As the Minnesota Vikings continue to pile up injuries that have forced the team’s offense to take on a drastically different look, the one constant has been a defense that many believe has enough talent to dominate games and take the Vikings a long way during the 2016 season.
Perhaps never has that belief been proved more than it was Sunday in Charlotte. After falling behind 10-0 less than 10 minutes in, the Vikings defense clamped down on the Panthers and made reigning MVP Cam Newton struggle as badly as he has in a very long time.
When all was said and done, the Vikings sacked Newton eight times and intercepted him three times – the first time he had been intercepted at home that many times since being picked off three times by the New York Giants in September 2012. Newton’s 47.6 passer rating was the fourth-worst of his career and was a big reason for the Vikings’ 22-10 win.
Head coach Mike Zimmer said the key for his team is not to get too high when things are going well or too low when they’re struggling. The players are convinced that if they stick to what they do as a unit – be it defense, offense or special teams – they will get the job done.
“I think our team believes,” Zimmer said. “No one else believes, but I think our team believes. I think they believed that they could come in here and win. At the end of the day, it’s three games and we have 13 to go. I do think they know they played a good football team in their backyard and came out with a win. It was hard-fought.”
It was defensive end Danielle Hunter who got things started for the Vikings. With the Panthers pinned on their own 5-yard line, Hunter sacked Newton in the end zone for a safety to cut the deficit to 10-2 and, with the offense still struggling, Marcus Sherels gave the team a spark with a 54-yard punt return for a touchdown that cut the deficit to 10-8 at halftime despite being completely outmanned, outgunned and overwhelmed.
Once the offense got clicking in the second half, the defense was able to do what it does best – harass the opposing quarterback and make enough plays to shut them down for a long stretch – in this case – no points allowed in the final 50 minutes.
Earlier in the week, defensive end Brian Robison said he felt the defense was strong enough to win games 3-0 and Zimmer agrees with that sentiment, believing the defensive players have in their ability to carry the Vikings a long way.
“I think defensively they believe they can win in any situation,” Zimmer said. “They work real hard. They study real hard. They play together as a team. When a guy messes up, he takes ownership of it. I think all these games as you continue to go forward, you continue to build confidence with that group.”
After the Vikings took their first lead of the game at 16-10 after driving down the field on the opening drive of the second half, it was time for the defense to make the lead stand up. In the closing minutes of the third quarter, Robison got a sack of Newton that pushed Carolina into a third-and-11 situation, where veteran Terence Newman jumped a route and got an interception in Carolina territory that would lead to a field goal that increased the Vikings lead to two scores at 19-10.
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With the Panthers nearing desperation mode, on their first drive of the fourth quarter, the Vikings defense got off the field in a hurry, as Everson Griffen and Anthony Barr got sacks on two of the three plays that the Panthers ran, forcing a punt that led to another field goal and a 22-10 lead.
On Carolina’s next drive, Harrison Smith got in on the sack parade with a blitz that caught Newton by surprise and, as he was about to get sacked again by Griffen on a fourth-down play, his wobbly pass got intercepted by Tom Johnson, which forced the Panthers to burn timeouts and make their outlook even more bleak.
Griffen put the final nail in the coffin in the closing seconds with a 15-yard sack of Newton that helped salt away the win and improve the Vikings to 3-0 with one of the biggest wins of Zimmer’s coaching career.
There was plenty of celebrating in the Vikings locker room after the game, but Zimmer was still focused on the big picture of the season and said he hopes the day will arrive soon that the Vikings don’t feel the need to celebrate a big road win – they should be expecting it.
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“They were pretty excited after the game,” Zimmer said. “I told them we need to get used to the feeling and it shouldn’t be special. We want to continue to do this every week.”
If the defense keeps plays as ferocious as it did in the second half Sunday, it may continue every week.null