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Vikings make case as NFL's best defense after crushing Cam Newton, Panthers

In consecutive weeks, the Vikings have held the Packers and Panthers to 24 points in total. Is their defense the class of the NFL?

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Vikings defensive line coach Andre Patterson had confidence in his group coming into Sunday’s contest against the Panthers. But did Patterson envision sacking Cam Newton eight times?

“No,” Patterson admitted. “I didn’t expect to come in here and get him on the ground eight times.”

Only once in his career had Newton been sacked as many times as he was in Minnesota’s 22–10 victory. And just like in the previous week against Aaron Rodgers, the Vikings’ plan to contain a scrambling quarterback worked to near perfection.

The Vikings’ defensive ends had to be careful with their speed rushes. They couldn’t get too vertical too quickly or else they could go high and allow Newton to squirt out. The plan, like in last week’s 17–14 win against the Packers where Aaron Rodgers went down five times, was to get just high enough so that the ends could work from the outside in. Then came the trickery.

The Vikings did a great job of flashing a helmet into what should have been a vacant B-gap, one that Newton would have identified earlier as his escape route. “Then he goes, ‘Oh, it’s covered.’ And then he comes back to the guys who are screaming around the corner,” Patterson said.

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The game didn’t start that way for the Vikings. Newton and the Panthers went up 10–0 10 minutes into the game and had outgained Minnesota in yards 105–3. This was the offense that Kelvin Benjamin said the previous week could score 60 or 70 points if it wanted to. And it looked like a team ready to win its 15th straight home game and help give some of Charlotte a reprieve from the goings-on of the previous five days in the city.

Vikes defensive end Danielle Hunter changed that. With Carolina backed up at its own five, Hunter bulldozed left tackle Michael Oher and evaded left guard Andrew Norwell to sack Newton for a safety. The Panthers still led 10–2, but the tide shifted.

“[We were] running the football extremely well, keeping them off balance,” Newton said, “and then all of a sudden, after the safety it was good riddance.”

Linval Joseph, the Vikings’ disruptive defensive tackle, sacked Newton on Carolina’s next series on a play where Newton injured his left ankle. If it hurt him throughout the game, Newton wouldn’t say. Defensive end Everson Griffen, who was vomiting during the first half and was questionable to return at one point, got his first of three sacks late in the second quarter that knocked Carolina out of field goal range.

After Minnesota took a 16–10 lead to begin the third quarter, the Vikings truly started looking like a Mike Zimmer defense. They used linebacker Anthony Barr as a spy for a sack on third down. They threw in a hug blitz for another sack. Minnesota even sent safety Harrison Smith on a blitz when they overloaded the right side of the line and overwhelmed Newton.

By the end of the game, Newton had been sacked eight times, with Griffen getting a hat trick. Newton threw three interceptions, and one of those was a desperation attempt that robbed Griffen of what would have been a fourth sack.

Sunday’s game had shades of what Denver was able to do to Carolina in Super Bowl 50. The Broncos also held the Panthers to just 10 points, and Kelvin Benjamin was as effective in this game as he was in street clothes on the sideline in Santa Clara.

Newton didn’t even target Benjamin, who had 108 yards and two touchdowns last week, until there were three minutes left in the game. Afterwards, Newton said it was “really baffling and wowing” that Benjamin didn’t have any touches, and the 6' 5" receiver would only say he runs his routes.

But the Vikings swore they didn’t do anything particularly special against Benjamin. Zimmer had a solid rotation at corner with Trae Waynes, Xavier Rhodes and Terence Newman, but nickel cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said it wasn’t like Minnesota was doubling Benjamin every play.

“Every time he lined up, if he was in the slot, we knew the routes he was doing in the slot,” Munnerlyn said. “All inside routes. He uses his body. Body control. So we knew that if he’s in the slot what he’s doing. And [when he was on the] outside, a whole bunch of different coverages. We probably threw the whole playbook at him today. Trying to make Cam read a little and get after those guys.”

Several Vikings after the game repeated the mantra that to be the best, you have to beat the best. Now Minnesota has taken down two of the NFC giants in consecutive weeks, and the defense is making its case to be the best in the NFL.

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But at 3–0 after a season that could have been lost when Teddy Bridgewater was down on the practice field more than three weeks ago, defensive end Brian Robison has bigger goals for the defensive line that feasted Sunday.

“We feel like we can be one of the best ever to wear purple,” Robison said, knowing full well the legacy of the Purple People Eaters. “That’s not taking away from the guys who wore purple before us, but we hold ourselves to that standard. We hold ourselves to a higher standard than most people.”