The Carolina Panthers and Minnesota Vikings have a lot in common – head coaches with defensive backgrounds, subpar win-loss records and gaping holes where their franchise players used to be.
Adrian Peterson, the Vikings’ Pro Bowl running back, and Greg Hardy, the Panthers’ Pro Bowl defensive end, both have been sidelined since playing in Week 1.
In the wake of the Ray Rice domestic violence scandal, Peterson and Hardy were placed on the commissioner’s exempt list on Sept. 17.
Hardy, awaiting a jury trial on charges he assaulted and threatened to kill his ex-girlfriend, remains on the list and is not expected to play again this season, Panthers coach Ron Rivera said this month.
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Peterson, who was indicted on child abuse charges in September, was suspended for at least the remainder of the season this month after pleading no contest to a lesser charge and avoiding jail time.
In many ways, the Vikings and Panthers have never recovered.
“They were in kind of the same situation we were in,” Rivera said Friday, “in terms of expecting your guy to play.”
The Panthers’ defense, predicated on generating pressure from its front four, has fallen from the league’s second-ranked unit in 2013 to No. 22 in terms of yards allowed.
A year after leading the NFL with a team-record 60 quarterback sacks, the Panthers have 23 and are on pace to finish with 34.
The Vikings’ rushing attack hasn’t fallen off quite as dramatically without Peterson, the league MVP in 2012 after rushing for more than 2,000 yards and falling 9 yards shy of Eric Dickerson’s single-season record.
Minnesota has rushed for an average of 14 fewer yards per game this season, thanks to rookie running back Jerick McKinnon, who has a pair of 100-yard rushing games.
But McKinnon will miss Sunday’s game against the Panthers (3-7-1) with a lower back injury, forcing the Vikings (4-7) to rely more heavily on rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, as well as reserve backs Matt Asiata and recently acquired Ben Tate.
Defensive end Wes Horton, who took over Hardy’s starting spot, said the Panthers want to make Bridgewater beat them.
“Even though AP isn’t in the lineup, they’re still relying heavily on the run. They’re trying to put Bridgewater in manageable situations,” Horton said. “I think it’s going to be really key for us to eliminate that run game early and force Bridgewater to drop back and pass on us. And let our front four eat.”
The Panthers’ front four has been starving without Hardy, who tied Kevin Greene’s single-season, team record with 15 sacks in 2013 and went to his first Pro Bowl.
Defensive ends Charles Johnson and Mario Addison, who replaces Horton on passing downs, are tied for the team lead with five sacks. But half of Addison’s sacks came in one game – a Week 2 win against Detroit when Hardy was deactivated in the wake of increasing public pressure in the Rice fallout.
Addison said he has not been satisfied with his production.
“Not at all. I know I can do better,” Addison said. “I give it my all, but sometimes it doesn’t show up. But I’m going to continue working hard, use my speed, using all the tools coach taught me to use and just see where it leads me.”
Addison said Johnson, who lines up at the left end, has been drawing more chips blocks – teams using running backs and tight ends to slow his path to the quarterback – in Hardy’s absence.
“When you lose your compadre on the other side, sometimes that goes hand-in-hand,” Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said. “You’d like to have two (pass rushers). They pair up nice, pass-rush tandems and what not. But all the pressure shouldn’t fall on Charles, and it hasn’t. He’s done a good job the last couple weeks, and we expect him to continue to do a good job.”
Johnson leads the Panthers with 23 quarterback pressures, not far off Hardy’s pace from last season, when Hardy finished with 38.
A variety of looks
More than anything, Panthers defensive players say they’ve missed Hardy’s versatility.
The 6-4, 275-pound Hardy, who would occasionally line up at receiver at Mississippi, can play every spot on the Panthers’ defensive line.
“Greg can do it all, man. I can honestly say that,” Addison said. “He can play a 3-technique (aligned on the guard’s outside shoulder), nose guard, defensive end. You can put Greg at linebacker and he’ll play it.
“That’s one thing I can say about him – he’s an athlete. And when he gets a non-athlete in his face, he kills him every time.”
Horton, who like Addison was an undrafted free agent, said in addition to Hardy’s versatility, he also “never gets tired” and has a flair for the dramatic.
