CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The Panthers were facing the NFL’s stingiest third-down defense when they walked to the line of scrimmage for their third snap of Sunday’s 31-24 victory over the Vikings at Bank of America Stadium.
“That,” said defensive tackle Tom Johnson, “is a situation we take a lot of pride in stopping.”
It was third-and-1 from the Carolina 40-yard line when 325-pound rookie tackle Taylor Morton reported as an eligible receiver and lined up to the right of 330-pound right tackle Daryl Williams.
Seconds later, 315-pound left tackle Matt Kalil shifted to the right side and lined up between Morton and Williams. Throw in 315-pound right guard Trai Turner and 255-pound Ed Dickson lined up at fullback, and, well, let’s just say Carolina had 1,540 pounds of manhood focused on the right side of its line.
“That’s part of what they do,” coach Mike Zimmer said.
And if that wasn’t enough beef at the point of attack, the ball was handed to 240-pounder Jonathan Stewart.
When he got the ball, the Vikings were allowing third-down conversions at only a 27.2 percent clip. Sixty untouched yards later, Stewart stopped at the goal line, turned and fell backward into the end zone for a 7-0 lead.
The Vikings would never lead, but they did tie the score 7-7 in the first quarter and 24-24 with three minutes left in the game. There was 2:33 left when Cam Newton broke free up the middle for a 62-yard gain to the Vikings 8-yard line. Three snaps later, the Vikings lost for the third time in 13 games.
“They hit two home runs on us,” said Johnson, “and it altered the outcome of the game.”
The Panthers ran 63 offensive plays. On 61 of them, they gained 223 yards. On two of them, they gained 122 yards and a touchdown.
Until Stewart’s touchdown, the Vikings had allowed an NFL-low 15 runs of 10 or more yards. Tennessee was No. 2 with 22 of them.
The Vikings hadn’t allowed a run longer than 29 yards. In 12 games. But Stewart sounded like he had a feeling the Vikings were due to give up a couple of dingers.
“Whenever you play a team that’s always in the box lined up like that, you hope to just see a hole open because you just know there’s no one else in the secondary,” he said. “We practiced short yardage and goal line this week, and I’ve been hitting them just pretty much how I hit them today.”
It was a good run. But the Vikings also made multiple errors in gap control.
They had two players — cornerback Trae Waynes and linebacker Eric Kendricks — take the outside gap. Left end Danielle Hunter got caved inside on a double-team that was so forceful, it ended up taking linebacker Anthony Barr out of the play as well.
“We got caved down a little bit, and we ended up having two guys go outside,” Zimmer said. “That’s not where they’re supposed to fit.”
Safety Andrew Sendejo was in a single-high look but got fooled into thinking Newton still had the ball and was rolling around the other end. When Sendejo went to his right, Stewart had no one between him and the goal line.
“Sometimes [Newton] keeps it, sometimes he doesn’t,” Sendejo said. “He didn’t keep it on that one.”
Sendejo had eight tackles and an interception that led to the tying field goal in the fourth quarter. But he also missed a tackle in the hole that helped Newton go 62 yards. Newton faked right so well that Sendejo ended up on the ground while Newton cut left.
Until Sunday, the Vikings had allowed only four teams to top 100 yards rushing. None had surpassed 115. The Panthers finished with 216 on 36 carries (6.0).
“Two runs were more than we gave up to any team all year,” Johnson said. “That’s uncharacteristic for us. You can’t have that. It’s unacceptable.”