Notebook: Short-handed Vikings 'D' gets turnovers, stop at right time
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Twice in the first half on Sunday, the Minnesota Vikings' defense bailed out the offense by creating turnovers that set up touchdowns.
Then, with the game in the balance, the defense got the stop it needed -- although not without some help from the Carolina Panthers, whose equalizing field-goal attempt hooked wide left with 26 seconds left in a 24-21 decision at Bank of America Stadium.
"Those are the plays that need to be made, and we need to eliminate their big plays," right end Jared Allen said. "You can't have a big bust, and if you do, you've got to come back and make a pick. I think consistency is what we've been lacking, and how you build on that is turnovers."
The first came on the Panthers' initial play from scrimmage, moments after Ryan Longwell hooked a 45-yard field-goal attempt to keep the game scoreless.
Carolina rookie Cam Newton held the ball too long against a five-man rush, middle linebacker E.J. Henderson stripped it out and Allen recovered at the Panthers 16 to set up the Vikings' first touchdown two plays later.
"The defense comes out right away," coach Leslie Frazier said, "nobody holding their head down or pointing fingers and they make a big play and we up with seven."
Late in the second quarter, the Vikings trailed 14-7 and were driving when Percy Harvin lost a fumble at the Carolina 5-yard line. The Panthers drove out to their 42-yard line before Allen put a hesitation move on left tackle Jordan Gross and stripped Newton again.
Outside linebacker Chad Greenway recovered at the Carolina 39 and the Vikings again scored in two plays to even the score at 14 with 42 seconds remaining in the half.
"I was feeling terrible at the moment," Harvin said. "But our team, they came back and got my back and we were able to pull it off."
The Panthers gained 232 yards and 15 first downs before halftime and went 75 yards in nine plays on the second half's opening drive for a go-ahead touchdown. The Vikings defense then put together its best stretch, forcing three consecutive three-and-out punts as the offense rallied ahead.
But the Panthers got moving again on their last-gasp drive, with Newton converting third-and-1 with a checkdown pass to Jonathan Stewart and then firing a fourth-and-15 bullet to Brandon LaFell, who found a soft spot in the Vikings' zone and spun back against safety Tyrell Johnson for a 44-yard gain.
"That's tough, but you know what?" Allen said. "You've 50-odd seconds left, you've got to hold them to a field goal to go into overtime. That's gut-wrenching. He was throwing out of the foxhole. They know the play. Those are the types of things you've got to cover up."
Newton appeared to have another first down moments later, when Newton took a third-and-3 draw through the right side for a 6-yard gain. But officials flagged cornerback Steve Smith for holding, Newton's ensuing third-and-7 pass to Smith only gained 5 yards and then Olindo Mare pulled a 31-yard chip shot wide left -- the sort of break the Vikings haven't had often in their 2-6 season.
"In a long time," Allen said. "He's a good kicker, too. He hasn't been missing. You know what? Thank God and maybe he blew the wind a little bit for us."
Newton finished 22-of-35 passing for 290 yards, three touchdowns and a 117.6 rating against a secondary that once again played without top cornerbacks Antoine Winfield (neck) and Chris Cook (suspended).
Cedric Griffin's struggles prompted coaches to ditch their usual "sides" game plan and let Asher Allen -- the No. 4 cornerback a month ago -- shadow the Panthers' best receiver, Smith, all over the field.
Through the first series of the third quarter, Allen allowed three "explosive" completions, including a 26-yarder on a back-shoulder play that set up one touchdown and a 22-yard completion on an in-cut for another score. But Smith had only two receptions for 5 yards the rest of the way.
"You can't get flustered," Frazier said. "You can't get down on yourself. We're not going to get down on you. We put you out there because we believe in you. They have to have that same belief, and if they do, they'll have a chance to make some plays. Our guys settled down, they began to contain some of the things that Steve and Cam were doing in the passing game and it made a difference in (Sunday)'s outcome."
Allen wasn't the only defensive back to have a bust. Tight end Greg Olsen beat Husain Abdullah's coverage by three steps for a 39-yard touchdown in the second quarter, and Johnson's bad angle on LaFell's 44-yard catch and run could have proven fatal.
Frazier said Johnson was on the field because starting strong safety Jamarca Sanford "got a little fatigued, and we had to rotate him. That was it, just to give him a break and give Tyrell an opportunity."
Sanford had a chance for an interception before Smith's touchdown but collided with weakside linebacker Erin Henderson, who appeared to tip the ball away.
Peterson catches on
Adrian Peterson finally is a part of the passing game.
