The Panthers had not lost at home since 2014. Over their last seven home games, they've averaged just over 40 points a game. Going into the game, the Panthers had the #1 offense in the NFL in scoring, and #3 in yards/game. They had the #1 scoring offense last year too.
But all that proved to be no match for the Vikings defense.
The Vikings defense sacked Cam Newton 8 times- 2nd most of his career- and picked him off 3 times en route to a 47.6 QB rating for the reigning NFL MVP. Kelvin Benjamin, the 6'5" WR and deep threat, didn't have a catch. The Vikings defense also generated 2 points on a safety that helped stem the Carolina momentum in the first half.
Marcus Sherels contributed a big punt return for a touchdown to help make up for an offense that did absolutely nothing in the first half.
The offense did manage to get things going in the second half, with a key TD-scoring drive to open the 2nd half fueled mostly by passes from Bradford to Rudolph, including a nice TD pass to give the Vikings the lead. Overall, Bradford finished 18/28 (64%) for 171 yards a TD and no INTs for a passer rating of 93.0 and an ANY/A of 6.18 against a tough Carolina defense.
It appeared that one of the halftime adjustments for the offense was to target shorter passes, as Carolina appeared to be game planning to take away the longer routes and as the offensive line struggled to protect Bradford. That proved effective as Kyle Rudolph was able to beat Luke Kuechly on 4 of the 5 targets he had with him in coverage.
Stefon Diggs was relatively quiet, with 4 catches for 40 yards. Kyle Rudolph led all receivers with 7 catches for 70 yards.
The Vikings running game continued to struggle, although with less stuffs, as McKinnon and Asiata combined for 60 yards on 22 carries.
But the biggest weakness on this Vikings team continues to be the offensive line which, while allowing only 2 sacks- only one attributable to the offensive linemen- they continued to allow Bradford to be pressured on 43% of his drop-backs. Bradford didn't do nearly as well under pressure this game, with only a 48.3 passer rating when pressured, and a 64.6 rating when blitzed. His rating with no pressure was 117.6, and 100.8 when not blitzed.
The weakest link along the offensive line continues to be Andre Smith, who allowed a sack after getting blown straight back on his butt by Lavar Edwards, and continues to struggle in both pass protection and run blocking. TJ Clemmings, in his first NFL start at LT, didn't allow a sack, and was a bit of an improvement over Matt Kalil this year, but struggled in run blocking- like most of the offensive line.
Jeriamiah Sirles, who came in to replace the injured Alex Boone, actually did relatively well, and was the 2nd highest graded offensive lineman for the Vikings by PFF after Joe Berger. Boone suffered a hip injury in the second quarter and did not return. Coach Zimmer said in his post-game press conference that he will have an MRI tomorrow to determine the extent of the injury.
But overall, the Vikings have suffered from below-average performance at 3 of the 5 offensive line positions. Only center and left guard have been average, and no position has been better than average.
The poor offensive line play and poor running game have contributed to perhaps the Vikings' offense weakest statistic other than points scored: 3rd down conversions. The Vikings were just 3/12 (25%) on third down conversions against Carolina, which continues a poor trend over the first three games. Against the Titans, the Vikings were 42% on third down. Against the Packers only 28%. And against Carolina, only 25%. That puts a lot of pressure on the defense, who is forced on the field for a long period of time when that happens. Carolina had the ball almost 10 minutes longer than the Vikings, despite committing 3 turnovers and the Vikings none.
Which brings up perhaps the most improved aspect of the Vikings defense this year over last: turnovers. The Vikings defense continues to average 3 takeaways per game - 9 total over 3 games. Last year the Vikings had 22 takeaways all season.
On the other hand, the Vikings offense has yet to commit a turnover. Officially the Vikings have one turnover, when Andrew Sendejo got stripped after forcing a fumble against Green Bay. But overall the Vikings Takeaway-Giveaway differential of +8 I believe is best in the league after 3 weeks. Clearly those takeaways have been a huge reason the Vikings are undefeated in 3 starts.
Looking at the PFF grades for the game, it's interesting that Trae Waynes earned the highest grade of any Vikings player- showing his continued resiliency after getting tagged with the PI penalties last week- but getting a key INT to snuff out the Packers last hope at the end of the game. Waynes had another INT today, along with Newman and Tom Johnson, but more importantly didn't allow many receptions for his guy. Overall the secondary did an elite job in coverage, with Waynes, Newman and Harrison Smith all earning 80+ PFF grades. I attribute at least half the 8 sacks the Vikings generated as coverage sacks, as Newton was forced to hold the ball while his receivers were covered.
Adam Thielan continues to cement his position as effectively the #2 WR after Diggs, while Charles Johnson continues to be found wanting. Sam Bradford threw a great ball to him in the first half that would've been a big play, but he couldn't hold on to the ball. Granted the Carolina defender made a nice play to get it out, but still that is a ball he needs to catch and hold on to. He finished the game without a catch. Given Johnson's poor performance in each of the first three games this season, I continue to wonder why Laquon Treadwell is not given more playing time.
In the game preview I did early last week, I thought the Vikings would need to stay even with Carolina in big plays, be +2 in turnovers, and convert a higher percentage of 3rd downs in order to win. The Vikings did the first two, but failed to win in 3rd down conversions. But being +3 in turnovers (+4 if you count the safety as also a turnover) went a long way in stalling the Carolina offense (while holding them to only 37% on 3rd down), and allowed the special team TD, safety, and limited offensive production to win the game.
A Big Win
Overall this was the biggest win for the Vikings this year, coming off another big win last week. Despite a rash of key injuries to Teddy Bridgewater, Adrian Peterson, Matt Kalil, Shariff Floyd and Xavier Rhodes, their replacements have stepped up and not allowed a drop-off in performance.
Coming in as 7 point underdogs on the road against the NFC Champions and winning by 12 will start people talking that the Vikings are for real.
Despite a lackluster performance on offense, holding the highest scoring offense in the league- both this year and last year- to 10 points at home while racking up 8 sacks, 3 turnovers and a safety- on top of the stout performances week one and two- has solidified the elite status of the Vikings defense alongside only Denver and Seattle.
And we know how deep Denver and Seattle have gotten in the playoffs in recent years, despite less than stellar offenses.
Starting the year 3-0 and overcoming all the injuries shows the resiliency of this Vikings team, which statistically has a 75% chance of making the playoffs with a 3-0 record. If they win next week, their chance of making the playoffs improves to 83%. It's starting to feel like this could be our year. Winning tough games despite setbacks is a clear sign of that- and a good football team.
As one of only 5 undefeated teams remaining, I expect the Vikings to be behind only the Broncos and Patriots in the power rankings this week.