Flores’ Defense Arrives in First Win amid a Down Day for Cousins

Oct 1, 2023; Charlotte, North Carolina, USA; Carolina Panthers quarterback Bryce Young (9) tries to avoid a sack by Minnesota Vikings safety Harrison Smith (22) during the second half at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

It was old-school Sunday for the Vikings as they rode a revived defense led by 34-year-old safety Harrison Smith and an improving run game to their first 2023 win in Carolina. The Vikings survived a poor performance by QB Kirk Cousins, who threw two interceptions, including a Pick Six on an awful throw at the Chiefs goal-line that ended a good opening drive.

Flores’ Defense Arrives in First Win amid a Down Day for Cousins

Smith had not made a lot of impact plays in the first three games, but he was the player of the game in Carolina with a career-high three sacks, including the team’s play of the year thus far. That was the third-quarter strip-sack of Bryce Young as the Vikings trailed 13-7 while the Panthers were driving. The fumble was returned for a 51-yard game-changing TD by D.J. Wonnum. Smith also sealed the victory with a 4th-and-18 sack of Young from the Vikings 18 with 1:01 remaining. 

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Oct 1, 2023; Charlotte, North Carolina, USA; Minnesota Vikings linebacker D.J. Wonnum (98) returns a fumble for a touchdown in the third quarter at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports.

A much bigger test than the winless Panthers awaits this Sunday in a national doubleheader game when the 3-1 Chiefs come to town led by their MVP QB Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce (who may have a certain singer/girlfriend in the house).

Justin Jefferson had another excellent game in Carolina with six catches for 85 yards and two TDs (and should’ve been over 100 yards if Cousins had hit him when he was open on the deep right side in the fourth quarter). Jefferson was already looking ahead to the Chiefs game when he said after the Panthers game, “We’ve just got to hold onto the ball, and we’ll be good. We definitely have to move forward and have the same energy next week. We need to celebrate this win and then look forward to the Chiefs.”

Here are my other reactions to the 21-13 win over the Panthers:

1. Helped by two newcomers: we kept hearing from Coach Kevin O’Connell and DC Brian Flores how much edge rusher/outside backer Marcus Davenport would help the defense against the run and the pass as he sat out the first three weeks with an ankle injury. 

Well, they were right (at least against the Panthers), as Davenport was a force with one sack to end an early fourth-quarter drive, a pressure to set up a Wonnum sack, one tackle-for-loss, and four tackles. His bigger body was a factor in run defense, as the coaches suggested, and he flashed good closing speed on his sack. 

Oct 1, 2023; Charlotte, North Carolina, USA; Minnesota Vikings linebacker Marcus Davenport (0) pressures Carolina Panthers quarterback Bryce Young (9) in the third quarter at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

It’s obvious that Davenport and Danielle Hunter must stay healthy for the defense to be effective, and Smith has to continue to be a game-changing force.

New No. 2 running back Cam Akers also contributed in his first Vikings game action. He had five runs for 40 yards and two catches for 11 yards. Akers brings quickness and moves to go along with the power running of starter Alexander Mattison, who had a fine game (17 carries for 95 yards) on a day when the Vikings rushed for 135 yards. Akers also brought a lot of positive energy to the offensive huddle, according to Cousins.

The run-blocking of the offensive line, tight ends, and fullback C.J. Ham also should be praised, especially after the O-line’s struggles early this season in this area. 

2. Chiefs All-Pro DT Chris Jones will provide a big challenge next week, and I’d like to see another newcomer in guard Dalton Risner enter the starting lineup in place of Ed Ingram, who was beat on the late first half play when Cousins’ arm was hit, causing his second interception. Ingram does a decent job in run blocking, but his pass protection remains a big problem.

3. Cousins is now up to seven turnovers this season, and the first-quarter pick-six was a bad read by a 12-year vet, and it also was a late throw to K.J. Osborn. T.J. Hockenson was a better option if Cousins had patiently waited for him to pop open. Cousins has to stop turning it over, and his accuracy is not as consistent as in the past. He badly overthrew Jefferson on 3rd-and-2 with 7:36 left in the game when the Vikings needed to sustain a drive with their 8-point lead.

But in that situation, a shorter pass to pick up the first down would have been the wiser choice by O’Connell as the play-caller and Cousins.

That three-and-out put a tiring Vikings defense in a bad spot on a hot day, as they were on the field for 12:34 of the fourth quarter. Fortunately for the Purple, Smith bailed them out with his game-ending sack.

4. Third down efficiency must improve: Cousins’ bad day was a big part of the team, converting only 1 of 8 on third down (after going 4 of 14 the previous Sunday against the Chargers). Cousins did come up with a big fourth-down conversion to Jefferson on the second-quarter touchdown drive. 

Oct 1, 2023; Charlotte, North Carolina, USA; Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins (8) tries to elude Carolina Panthers linebacker Frankie Luvu (49) during the first quarter at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports.