“He can play the whole game and know what he’s doing, and play at a high level,” Horton said. “And also, Greg’s the type of player that’s going to get you that big sack in the big moment. We’ve had guys do that this year, but he’s a rare talent that can get you sack when you really need it.”
Hardy bunched nearly half of his sacks last season in the final two games, getting three in a playoff-clinching win against New Orleans in Week 16 before adding four more against Atlanta the following week, when the Panthers won the NFC South.
Without revealing too many specifics, McDermott said losing Hardy forced him to tweak his scheme.
“We’re built up front to stop the run and get after the passer. You see the formula, how we’re built. And we lost a key part of that,” McDermott said. “Whether injury or whatever reason, that happens. So we’ve had to adjust and adapt, but that’s what we do. The same way I call on the players, the next man has to step up, we’ve got to adjust as a coaching staff. And I think we’ve done that.”
McDermott has called more blitzes in some games, but that forces him to use more man coverage in a secondary featuring defensive backs who for the most part are better suited to play zone.
The Panthers rebuilt their secondary during the offseason after cornerback Captain Munnerlyn and free safety Mike Mitchell left in free agency, and corner Drayton Florence and strong safety Quintin Mikell were not re-signed.
Rivera has said there have been situations when the Panthers’ lack of speed in the secondary has been exposed. That’s a byproduct of quarterbacks having more time to throw.
“Hardy’s definitely a guy that draws a lot of attention and is going to make plays. So he’s going to force you to bring more help, which is going to free up everybody else,” said defensive tackle Dwan Edwards, who has four sacks. “He’s such a versatile guy, being able to play inside and outside. It changes our depth up a little bit.”
“Him being able to come inside on third down and rush, he can create huge matchup problems for some of the slower guys,” Edwards added. “It’s unfortunate. He’s a great player, tough to lose a guy like that.”
Replacing a hall-of-famer
Vikings first-year coach Mike Zimmer can relate.
When Zimmer, a longtime defensive coordinator, was hired in January to replace Leslie Frazier, he and offensive coordinator Norv Turner expected to have Peterson, who was charged with beating his 4-year-old son with a wooden switch.
Zimmer indicated no team would be equipped to replace a back of Peterson’s stature.
“Usually with the next man up you’re usually not replacing a Hall of Fame running back,” Zimmer said in a conference call with Charlotte reporters. “We’ve had to change quite a bit throughout the course of the season as far as the things we are trying to do and the areas we are trying to attack and also the areas that we are trying to protect. ... That was a big blow that we lost him and that’s just part of the game.”
Zimmer said defensive coordinators aren’t committing as many players near the line of scrimmage against Minnesota this season, allowing defenses to use a wider array of coverages against the Vikings.
But Rivera, who was Turner’s defensive coordinator in San Diego, said the Vikings’ offense hasn’t changed much without Peterson. He said Turner still likes to mix the run and pass, and take shots deep in the passing game.
“I think it’s the same offense,” Rivera said. “They’re going to do what they do and coach Turner’s going to do what he does.”
In addition to losing Peterson, the Vikings saw starting quarterback Matt Cassel go down with several fractured bones in his foot in a Week 3 loss to New Orleans. That forced Bridgewater, the last pick in the first round in this year’s draft, into the lineup, ready or not.
Bridgewater has directed three fourth-quarter comebacks. But he’s also been sacked 22 times and, according to Horton, struggled with his accuracy.
Horton said if the Panthers can stop the Vikings’ run game, they plan to “put (Bridgewater) on his back as many times as possible to make him frustrated and all those types of things that you want to do to a rookie quarterback.”
But talking about a pass rush and generating one are two different matters, as the Panthers have shown for most of this season.
Munnerlyn, who spent five years in Carolina before signing with the Vikings in March, indicated the loss of Hardy was exacerbated by Panthers’ personnel losses during the offseason.
“Last year at 12-4, everybody was saying, ‘Man, the Carolina Panthers are playing great defense. Cam Newton’s doing great, taking care of the football. The sky’s the limit for this team.’ And all of a sudden it just blew up in the offseason,” Munnerlyn said. “You lose Steve Smith. You lose Ted Ginn. You lose Brandon LaFell. You lose Mike Mitchell. You lose me. You lose a couple more guys. You’re like, wow.”
And then the Panthers lost Hardy, and little has been the same since.