CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The game between the Minnesota Vikings and Carolina Panthers on Sunday might just come down to who can score a touchdown in the second half.
Both teams have struggled coming out of the locker room at halftime this year.
For the Panthers (3-2), who’ve scored a league-low seven points in the third quarter, the second-half offensive lulls came back to bite them for a second straight week as the Philadelphia Eagles were able to stick around and ultimately erase a 12-point deficit and beat Carolina 21-18.
The Vikings' problems might be worse as they've gone eight quarters — and 24 offensive possessions — after halftime without a touchdown. Unlike Carolina, the Vikings (2-3) were able to hold on last week, beating the winless Detroit Lions 19-17 on a 54-yard field goal by Greg Joseph.
Vikings coach Mike Zimmer went looking for answers, asking his coaching staff to do some self-scouting earlier this week — something that's normally reserved for the bye week — to find a remedy for the second-half blues.
“I don’t know if I pinpointed it, but we’ve researched it an awful lot,” Zimmer said. “We went through every possession in the second half. We’ve gone through down-and-distance tendencies, first-and-possession, earned first downs, second-down-and-long after a penalty, after a sack. ..."
Zimmer said one modification the Vikings will make is having a more detailed plan coming out of halftime.
"Instead of saying, ‘Hey, these are the plays that we’re thinking about running,’ … going, ‘all right, here’s what we’re going to run. Here’s the first play, second play, third play,’ and we go from there,” Zimmer said.
"I think we will fix it,” Rhule said. “Most of our touchdowns happen in the first three or four drives of the game. And it’s like after those things that we are real comfortable with are gone and things get harder, everyone just starts pressing. Just play within the system, whether that is (quarterback) Sam (Darnold) or a linebacker. Don’t try to do too much.”
PRIDE OF 2017
The Vikings and Panthers have met twice since Dalvin Cook and Christian McCaffrey were drafted in 2017, but they've yet to face each other due to injuries. Cook missed the game as a rookie with a knee injury and McCaffrey the rematch last year due to a shoulder injury.
That streak could continue Sunday as Cook is still working back from an ankle injury and McCaffrey is recovering from a strained hamstring.
Regardless, Cook called that 2017 running back class that also includes Leonard Fournette, Alvin Kamara, Joe Mixon, Kareem Hunt and Aaron Jones one of the most talented to come out of college.
“You can go back and check the track record. There are guys around the league still starting, still producing,” Cook said. “I think we were one of the best to come through."
LEFT TACKLE SHUFFLE
Both teams remain a little unsettled at left tackle.
Vikings first-round draft pick Christian Darrisaw had his first game action there last week in a rotation with Rashod Hill. Darrisaw has been behind after undergoing his second core muscle surgery of the year during training camp, but he fared well in pass protection and figures to get more time, if not take over as the starter altogether.
“He had good energy. He was pretty dialed in,” Vikings center Garrett Bradbury said.
Carolina was without regular starting left tackle Cam Erving last week because of a neck injury, but he's back now. That allows $72 million man Taylor Moton to move back to his more natural position at right tackle.
LIKE HE NEVER LEFT
Defensive end Everson Griffen has his starting spot back with the Vikings after playing his way past D.J. Wonnum on the depth chart. The 11-year veteran and four-time Pro Bowl pick, who re-signed with Minnesota in 2021 after one year elsewhere, had two sacks last week and has four this season.
“I’m very pleased where he is. He looks like the ‘Ev’ of 2017, 2018, and my job is to try to make sure that I keep that the way that it is,” said co-defensive coordinator and defensive line coach Andre Patterson.
One of the keys to watch in this game will be how Vikings QB Kirk Cousins and the offense perform on third downs.
The Panthers have the league's top third-down defense, allowing opponents to convert just 25.4% of their opportunities into first downs. The Vikings offense ranks 18th in the league in third down efficiency, converting just 38.1% of the time.
Rhule is gaining more trust in kicker Zane Gonzalez, who connected on field goal attempts of 43, 48 and 50 yards last week against the Eagles, and is now 6 of 8 on the season with one kick blocked because of poor protection up front.
Joseph has been in a groove for Minnesota since missing an extra point and a 37-yard field goal on the final play in a 34-33 loss at Arizona on Sept. 19. The native of South Africa is 7 of 8 on field goals and 5 for 5 on extra points in the last three games. He's 5 for 5 on field goal attempts from 50 yards or longer.
MINNESOTA (2-3) at CAROLINA (3-2)
Sunday, 1 p.m. EDT, Fox
OPENING LINE: Vikings by 1, according to FanDuel SportsBook.
