Cam Akers decisively cut back against a wall of Vikings blockers, creating a big running lane for a 7-yard gain in the third quarter of Sunday's 21-13 win over the Panthers.
In his Vikings debut, Akers was effective with 51 yards on seven touches. He flashed acceleration and power, while benefiting from the season's best blocking and perhaps the lightest competition to date. He immediately had a limited three-down role, taking every snap in a 10-play drive in the second quarter.
All making for a confidence-building opener to Akers' "fresh start" in Minnesota. Head coach Kevin O'Connell referred to Akers, acquired Sept. 20 via trade from the Rams, as complementing starter Alexander Mattison, who still dominated the playing time and workload with 98 yards from scrimmage. But O'Connell envisions a role for both.
"Seeing how [Akers] complements Alex," O'Connell said after the game, "when those guys can both stay fresh and be maximizing their opportunities, it was exciting to see that [Sunday]. ... Cam is always going to have real firm, solid finish [to runs] just like Alex does, where yards after contact should be a good number for him."
Akers, the 2020 second-round pick, made his name at Florida State for being a tackle-breaking machine. Nearly 80% of his rushing yardage during his junior season in 2019 came after contact, per Pro Football Focus, while ripping off 1,144 rushing yards behind bad blocking.
He has looked like that same runner in the NFL, even since overcoming a 2021 Achilles tear. Akers refreshed his hard-charging ways at the end of last year with the Rams, finishing with three straight 100-yard games.
On Sunday, he took his first carry with the Vikings 3 yards before dragging two Panthers defenders forward another 3 yards for a 6-yard gain.
The Panthers have a weak run defense — they've allowed at least 130 rushing yards in all four games — and that helped lead to inspired blocking, at least from center Austin Schlottmann and left guard Ezra Cleveland. Right guard Ed Ingram still had bad moments, including tripping to the ground on that Akers' 6-yard run. Ingram tried to block a defender that hit Akers, as seen in this all-22 clip below (YouTube link).
The Panthers seemed eager to take away the deep passing game. Carolina often backed up both safeties before the snap, even if one dropped low after the snap. This is an advantageous look for a running game, because the defensive front is limited to seven players. Akers' first two runs came against six-man fronts.
The Vikings offensive line paved lanes with this numbers advantage up front.
"They were really physical in the run game," O'Connell said. "The O-line and those interior guys, had a really solid day in the run game."
In this clip below (YouTube link), here's an all-22 look at Akers' 7-yard run. The Vikings worked the weak side of their formations on runs against a Panthers front that overcommitted on plays like this. Akers cuts back quickly. The scheme is a split zone, an inside run call that has an in-line blocker come across the formation.
The fact receiver K.J. Osborn is that in-line blocker — and not a tight end — is important, as the Vikings are in a three-receiver offense. This puts the Panthers in a lighter, nickel defense with five defensive backs; again, advantageous for the run game. They're all backed off the line and playing deep coverage.
Akers runs untouched and appears to only be stopped by tripping on Osborn.
Below is an all-22 clip of Akers' 10-yard run (YouTube link), in which before the snap you can see Panthers linebacker Frankie Luvu telling safety Vonn Bell to come closer to the line. Once again, both Panthers safeties are playing deep — this time on a second-and-3 play. Perhaps Luvu sniffed out the run.
Akers still finds daylight quickly to the outside against off coverage. Edge rusher Brian Burns jumped inside and was pinned by left tackle Christian Darrisaw. Receiver Justin Jefferson took out Bell, leaving Akers one-on-one with the cornerback.
Mattison and Akers won't get running room like this every week, but Akers' debut showed that he can be a three-down complement — at the very least — to Mattison in ways that the coaching staff clearly didn't trust with second-year running back Ty Chandler.