Defensive sets and film observations: Week 6 vs. Panthers
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Welcome to another installment of 'Defensive sets and film observations,' this one brought to you for the Minnesota Vikings-Carolina Panthers
Every Wednesday after a game, we'll take a look at what the Vikings defense looked like, bring you five key takeaways from film study and hand out a proverbial game ball and name the goat(s). Click here for the offensive analysis and breakdown from Vikings-Panthers.
Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton's 143.4 quarterback rating was the highest of his career as he accounted for four touchdowns and nearly 300 yards of offense by himself in the 35-10 romp on Sunday at the Metrodome. The Vikings brought him down just one time, which was negated by a 15-yard facemask penalty on the sack by rookie defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd.
Despite playing against two backup guards, the Vikings failed to get consistent pressure on Newton as he tied or set career highs in completion percentage (76.9%), touchdowns (4) and QB rating (143.4). Only six of Newton's passes fell incomplete, three of those from pass deflections.
The Vikings' 35-10 embarrassment was the worst home loss since former coach Brad Childress' last game, which ended in a 35-3 loss to the Green Bay Packers in 2010. Much of the blame falls on the defense, which continues to give up 350 yards or more and at least 27 points per game in 2013.
On Sunday, the Vikings' defense surrendered 367 yards, dropping their average allowed to only 418 yards (31st). The 35 points allowed is the most since Josh Freeman's Tampa Bay Buccaneers put up 36 points to defeat the Vikings on Oct. 8, 2012. They now allow 31.6 points per game (30th).
Base: 17/36 [47%]
Nickel: 18/36 [50%]
Dime: 1/36 [3%]
Yardage allowed: 179
Base: 13/30 [43%]
Nickel: 16/30 [53%]
Goal line: 1/30 [4%]
Yardage allowed: 188
Base: 30/66 [45%]
Nickel: 34/66 [52%]
Goal line:1/66 [1.5%]
Yardage allowed: 367
1) The Vikings continued to give up outstanding completion percentages to opposing quarterbacks with one of the worst secondaries in the NFL. Newton's 20-of-26 set a career-high for his completion percentage at 76.9% and the Vikings have now allowed 141-of-209 [67.5%], for nearly 1600 passing yards and 12 touchdowns to seven interceptions across five games. Sunday was actually the fewest passing yards and completions allowed by a Vikings defense all season, but that was mainly due to a 21-3 lead to start the second half after receiver Brandon LaFell's 79-yard touchdown on the third play. The Panthers were held to 3.4-yards per carry, but still had the points cushion to run it 34 times in the game.
Defensive coordinator Alan Williams ran out of the nickel package just 52 percent of the snaps, a season low. However, Williams mixed up the nickel packages on Sunday -- using a fourth cornerback in A.J. Jefferson instead of a second safety at times. The Vikings only went to dime -- six defensive backs -- on one occaison on 3rd-and-7 during the Panthers' first drive. Williams dialed up the blitz on seven of Newton's 29 dropbacks. On those plays, Newton's QB rating only fell to 131.5 as he went without a turnover for the first time since Week 1.
2) The defense had a season-high four penalties called on Sunday. Cornerback Chris Cook drew a defensive holding call after linebacker Chad Greenway bench-pressed fullback Mike Tolbert into his quarterback for the sack and three-and-out. Cook engages in press coverage on receiver Steve Smith, who fights it up the field before falling on his own seven yards downfield. Cook lays off after five yards, but the flag flies when Smith is seen falling down around the seven-yard marker. The Panthers would continue to convert on two fourth downs, including one for the touchdown, to go up 7-0.
The next three flags were thrown as the game was already out of hand. Defensive end Brian Robison was flagged for illegal contact to the quarterback, hitting Newton's helmet as he took off to scramble for the seven-yard touchdown and the 28-3 lead. Rookie defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd had his first solo sack soiled as he grabbed Newton's face mask on the play for a 15-yard penalty in the third quarter. Rookie cornerback Xavier Rhodes was shoved by Smith in the fourth quarter; Rhodes then retaliated and was flagged for unnecessary roughness.
3) Every week, we'll breakdown a sequence in the game that helped decide the outcome. This week, it'll be the Panthers' first drive, which went from an apparent three-and-out to a 15-play, 62-yard touchdown drive that took up nearly 10 minutes of the clock and converted on four third-down and fourth-down opportunities.
The drive opened up with veteran defensive tackle Kevin Williams applying pressure up the middle to Newton, who may have had his arm hit by Williams as he delivered his only off-target throw of the day that landed in the arms of safety Jamarca Sanford, who dropped the easy interception. Cook had a series of good plays, forcing a receiver screen out of bounds after five yards and wrapping up running back DeAngelo Williams in the open field after a six-yard catch. On 3rd-and-9, Greenway shoves Tolbert into Newton's lap for the sack, but Cook's holding penalty gives the Panthers a first down.