AGAINST THE SPREAD: Vikings 2-3, Panthers 3-2.
SERIES RECORD: Vikings lead 9-6.
LAST MEETING: Vikings beat Panthers 28-27 on Nov. 29, 2020 at Minnesota.
VIKINGS OFFENSE: OVERALL (11), RUSH (15), PASS (10), SCORING (t-19).
VIKINGS DEFENSE: OVERALL (17), RUSH (22), PASS (13), SCORING (9).
PANTHERS OFFENSE: OVERALL (16), RUSH (18), PASS (13), SCORING (t-16).
PANTHERS DEFENSE: OVERALL (2), RUSH (8), PASS (1), SCORING (3).
TURNOVER DIFFERENTIAL: Vikings 0; Panthers minus-2.
VIKINGS PLAYER TO WATCH: WR Justin Jefferson. The second-year wideout is proving his rookie season was no fluke, turning in big numbers again this year. Jefferson has 28 receptions for 391 yards and three touchdowns in his last four games, presenting a formidable challenge for Carolina cornerbacks Donte Jackson and C.J. Henderson. Jefferson had seven catches for 70 yards and two TDs last year against the Panthers.
PANTHERS PLAYER TO WATCH: Panthers LB Haason Reddick. The edge rusher has been a force for Carolina with 6 1/2 sacks through five games. Reddick now has 14 sacks in his last nine games, dating back to his time in Arizona. He has been particularly effective at home this season with at least 1 1/2 sacks in each of Carolina's three games.
KEY MATCHUP: Panthers offensive line vs. Vikings pass rush: Panthers QB Sam Darnold has been under heavy duress for most of the season and has been being sacked eight times and hit 19 times in the last two games. The Vikings present a major concern for Carolina as they have 17 sacks this season, second most in the NFL.
KEY INJURIES: Vikings RB Dalvin Cook is working his way back after missing last week’s game with a sprained ankle but the team has a bye next week and may look to hold him out again to be safe. DT Michael Pierce was inactive last week with an elbow injury and did not practice Wednesday. The Panthers are hoping to get Christian McCaffrey back from a hamstring injury, which would be a tremendous boost for the offense. Left tackle Cam Erving is expected to play after missing last week's game with a neck injury, which means Taylor Moton will move back to his more natural right tackle position. Linebacker Shaq Thompson (foot) is out again.
SERIES NOTES: The Vikings have won three of the last four games, including last year's 28-27 victory in Minnesota in which they outscored Carolina 18-8 in the fourth quarter. While the Vikings are 9-6 overall against the Panthers, Carolina is 3-2 at home. The series has produced some memorable moments, including Vikings QB Brad Johnson throwing a touchdown pass to himself (off a batted pass) in 1997, and Panthers WR Steve Smith returning the season-opening kickoff for a touchdown the first time he ever touched the ball as a rookie in the 2001. The Panthers won that game 24-13 but would go on to lose 15 straight, ending coach George Seifert's tenure in Carolina.
STATS AND STUFF: The Vikings are 0-2 on the road this season. ... DE Everson Griffen has four sacks in the last three games. Over his last three matchups against the Panthers while with the Vikings, in 2014, 2016 and 2017, Griffen had six sacks. ... Griffen (four) and DE Danielle Hunter (six) are one of two tandems in the league with four-plus sacks apiece. Khalil Mack and Robert Quinn are the other for the Bears. ... Vikings WR Justin Jefferson is the third player in team history with at least five catches in the first five games of the season. Current teammate Adam Thielen (2017, 2018) and Hall of Famer Cris Carter (1994, 1995, 1997) are the others. ... QB Kirk Cousins threw his 200th career TD pass last week. He’s the ninth active player in the league to reach that milestone. ... The Panthers are 2-1 at home. ... The Panthers have struggled in the third quarter this season, scoring an NFL-low seven points. ... Darnold has thrown five interceptions in the last two games and has six TDs passes and six INTs on the season. ... Darnold was limited to a passer rating of 34.4 after completing 17 of 42 passes with one touchdown and three interceptions in his last meeting with the Vikings as a member of the Jets.. ... The Panthers are 3-0 with McCaffrey in the starting lineup and 0-2 without him. McCaffrey has 2,820 scrimmage yards (148.4 per game) and 21 touchdowns in his past 19 home games. ... Rookie RB Chuba Hubbard had his first 100-yard rushing game last week in a 21-18 loss to the Eagles. ... The Panthers' defense is first in the NFL on third downs, allowing opponents to convert just 25.4% of those opportunities into first downs.
FANTASY TIP: Cousins threw for 307 yards and three touchdowns last year against the Panthers.