Vikings coach O’Connell thrilled with his defense after rough start to season
For all the firepower the Minnesota Vikings possess on offense, the straightest path to their first victory was always going to travel through the defense.
The maligned group delivered when the Vikings needed it, fueling a comeback at Carolina that removed the team from the dreaded winless list.
“It’s a huge thing for team building when the defense says, ‘You know what? I’ve got your back,’ and they go out there and made some critical plays,” coach Kevin O’Connell said after the 21-13 victory.
***Click the video box above to watch Kevin O’Connell’s Monday news conference***
The highlights, even against a winless and rebuilding Panthers club starting a rookie quarterback, were impressive. Harrison Smith had 14 tackles and three of the five sacks of Bryce Young that resulted in 55 lost yards, including a forced fumble that D.J. Wonnum returned 51 yards late in the third quarter to give the Vikings (1-3) their first lead.
They allowed the Panthers 232 net yards on 68 plays, a paltry average of 3.4 yards per play, and forced punts on five of nine possessions. The Vikings didn’t surrender an offensive touchdown, even with two different goal-to-go situations. The timing of Smith’s strip-sack and Wonnum’s scoop-and-score was also just right, after the Vikings punted on their first drive of the second half and the Panthers had converted six first downs and drained more than six minutes off the clock on their previous possession.
“They just stayed the course and kept playing,” said an appreciative quarterback Kirk Cousins, who threw two interceptions, including one that was returned for a 99-yard touchdown in the first quarter.
The defense will face a stiffer test this Sunday against Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs, but the Vikings finally have something to build on after being dismantled the previous two games by the Philadelphia Eagles and the Los Angeles Chargers.
“Everyone was executing our jobs,” Smith said.
The performance against the Panthers was a morale booster, too, though the Vikings have leaned on a strong leadership core from last year’s NFC North champions to keep from collapsing after opening with three close losses.
“We’ve had to take our medicine and just keep going back to work, and that’s what I want to compliment you guys on, all right?” O’Connell said in his postgame locker room speech to the players. “You have found a way to eliminate the noise, block it all out and make it about your brothers.”
The running game was even more productive than the week before with 135 yards on 23 attempts. Newcomer Cam Akers provided a valuable change of pace from Alexander Mattison. The Vikings have risen to 10th in the NFL in yards per rush (4.58) despite ranking fifth-to-last in rushing yards per game.
“I just want to make my presence felt,” Akers said. “It can be blocking, running or just catching the ball in the backfield. It means a lot to be able to give the team a boost or a spark.”
WHAT NEEDS HELP
The pass protection can still be better. Cousins was sacked twice on 21 dropbacks and his second interception was the result of a fierce rush. The Panthers were credited with four quarterback hits.
Defensive coordinator Brian Flores relentlessly and cleverly sent a steady stream of blitzes at Young and tried to maximize the presence of his best players, often using three edge rushers with the convenient return of Marcus Davenport from an ankle injury to complement Wonnum and Danielle Hunter.
Cousins still leads the league in touchdown passes (11) and is sixth in passer rating (104.4), but an otherwise strong body of work in the first quarter of the season was blemished by a rookie-like throw to the well-covered K.J. Osborn in the flat that was late and inside. The interception return by Sam Franklin Jr. gave the Panthers the lead. Cousins went 12 for 19 for 139 yards, tied for the fourth fewest completions he’s had in six seasons with the Vikings.
C Garrett Bradbury (back) missed a third straight game but ought to have an inside track to play against the Chiefs. O’Connell said he was “really close to trying to give it a go.” Backup S Lewis Cine (hamstring), who was inactive against the Panthers, could practice this week on a limited basis.
3 — Smith became just the seventh defensive back with three sacks in one game in the NFL since 2000. He’s the fifth defensive back since sacks became an official statistic in 1982 with at least four seasons with three or more sacks, following Rodney Harrison (six), Brian Dawkins (five), Ronde Barber (four) and Lawyer Milloy (four). Dawkins and Barber are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The defending champion Chiefs make their first visit to U.S. Bank Stadium this week. There’s an apparent reprieve on Oct. 15 at Chicago against the winless Bears, but right after that is a Monday night visit by the unbeaten San Francisco 49ers on Oct. 23.