The defense had Newton again on 3rd-and-2 just plays later. The vice grip of defensive end Robison and Allen pinch down on Newton, but he rolls to his left and easily outruns the 31-year-old Allen for the six-yard scramble and first down. A Robison pass deflection and Allen tackle follow to set up another 3rd down. The Vikings break out their dime package, with cornerback A.J. Jefferson in and defensive end Everson Griffen lined up on the interior in a two-point stance. Newton scrambles again, but safety Harrison Smith makes the first-down saving tackle after a six-yard gain.
On 4th-and-1, the Panthers execute a crash block with their left tackle and tight end onto Allen and the defensive line, leaving linebacker Erin Henderson and cornerback Josh Robinson the only options to make a play. Henderson takes a bad angle, while Robinson is easily blocked out as Tolbert picks up two yards and the first down.
Rhodes hesitates on a play-action, read-option by Newton and failed to keep up with LaFell, who runs for to the Vikings' two-yard line on 1st-and-10. Robison executed his assignment and tackled Newton, who pitched the ball to LaFell for the nine-yard gain. The Vikings hold to force a 4th-and-1 from the two-yard line with Greenway's consecutive tackles on 2nd- and 3rd-down rushing attempts. However, Newton fires out of the shotgun on 4th down to Smith, who motioned to one side and ran a crossing route to the other with Robinson in man coverage. While the touchdown is a mark on Robinson's game grade, that would've been tough coverage for any cornerback - it just happened to be Robinson again.
4) They won't be able to entirely put this game in their rear-view mirror as linebacker Desmond Bishop tore his ACL in his right knee, safety Harrison Smith suffered from turf toe and Rhodes sprained his ankle. Bishop grabbed a couple of tackles on 16 snaps before suffering his second season-ending injury in as many years. On the play, Panthers tight end Ben Hartsock went low to block Allen on the back-side of a run. Allen leapt over him as Hartsock crashed into an unexpected Bishop, who had his right leg firmly planted. The next play, Tolbert broke three-to-four tackles from the Vikings' 10-yard line en route to his first touchdown and the 14-0 lead.
Smith played 46 snaps before suffering turf toe on the Panthers' fifth drive. Newton throws a screen pass to Williams, who runs for nine yards before Smith makes the tackle. On the play, Smith hits Williams head on while suffering the injury.
Rhodes suffered his ankle sprain defending a deep pass to receiver Ted Ginn Jr. in the second quarter, which fell incomplete. Rhodes eventually returned in the second half, but had to leave again with the same injury. He played 32 snaps, all as the left cornerback in the Vikings' nickel packages. Overall, Rhodes had one of his worst games, mainly due to Newton's precise ball placement and some outstanding receptions by Smith and Ginn Jr. over Rhodes.
5) The Panthers scored five touchdowns on their eight drives - four of which came on 3rd or 4th downs. Aforementioned, Newton's opening touchdown pass on 4th-and-1 sealed a drive that kept the Vikings defense on the field for 10 minutes, only to be followed up by a three-and-out by the offense. Overall, the defense was on the field for 19 of the first 26 minutes, also due in part to the Panthers' 14-play, 88-yard drive that set up their second touchdown on the third drive.
None of the three touchdowns were as much of a back-breaker as the 79-yarder to LaFell to open the second half. On 3rd-and-3 from their own 21-yard line, Newton fires a rocket to a wide-open LaFell, who wasn't touched for the entirety of his 79-yard run to the endzone. A coverage breakdown led to the easy pitch-and-catch as Rhodes appears to play man-to-man coverage, while the rest of the defense seems to play a Cover-3. Rhodes carries his man into the middle-third of the defense while his third his left open for LaFell to occupy. Smith comes across the field to lay-out Rhodes for the touchdown-sealing block.
After going up 21-3, the Vikings' offense produced another three-and-out, so Newton orchestrated another 10-play, 61-yard drive to put the game away for good in the third quarter. The ball doesn't hit the turf once as Newton completes four passes and runs three times, the final scamper going for a seven-yard touchdown. Cassel then pitched the Panthers another interception, leaving Newton only 21 yards between him and a 35-3 lead. Four rushes later and Tolbert scores his second touchdown of the day from 3rd-and-1 at the one-yard line.
Game ball: Chris Cook. Cook allowed four catches on five targets for 21 yards and a pass deflection. The most important aspect of Cook's game on Sunday was physicality with Smith. The Panthers often lined Smith up away from Cook and on Rhodes or Robinson as he limited their best receiver to two catches and four yards when going his way. Cook kept receiver screens in check with his physicality, whether it was making a play on the ball carrier or not letting the blocking receiver move him. He was flagged for defensive holding, but that can be chalked up to Smith's acting as much as anything. Cook was in control on Sunday because everything was in front of him. The Panthers didn't throw over his head, not like they needed to.
Goat(s): Jared Allen. Allen was essentially a non-factor in this game. He finished with two hurries and two tackles, but missed a couple of tackles while getting boxed out on run plays. Allen went without a sack for the third time in five games as Panthers left tackle Jordan Gross mostly handled Allen on his own. The Vikings often line up Kevin Williams, or their three-technique, at center and give Allen space to work the tackle, leaning heavy to Robison's side with man-on-man at the line. However on Sunday, the Panthers often ran at that look - hitting the left guard-left tackle gap 10 times for 38 yards.