Peterson will play), and it's really not possible for Nate Salley, a player who probably shouldn't have made the team, to make the plays all around the field that Harris does.
Special Teams - Ryan Longwell is a solid kicker. Carolina coverage units get a break this week - with Allison hurt, Chester Taylor is the kick returner. Taylor is solid, but won't break runs on you, and backup punt returner Charles Gordon isn't a threat. If the Panthers wanted to sit Rhys Lloyd for a matchup player elsewhere, it'd be comletely understandable.