Panthers defense showing signs of strain

Justin Jefferson catch

CHARLOTTE — When anything else has gone wrong for the Panthers this season, they could count on their defense to win a game or at least keep things close.

Sunday, that side of the ball cracked, in a major way.

The Panthers sprung leaks like they hadn't this season in the 34-28 overtime loss to the Vikings, and almost like never before in franchise history.

They allowed 571 yards to the Vikings on Sunday, tied for the second-most in franchise history.

To put that into context, in the first three weeks of the season (when the Panthers had the league's top-ranked defense), they allowed 573 yards combined to the Jets, Saints, and Texans.

So even though Sam Darnold led a dramatic comeback to tie the game at 28 with 42 seconds left in regulation, they still allowed the Vikings to march down the field for a potential game-winning field goal. Even though they missed that one, an immediate nine-play, 75-yard drive in overtime sealed things.

"That last drive, had we gone three-and-out after we scored the touchdown and the two-point conversion, we had a chance to get them down," Panthers head coach Matt Rhule said. "But letting them have a five- or six-play drive and then them winning the toss, obviously we were tired. The defense needed a couple longer drives by the offense to give them a break. . . .

"But all that being said, the job of the defense is to stop them, nothing else, so the defense needed to stop them. We needed to stop them on that last drive. Anything by a touchdown, that was the coaching point and obviously they scored the touchdown there at the end."

Vikings running back Dalvin Cook running for 140 yards was one thing, but the Panthers barely touched quarterback Kirk Cousins. He wasn't sacked, making his 373 passing yards and three touchdowns a relatively easy game of pitch and catch.

The Panthers have just two sacks in the last three weeks, after racking up 14 in the first three.

"When the run game is working, usually that doesn't leave a lot of opportunities to get the pass rush," outside linebacker Haason Reddick said.

Of course, even when they did have chances, they slipped through their fingers.

Brian Burns admitted he was going for a strip late in the game, trying to force a fumble from Cousins, which would have allowed the Panthers a chance to win the game late.

"Yeah, man, young mistake," Burns said. "I guess I got greedy. I blew my guy off the ball, beat him off the ball easy. As I was turning too fast, he stepped up. I went for the strip. Should have secured the sack. I tried to end the game. But that's the risk you take."

By the time they got to overtime, the Panthers had little left in the tank.

The Vikings ran 84 plays (tied for most allowed in Panthers franchise history), and the defense was clearly gassed at the end.

Coming into the day, Carolina led the league in time of possession. But the Vikings held the ball for 11:04 longer as the Panthers offense struggled to stay on the field, going 2-for-12 on third down. Both of those successful conversions came on just one drive, which ended with a field goal in the second quarter.

It also doesn't help that the defense was out there without linebacker Shaq Thompson, cornerback Jaycee Horn, and safety Juston Burris, and even though no one wants to use injuries as an excuse, that's a real factor for this team.

And Rhule admitted that having some of the guys on the field, such as safeties Sean Chandler and Sam Franklin Jr. (who also play key roles on special teams), they had a lot of guys playing a lot more snaps than normal.

Chandler said it wasn't necessarily a matter of fatigue, but on a day when the offense couldn't sustain drives, it certainly didn't help.

"We just have to execute the little things better," Chandler said.

"It was definitely a tough one, you know what I'm saying. We're going to get over it as a team, though. We're going to come together, regroup and get back to it next week."

View in-game photos from the Panthers and Vikings in Week 6 at Bank of America Stadium.

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