The Carolina Panthers are getting ready to face the Minnesota Vikings this afternoon at 1:00 p.m. ET, and Cam Newton will look to get back on track against a subpar Vikings pass defense. Below are five players to watch for on the Panthers.
1. QB Cam Newton
Let’s start with Cam, who had his first multi-interception game of the season last week against the Arizona Cardinals, and those three interceptions helped cause the Panthers to score just six total points. Newton is completing just 57.5% of his passes this season, but he does have a decent 7.0 yards per attempt. He hasn’t been awful throwing the football this year (his 33.85 TQBR paints too critical of a picture), but he hasn’t been good either. The good thing is that Newton has a favorable matchup this week against a Minnesota Vikings secondary that is probably one of the bottom ten units in the league. They have allowed 357 passing yards on two occasions, and the lowest number of yards they allowed in a game was 284 against the Chicago Bears.
That sets up nicely for Newton, but he needs a little more help from his receivers. Greg Olsen is one of the best pass-catching TEs in the league and Ted Ginn Jr. has done everything asked of him, but you’d like to see Steve Smith look more like the star that he is. He’s still one of the best receivers in the game, but he had an awful outing last week and hasn’t looked consistent week-to-week. This should be a nice bounce-back game for him, though. Brandon LaFell has been very disappointing this year as well, and the key for the Carolina Panthers passing attack is consistency.
2. LT Jordan Gross
I’m always amazed at how good Jordan Gross looks even at the age of 33, and he is playing even better than he was last year. While Gross was solid last season and continues to be one of the league’s better left tackle, he has been dominant so far this season. Cam Newton’s blindside is rarely in trouble thanks to Gross’s pass protection, and that’s certainly more than I can say for RT Byron Bell. Gross will need to be at his best this week against Vikings RE Jared Allen, who has done a solid job, as usual, rushing the passer with 3.5 sacks so far.
3. DT Star Lotulelei
The Carolina Panthers received an absolute gift when Star Lotulelei fell to them in the first round of the draft, and this team is filled with former Utah stars (Smith and Gross are two of them). He has made an incredible impact on this Panthers team as a rookie, and Lotulelei and Kawann Short are the defensive tackle pairing that the Panthers have been begging for ever since the 2008 season ended. These two are massive upgrades over what the Panthers previously had, and Short does a terrific job of rushing the passer from the interior while Lotulelei is an absolute monster against the run. He’s been fantastic so far this season and has a strong case for the Defensive Rookie of the Year (it’s Sheldon Richardson, Kiko Alonso, and Lotulelei for me). With superstar back Adrian Peterson as motivated as ever to have a huge game, bottling him up starts up front. It’s up to Lotulelei to have a big impact in run defense, because the Panthers can’t afford to have a back of Peterson’s caliber consistently get to the second level.
4. RB DeAngelo Williams
It’s been a down year for most running backs in the league, but DeAngelo Williams has enjoyed a great deal of success this season. A strong performance down the stretch of 2012 showed that Williams is still a top back in this league, and he has rewarded the Carolina Panthers faith in him by putting together a strong 2013 campaign. His play has been especially important with Jonathan Stewart on the PUP list, and Stewart’s health is just too shaky for him to be a feature back in this league. When he comes back, he’s definitely going to be a No. 2 back with the way Williams is playing. The Memphis product is averaging about 83 yards per game on the ground, and he has taken full advantage of some solid blocking in front of him. The Vikings run defense has been poor this season, and you can pretty much bank on Williams wreaking havoc once he gets into the second level.
5. DE Greg Hardy
I always love watching battles in the trenches between a top DE and a top OT, and the Carolina Panthers defense has an enticing DE vs. OT matchup against the Minnesota Vikings as well. LT Jordan Gross and RE Jared Allen will provide some entertainment between two top-notch veterans, while two top-notch young players will go at it in Matt Kalil and Greg Hardy. Kalil was everything the Vikings could have hoped for last season, whereas Hardy has shown the elite talent that would have made him a first-round pick had it not been for character concerns. The Carolina Panthers have one of the best DE pairings in the league in Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy, and both players continue to show just how dominant they are. Hardy already has three sacks this season, and he has been punishing quarterbacks all year long. Johnson is the better pass rusher, but Hardy is the more well-rounded DE. Look for Hardy to have a say in this game, and enjoy another marquee LT-RE matchup.