Panthers quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was set up to feast in his return Sunday to U.S. Bank Stadium, where he last started an exhibition game for the Vikings in 2016, with an array of veteran skill players more refined, if not more talented, than the Vikings' current crop of corners.
But the quick-throwing Bridgewater looked anything but the part of a franchise savior during the Vikings' 28-27 win, in part, because the Vikings defense took away many of the quick throws and yards after the catch that are foundational to the Panthers offense.
Bridgewater had his worst completion rate (52.8%) and second-lowest passer rating (74.7) of the season. He also missed a potential game-winning touchdown when the aforementioned young Vikings corners busted a coverage.
Mike Zimmer will take it. There were signs of improvement from young defenders like cornerback Jeff Gladney… even if they almost surrendered another game-losing touchdown like the losses against Seattle and Dallas.
"They seem to be understanding the schemes a little bit more," Zimmer said Monday. "I'm talking about basically the young guys. Some of these young guys are starting to improve. D.J. Wonnum's starting to get better and better, and I think he's going to be a good player. The two corners, [Jeff] Gladney and [Cameron] Dantzler, and really, Chris Jones and [Kris] Boyd have come in and played pretty well."
1. Entering Sunday, only three quarterbacks — Roethlisberger, Rivers and Stafford — were getting the ball out faster than Bridgewater at an average of 2.42 seconds, according to Pro Football Focus.
Making Bridgewater hold the ball was a top Vikings priority, which meant taking away the schemed quick throws. Panthers coordinator Joe Brady calls one on the opening third down.
In this must-have play, Gladney (#20) is in the crosshairs as Panthers receiver D.J. Moore (#12) motions before the snap next to receiver Robby Anderson (#11). This puts Gladney in potential conflict as his job is to identify the No. 2 receiver (counting from the sideline toward the ball). First it's Anderson in the slot, and it becomes Moore when he motions and crosses inside on a quick curl route.
The Vikings cover this perfectly with Gladney sticking on Moore and letting Anderson release to the outside. Moore appeared to be Bridgewater's first target, needing six yards for a first down, but he's forced to tuck it and run. Zimmer calls a zone blitz, with linebacker Eric Kendricks (#54) forcing initial pressure. Defensive end D.J. Wonnum (#98) drops into coverage and closes on Bridgewater for the quarterback hit and forced incompletion.
2. Zimmer called more coverage than pressure against the Panthers (just 26% blitzed dropbacks), but extra pressure was often effective while Zimmer picked his spots. Bridgewater burned an early zone blitz on a third-and-11 play for the 41-yard touchdown to Anderson, however that was the main highlight for Carolina.
Whether the Vikings brought pressure or faked, the pre-snap looks appeared to make Bridgewater hesitate enough to waste throwing windows. On this third-and-6 play in the third quarter, Bridgewater has an open target in Curtis Samuel (#10) over the middle.
Kendricks (#54) vacates the area to blitz. Wonnum (#98) and linebacker Eric Wilson drop into zone coverage over the Panthers' shallow crossing routes.
Even with the throwing window to Samuel, which is taken away quickly by safety Harrison Smith (#22), the Vikings covered this well while mixing the pressure/coverage look to cause hesitation.
"We're trying to be smart about how we're aggressive and when we're not," Zimmer said.
Bridgewater still moved the chains the hard way with an 8-yard run.
3. The Vikings defense REALLY got away with one on Bridgewater's missed end-zone throw to Moore.
On third-and-goal from the Vikings' 3-yard line, the Panthers' dysfunction started before the missed throw. Out of a Vikings timeout, officials placed the ball and started the play clock sooner than Panthers coaches expected, head coach Matt Rhule said. So the play call was late, and hurried Bridgewater in the huddle and at the line.
Gladney (#20) follows Anderson (#11) in a pre-snap motion across the formation, where the Panthers again stack Anderson and Moore to release them together and potentially sow confusion.
It works this time, as Gladney and Cameron Dantzler (#27) both follow Anderson on the out-breaking route. Presumably, Gladney should've stuck with Moore, but appears to get confused by Anderson releasing inside before cutting outside.
Bridgewater hurries the pass despite having max protection and throws behind Moore, leading to the field goal and 27-21 lead that wouldn't stand for much longer.
Gladney, Dantzler and safety Anthony Harris immediately look toward each other to decipher the coverage bust after the incompletion. They're lucky another goal-line coverage mistake, after issues against the Seahawks and Cowboys, didn't bite them.
4. Zimmer turned to aggressive looks and pressure when the Panthers needed yards for a possible game-winning field goal.
The Vikings banked on four-man pass rushes and coverage to take away quick throws for much of the game. But when the Panthers needed chunk plays, Zimmer turned up the heat.
The Vikings showed pressure on each of Bridgewater's last three throws that positioned them for the 54-yard field goal try. After faking the blitz on the 35-yard pass to Samuel (when Gladney was in deep coverage and drifted away), the Vikings brought pressure on the next two snaps — a stark contrast to how Kirk Cousins picked apart Panthers coverages and three-man rushes at the end.
With 21 seconds left, seven Vikings defenders are on the line of scrimmage. Safety Harrison Smith (#22) will blitz, with Kendricks (#54) and defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo (#95) dropping.
It's a gutsy call considering Zimmer is playing rookie cornerback Harrison Hand (#38) for just the third snap of the day; Hand replaced Gladney, who was injured on the 35-yard pass.
Safety Anthony Harris (#41) shows centerfield coverage before the snap, possibly helping to take Bridgewater's eyes away from going deep to Samuel (#10) vs. Hand (#38). He sees the blitz to his right and throws the 12-yard completion to Anderson, setting up a 54-yard field goal attempt.
5. Quickly looking at the Vikings offense, receiver Justin Jefferson got the No. 1 treatment from the Panthers defense, "especially towards the end of the game," Jefferson said.
Without Adam Thielen in the lineup, it's an easy decision for any defense about whom to prioritize in the Vikings' aerial attack. Jefferson was still plenty productive on the day, with seven catches for 70 yards and two touchdowns. But Carolina's coverage forced Cousins to look elsewhere for big plays at the end.
On the 25-yard throw to tight end Kyle Rudolph (#82) with 1:03 left, the Panthers assign two cornerbacks, Corn Elder (#29) and Troy Pride (#25), on Jefferson with a basic high/low coverage. It's only a three-man rush, so they can do this without robbing from other coverage areas.
Carolina's problem is the apparent Cover-3 gets stretched very wide as three defenders end up near tight end Tyler Conklin's curl route underneath, allowing Rudolph the space for a 25-yard grab downfield.