5. More on the big game by the defense: only 232 yards allowed with five sacks, eight tackles-for-loss, and six other QB hits while being on the field for 38 ½ minutes. The offense should be more efficient in the weeks ahead with such a talented group of skill position players and an O-line that should be better when center Garrett Bradbury returns from his back injury and when Risner gets in the lineup.

But it was good to see the defense carrying the day, albeit against a lousy Carolina offense, and perhaps things will continue to improve on D (we’ll have a better handle on that after the Vikings face the Chiefs and 49ers in two of the next three weeks).  

6. Bryce Young has a ways to go: the first overall pick in this year’s draft threw some nice passes, especially to ex-Viking Adam Thielen, who had a big game with seven catches for 76 yards. But Young needs more receiving weapons and must make quicker decisions, as he held the ball too long on several plays, leading to Vikings sacks.  

7. Penalties were costly: the Vikings had seven penalties for 37 yards and several nullified big gains. The most costly was tight end Josh Oliver’s hold on the opening drive that cost the Vikings a TD pass from Cousins to Jefferson and was soon followed by the Pick Six of Sam Franklin. The Panthers also were penalty-filled (six for 80 yards). The penalties must be cleaned up against the Chiefs.

Around the NFL Observations:

1. Kansas City was not extremely impressive in their Sunday night win over the Jets as Mahomes threw two bad interceptions, and his suspect wide receiver corps produced a measly 65 yards on seven receptions. Second-year back Isiah Pacheco carried the offense with 115 rushing yards (including a 48-yard TD run) and three catches for 43 yards. Mahomes had only 203 passing yards (60 on six receptions by Kelce), but Mahomes did run for 51 yards (and the Vikings will have to be wary of his scrambling ability).  

2. Bad last two weeks for the NFL’s “it team” at the time: in Week 3, it was the Cowboys who were rolling at 2-0 with the top-ranked defense before they were convincingly beat 28-16 in the Arizona heat by the then-winless Cardinals. Then in Week 4, Miami came in after a 70-20 pounding of Denver as what many proclaimed to be the league’s best team.

Buffalo proceeded to whip the Dolphins 48-20 behind Josh Allen’s fantastic game (21 of 25 for 320 yards and 4 TDs with no turnovers) and Stefon Diggs producing six catches, 120 yards, and 3 TDs. The Bills D had an interception of Tua Tagovailoa to help seal the victory, and they held Tyreek Hill to three receptions for 58 yards and kept him out of the end zone. 

Aug 12, 2023; Orchard Park, New York, USA; Buffalo Bills wide receiver Stefon Diggs warms up before a preseason game against the Indianapolis Colts at Highmark Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports.

The Bills are hot with three straight wins. Could the Jaguars take them down in London this Sunday, or could it be the unbeaten Eagles or 49ers going down in their matchups with the Rams and Cowboys, respectively? It hasn’t been healthy lately to be that “it” team. Perhaps the way so many top teams are getting beat is a good omen for the Vikings to pull an upset over the defending Super Bowl champs on Sunday. 

3. Around the NFC North: Detroit’s rolling at 3-1 after their 34-20 win over the Packers in Lambeau Field last Thursday. The Lions have the 0-4 Panthers at home on Sunday before things get a bit tougher with road games at 3-1 Tampa Bay (who will be coming off their bye week) and then at 3-1 Baltimore, who leads the AFC North after thumping the Deshaun Watson-less Browns 28-3 in Cleveland. The Lions get 2022 first-round receiver Jameson Williams back from his gambling suspension this week. 

Green Bay is in trouble with a banged-up O-line as Pro Bowl left tackle David Bakhtiari is now on injured reserve (knee), and Pro Bowl guard Elgton Jenkins also missed last week with a knee injury. The Lions’ defensive line, led by Aidan Hutchinson, dominated upfront, and the Pack next has a Monday night game in Las Vegas where Maxx Crosby will be excited to face the Packers O-line (Crosby has four sacks this season, including two in the Sunday loss to the Chargers). 

The Bears wasted Justin Fields’ best day as a passer (335 passing yards and 4 TDs) as they blew a 21-point third-quarter lead in the 31-28 home loss to the Broncos. QB Russell Wilson threw two second-half TD passes, and the Broncos had a 35-yard fumble return for the tying TD off a Fields sack with seven minutes left in the game. The Bears are at Washington this Thursday night and will likely be 0-5 when the Vikings come to Soldier Field in Week 6.

I’m back with my Vikings-Chiefs prediction on Friday as the Vikings prepare to host Coach Andy Reid, Mahomes, and Company in front of their boisterous fans, many of whom traveled to Charlotte and made plenty of noise to actually force a couple of false starts by the home team.  

Jeff Diamond is a former Vikings GM, former Tennessee Titans President and was selected NFL Executive of the Year after the Vikings’ 15-1 season in 1998. He now works for the NFL agent group IFA based in Minneapolis and does other sports consulting and media work along with college/corporate speaking. Follow him and direct message him on Twitter– @jeffdiamondnfl