Vikings Defense Saves Season vs Panthers; Offense Finds Rushing Attack

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Carolina Panthers
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

It was just another day in the life of a 2023 Minnesota Vikings fan for most of the day on Sunday. We watched the Vikings offense mostly do what they wanted in the first half vs the Carolina Panthers, only to step in their own way and turn the ball over, before they could take advantage.

The first turnover of week 4, like is often the case in both love and football, hurt the most.

Same turnover prone Minnesota Vikings offense in 1st half…

Even on the Vikings first touchdown drive of the day, Kirk Cousins fumbled a snap and turned an easy QB sneak first down into a 3rd and short. And honestly, I wasn’t even mad. Just happy they didn’t lose the fumble. The next play, Kirk threw the first of two touchdowns on the day to Justin Jefferson.

Whether it was penalties (Vikings committed SEVEN) or turnovers (Kirk threw another INT in the 2nd quarter), the Minnesota offense couldn’t get out of its own way. And unlike in previous weeks, Cousins & Co weren’t marching up and down the field before committing their devastating mistakes.

Related: Kevin O’Connell Threatens to Bench Vikings Players Who Can’t Hold onto the Football

Kirk finished the first half with just 100 yards passing, to go with his 2 interceptions and 1 touchdown. But then, with 4:09 remaining in the 3rd quarter, the Panthers driving and the Vikings down 13-6, a defensive miracle happened.

Defense saves Minnesota Vikings season

Bryce Young dropped back and Harrison Smith ripped around the right tackle on a blitz. Young thought he could shake the veteran safety 1v1 but he was wrong. Harry swiped down on the ball with his left arm, causing it to tumble on the turf toward the Vikings end zone before DJ Wonnum scooped it up and did the rest.

Just like that, the score was tied. After a made extra point, the Minnesota Vikings were suddenly up by a point. They certainly didn’t pull away after this defensive score but Kirk and JJ did connect for one more touchdown and the defense held up a handful of times, including one where Carolina drove all the way to the Vikings 10 yard line. But, they never gave in.

I know it’s hard to believe, but the Minnesota Vikings defense won them the game in Charlotte today. It wasn’t just the momentum changing fumble return for a touchdown. The Vikings’ defense, especially as the game went on, was a major problem that Bryce Young and the Panthers could not solve. They were relentless with pressure vs the pass and held up admirably against the run.

Related: Two Key Wins in 2023 Would Make Kirk Cousins the 5th QB in NFL History to Defeat All 32 Teams

Marcus Davenport well worth the wait…

The biggest change? Marcus Davenport, who didn’t play in weeks 1-3, is a beast and showed why the Vikings were so excited to get him early in the offseason. He totaled just one sack but both half sacks should have been his alone. Seriously, how does Danielle Hunter get credit for half of this sack?

All afternoon, Davenport was making plays. He noticeably made the defense better vs both the run and the pass. We had to wait for it but sometimes the wait is well worth it. Eventually it was the clock paired with Minnesota’s defense that finally ran this game out to victory.

Harrison Smith winds back the clock

The other star of Sunday’s game? Harrison Smith, who was the only defensive player more disruptive in the pass rush than Marcus Davenport, grabbing 3 sacks to go along with his 14 tackles and the forced fumble you witnessed above, that ended in a season-turning defensive touchdown. #22 was vintage Harrison Smith today.

After Harry’s strip sack-turned-touchdown, the Vikings offense scored one more TD and then got out of the defense’s way. Kirk Cousins threw his second interception deep into the 1st half and the Vikings never turn it over again after that.

Vikings finally find rushing attack, Cam Akers looks good in debut

It wasn’t an easy victory and it didn’t happen in shootout fashion like many of us thought it would. Dalton Risner didn’t get the start but the offensive line played well enough. Sunday’s biggest bright spot for an offense that struggled to move the ball as well as they did through three games, was a definitive improvement in the run game.

Alexander Mattison looked like a much better version of himself, rushing 17 carries for 95 yards (5.6 YPC), but it was the vision and burst to Cam Akers’ game (5 carries, 40 yards, 8.0 YPC) that took the Vikings rushing attack to the next level vs the Panthers.

No doubt, the Vikings coaches will go into week 5 feeling much better about their run game than they did any other week of the season, so far. Most of that optimism can be credited to Akers.

As improved as Alex Mattison was on Sunday, Cam showed a different level of talent when he had the ball in his hands. Not only does Akers have speed and quickness Mattison doesn’t, he sees the field and gaps in the offensive line better too.

If Cam Akers stays healthy and everything is kosher behind the scenes, I can’t see a world where Mattison keeps his carry total up, as Akers gets more and more comfortable with the Vikings offense and his duties in both the run and pass/pass blocking games.

Related: Dalton Risner Gets Reps w/Vikings 1st-Team Offense; Cam Akers Will Be Active vs Panthers

But, the Minnesota Vikings leave Bank of America Stadium as 21-13 victors and move their record to 1-3 on the 2023-24 season. Suddenly, there’s hope… We’ll worry about our next opponent, the red-hot Kansas City Chiefs, tomorrow. Tonight, we soak in a victory. As fans, we deserve it.

Eric Strack | Minnesota Sports Fan

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