Vikings defensive linemen have long awaited Sunday’s game in Carolina — not only for the chance to face Matt Kalil, the talented but often-injured left tackle who chose to sign with the Panthers this spring over an offer to return to the Vikings, but because former MVP quarterback Cam Newton gives them those precious extra seconds needed to take him down.
“This is the one we’ve wanted,” said one Vikings defensive lineman. “Cam pats that ball.”
Newton holds onto the ball an average of 2.79 seconds per pass attempt, which ranks as the sixth longest in the league, according to Pro Football Focus. Combine that with the prospect of Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen having to beat Kalil to get to Newton. The two were teammates at USC and practiced against each other for hundreds of hours in college, then again in Vikings training camps at Minnesota State Mankato and at Winter Park.
“I’m going to know him better than I know my phone number, like [defensive line coach Andre Patterson] would say,” Griffen said. “I’m going to go out and rush him, set up him, use what I use — my God-given gifts, my speed. And he knows that. I’m excited to go up against him. I haven’t seen him in a while so it’s going to be a fun game.”
The Vikings’ familiarity with Kalil aside, the most intriguing prospect for the pass rushers is possibly repeating the day of headaches they dealt to Newton at Carolina last season. Facing tackles Michael Oher and Mike Remmers, who is now in Minnesota, four different Vikings defensive linemen (and six defenders in all) came away with a sack. Newton was taken down eight times, including a safety by defensive end Danielle Hunter, in the Vikings’ 22-10 victory.
The Panthers are protecting Newton slightly better — a 33.6 percent pressure rate, improved from 37.7 percent last season. Among other adjustments their offense has made was drafting pass-catching running back Christian McCaffrey, who is 12th in the NFL with 64 receptions. They also signed Kalil to a five-year, $55.5 million contract this offseason to join his brother, center Ryan Kalil. Panthers coach Ron Rivera’s assessment should sound familiar to Vikings fans who witnessed Matt Kalil battle through numerous injuries, including the torn hip labrum that ended his final season in Minnesota.
“He’s played well. I think he started a little bit slow and sluggish,” Rivera said on a conference call with Twin Cities reporters. “He had some things he had to work his way through. He didn’t have a real offseason last year trying to recover from the hip surgery.”
But now he gets to go up against his old teammates.
“He knows Everson. He knows Danielle. He knows Brian Robison, too,” Vikings defensive line coach Andre Patterson said.
And they know him. Griffen has 12 sacks, which ranks fourth in the NFL. His decade of experience with Kalil can’t hurt, but it can’t be a crutch, either.
Griffen is playing like an All-Pro right now, and preparing like one, according to his position coach.
“You have to see if [Kalil] leans, you have to see what he does with his hands and his feet,” Patterson said. “You can’t go off of memory of the five or six years he was with you in Minnesota and the four years you guys were together in college. Everybody changes and everybody develops. [Griffen] understands that.”
The Vikings didn’t register a sack in a 14-9 victory over the Falcons on Sunday. Asked about the goose egg, Griffen pointed to Atlanta converting only one of 10 third downs.
He then made a bet likely safe for Sunday’s game in Carolina.
“The sacks are going to come,” Griffen said.