The Vikings' All-Pro halfback ran 21 times for 86 yards (4.1 average) and also caught five passes for a career-high 76 yards, including 20 yards on a checkdown from Christian Ponder and 19-yard touchdown on a screen over consecutive plays just before halftime.
"That first half was critical," said Peterson, who had only 14 yards in eight carries (1.8 average) at halftime.
"Carolina was stacking the box and slowing the run down. I was able to get around the perimeter and be a checkdown. Christian did a great job of finding me."
Peterson's previous high for receiving yards was 73 against the Panthers on Dec. 20, 2009. He entered Sunday with only 52 yards on 11 catches all season.
"Five catches for 76 yards for Adrian out of the backfield? That's huge," Frazier said. "And part of that is Christian being able to make some plays in the passing game. It forces people to loosen up a little bit, and he's smart enough (to say), 'OK, I can't throw over the top of your defense. I'll check it down to a guy who, in the open field, is tough to bring down."
Sherels makes a splash
Instead, Marcus Sherels was deep for the opening kickoff -- and caught a crease for 78 yards to set up the Vikings' opening drive at the Carolina 27.
"For him to open the game with that kickoff the way he did -- he blows my mind sometimes, just seeing some of the things he does," Frazier said.
Frazier didn't want Harvin on returns because of his rib problems and met on Saturday with special teams coordinator Mike Priefer to discuss several alternatives, including rookie receiver Stephen Burton and halfback Toby Gerhart.
The main concern with going with Sherels was that it might be overwhelming for a young player to take on another role in addition to punt returns and playing as the nickel cornerback.
"Definitely wasn't too much," Frazier said. "He opened the game up the way you'd like to open up. He's a guy who has great courage, tremendous toughness and he's a playmaker."
Sherels didn't get another chance after popping the big one. The rest of Olindo Mare's kickoffs went through the end zone for touchbacks, with Harvin deep on one of them.
Work for Harvin
The rib didn't stop the Vikings from feeding Harvin early -- and from multiple positions.
He lined up in the backfield on consecutive plays on the Vikings' second series and took handoffs each time, the first for 6 yards and the second for a 10-yard touchdown.
"It's a great play because it's a cutback play potentially," said Harvin, who ranks second on the team with 182 rushing yards on 19 carries (9.8 average). "It's a play that gets you in space and do your thing."
Harvin also had 58 yards on four catches (14.5 average), including a 12-yarder against safety Charles Godfrey on third-and-11 in the second quarter.
But cornerback Captain Munnerlyn ripped out the ball at the end of the play, officials called it a fumble after huddling briefly and the Vikings' challenge failed.
"He made a great play on the ball," Harvin said. "He got a hand on it before I could tuck it. Me, I was fighting for extra yards, too."
It wasn't the first close encounter Harvin and Munnerlyn, who know each other from their college days in the Southeastern Conference.
On the last play of the Vikings' previous drive, Munnerlyn ran Harvin into the Panthers' sideline and Harvin responded by throwing Munnerlyn at the Carolina bench. The two appeared to exchange swings, but the only flag was on Harvin for a personal foul and Frazier wasn't pleased on the sideline.
"He kind of got up under me and drove me all the way to the sideline, and I was able to get my feet," Harvin said. "It was a little tussle, but at the same time, we've got great respect for each other, him playing at South Carolina (and Harvin at Florida).
"We were talking throughout the game. Even after that scuffle, we came out of halftime and both told each other whatever we told each other. I won't say."
Frazier was seen talking to Harvin after both plays -- encouraging him after the fumble and cautioning him against throwing haymakers on the sideline.
"I don't want him doing that either," Frazier said. "I definitely talked to him about that as well. We don't want to do that."
• Down to his second and final challenge, Frazier burned it on the Panthers' opening drive of the second half when Legedu Naanee plucked a 22-yard completion near the ground on second-and-13 in front of the Vikings sideline. Referee Ed Hoculi upheld the call quickly after a review and the Vikings lost a timeout.
• It's safe to say PK Ryan Longwell is in a slump. After Sherels set up the short field early, the Vikings offense went three and out and Longwell hooked a 45-yard field goal attempt wide left -- the veteran's third miss in 16 attempts this season, equaling his total in 46 attempts (93.5%) over the previous two years.
• Jared Allen now has 12½ sacks -- by far the most in the NFL and on pace for 25, which would beat Michael Strahan's 10-year-old record by 2½. After the game, Allen spoke with reporters for the first time since the birth of his daughter, Brinley Noel. "I've never felt that kind of love, and it's just, it's amazing," Allen said.
• Rookie FS Mistral Raymond missed a chance for his first big NFL play, failing to recover Kealoha Pilares' fumble on the Vikings' first kickoff.