Who knows how this Minnesota Vikings team continues to win?
Defense? No doubt. Special teams? Sometimes. Offense? Occasionally.
But to look at what happened Sunday against the Carolina Panthers, a 22-10 Vikings win, is to understand what head coach Mike Zimmer has been teaching. He preaches and instills the underdog role to a team that continues to find ways to win.
Few did give the Vikings a chance to beat the Panthers and end their 14-game home winning streak, but the Vikings did. Even fewer probably figured the Vikings could crawl out of a 10-0 deficit at Bank of America Stadium against Cam Newton, but they did. After giving up 115 yards and 10 points in the first 10 minutes, the Panthers didn’t score again.
Sure, the Vikings did it mostly with defense, but it was that same defense that gave up 205 yards of offense in the first half and was on the field for more than two-thirds of that half in a game that started with temperatures in the 80s and players cramping up.
And then it changed. Down only 10-8 at halftime, thanks to a safety and a punt return for a touchdown, the Vikings flipped momentum with some halftime adjustments.
“Part of it is that we have smart players. Being in the system now for three years, you can communicate to them very quickly and they can adapt to those things,” Zimmer said. “Honestly, the adjustments at halftime are probably overrated. We talk about things we want to do, things they’re doing, and how to attack it. It helps that we have been running the same kind of system for three years.”
It also helps that the Vikings have drafted players that can play at a high level when needed.
Trae Waynes wasn’t expected to be a starter entering the season, but he filled in well for Xavier Rhodes in the first two weeks. When Rhodes returned against the Panthers, Waynes was ready in a heavy rotational role and intercepted a Cam Newton pass late in the first half to end a scoring threat.
Offensively, there was no Adrian Peterson to rely upon, Teddy Bridgewater’s season is over, and Matt Kalil’s might be, too. Yet, somehow, the offense found a way to function in the second half and do what was needed according to the game situation.
“I credit our staff. I think our coach and staff do a great job of just continuing to guide us through this,” linebacker Chad Greenway said. “I think the captains and leaders in the locker room, the status quo has to happen. You have to be that way. That’s going to happen in this game. If you can weather the storm and continue just to play. Today we had guys cramping, going down, guys getting thrown on the field and still playing. That’s what it’s all about.”
T.J. Clemmings’ first game at left tackle saw him hold up, and when Alex Boone was hurt Jeremiah Sirles filled in at guard. The result was that Sam Bradford was only sacked twice and came back with a second half that saw him complete 14 of 17 passes for 145 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions.
Even then, the offense wasn’t always pretty. The Vikings finished 3-for-12 on third downs, had only 211 yards of offense, gained only 3.9 yards per play, had only 58 yards rushing.
Without Peterson, there was a difference in the way the Panthers approached the Vikings offense.
“I would say probably saw a little more two-high than we have on first and second down in the past,” Bradford said. “When Adrian is in the game you can almost guarantee that we are going to get a loaded box, seven or eight guys up front, whereas today I think Carolina early in the game did a good job of mixing coverage. They played some two-high, some single safety and really kind of kept us off balance early in the game.”
And then the adjustments came. The Vikings came out in the second half and got into a quick-rhythm passing game that allowed them to drive 79 yards in 10 plays, capped with a 15-yard touchdown pass to Kyle Rudolph that made it 16-10.
Rudolph ended the game as the leading receiver for either team – seven catches for 70 yards and produced the only receiving touchdown.
“He’s one of those guys who have been extremely helpful in my time here,” Bradford said of Rudolph. “We have spent a lot of time just talking about things. He’s a pretty good friend of the quarterback. He’s a big target, he has a wide catch radius, he has strong hands, and he seems to bring in everything that’s around him. He is one of those guys where if you throw with him a few sessions and you feel like you can trust him.”
Once again, the running game wasn’t great, averaging only 2.4 yards per carry, but it did enough to keep the clock rolling when the Vikings had weathered a bad first half and stormed back in the second half to take a 12-point lead.
In a game in which both offenses struggled to execute consistently, punter Jeff Locke had a big day in an important role. He averaged 48.4 yards per punt and the Vikings didn’t give up any yards on the two punts that were fielded for a return.
Marcus Sherels got into the act with his 54-yard punt return for a touchdown and even saw time on defense late in the game, breaking up a pass at a critical point.
The defense was dominant in the second half, sacking Newton eight times and intercepting three passes, but Sunday’s win, like so many others, saw a lot of players contributing at key times as fatigue and injuries mounted.
The defense will be largely credited with the win, but it was such a Zimmer win – his teams fight through adversity and find ways, even when things are rough.
The Panthers, the NFC Champions from the 2015 season and winners of 14 straight at home before Sunday, took notice.
“That’s what happens when you let a team stick around,” Carolina TE Ed Dickson said. “This team is up-and-coming.”