Last September, the Vikings sacked Cam Newton eight times in what might have been one of their more impressive victories of the 2016 season, when they ended the Carolina Panthers’ 14-game win streak at home and took down the defending NFC champions.
The Vikings’ ability to pressure Newton will be a major storyline this week, as Everson Griffen matches up with former Vikings left tackle Matt Kalil. But the Vikings’ success in protecting their own quarterback could also be a significant factor in a game against a Panthers defense that looks markedly different from the one the Vikings faced a year ago.
Carolina retooled its defense in part through a pair of homecomings, bringing defensive end Julius Peppers back to the team that drafted him and signing former Vikings cornerback Captain Munnerlyn for a second stint with the team. New defensive coordinator Steve Wilks (who was promoted to the job when Sean McDermott became the Bills’ head coach) has turned up the frequency of the Panthers’ blitz packages; the Panthers are bringing extra pressure more than 41 percent of the time this season through their zone blitzes, and they’ve reaped the benefits. Carolina has 34 sacks this season, tied for the fifth-most in the league. Peppers, the ageless wonder who’s playing in a rotational role at age 37, is tied with Mario Addison for the team lead at 8 1/2 sacks despite starting just one game.
The Vikings’ retooled offensive line has been the catalyst for the team’s improved ground game this season, and Case Keenum has been sacked just nine times in the 10 1/2 games he’s played. He’s also thrived despite being pressured on 38.2 percent of his dropbacks (the fifth-most in the league, according to Pro Football Focus). Keenum has completed 54 percent of his passes for 834 yards, two touchdowns and an interception when he’s been pressured this season. And ESPN Stats and Information’s Total QBR metric ranks Keenum the NFL’s best against the blitz this season, with a rating of 94.0 when teams bring extra pressure.
It’ll be imperative that Keenum keeps it up this weekend, in a game where the Panthers could get their own chance to test a former teammate, if Mike Remmers returns from a low back injury in time to play in the game. The Panthers should have plenty in store for Keenum on Sunday, and if he can handle it, the Vikings can take their winning streak to nine games before playing two of their final three at home.