Vikings cornerback Captain Munnerlyn was next to Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton near the end of Minnesota’s 22-10 victory and could see frustration written all over the face of his former teammate.
Newton wasn’t griping at his teammates or the officials, according to Munnerlyn.
“He was just tired of getting hit,” he said.
Picking yourself up off the sod after eight sacks and a handful of other hits would put a damper on anyone’s Sunday afternoon.
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The Panthers haven’t lost much over the past 22 months – Sunday’s defeat was their first at home since Week 12 in 2014.
But there’s been a pattern to their last three losses, beginning with Super Bowl 50: Physical, attacking defenses have given them fits.
To be clear, the Denver and Minnesota defenses rank among the league’s best. And both have the type of high-impact pass rushers the Panthers had in 2013 with Greg Hardy and a healthy and younger Charles Johnson.
But there’s no excuse for giving up eight sacks – and the Panthers weren’t making any.
“You don’t want to see your quarterback hit. However many blitzes they’re bringing, the jobs they’re doing to disguise, you’ve got to pick it up,” left tackle Michael Oher said. “That’s what the good teams do.”
The Panthers (1-2) have more losses than they had all of last season, but they’re still a good team. It helps that the NFC South features two of the league’s worst defenses, Atlanta and New Orleans.
But there will be plenty of strong defensive teams waiting in the playoffs, including Minnesota.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera praised Vikings counterpart Mike Zimmer this week for his aggressive schemes.
The Panthers gave Zimmer a chance to show them off when they let the Vikings hang around, despite outgaining them 205 to 34 in first-half yardage. Carolina led only 10-8 at the half when it should have been a two-score game.
Without Jonathan Stewart, the Panthers’ rushing attack was pretty pedestrian. Zimmer said limiting the Carolina ground game also allowed him to turn up the pressure on Newton.
Rivera said Zimmer became more aggressive after the Vikings (3-0) grabbed the lead.
“Once he got into that position, he went after it and they did some really good things,” he said.
Those things included some of the same tactics Denver used to sack Newton five times in the Super Bowl and three times in a season-opening victory.
The eight sacks against the Vikings were the second most in Newton’s six seasons. He was sacked nine times in a 45-21 loss at Philadelphia in 2014.
Rivera said three of the sacks Sunday came on a green-dog blitz (where a defender waits to rush when he sees the back or tight end he is assigned to cover stay into a block), a delayed “spy” blitz by linebacker Anthony Barr and a safety blitz by Harrison Smith.
Linebacker Chad Greenway said the Vikings thought they could get to Newton on some of the slow-developing plays in the Panthers’ vertical passing game.
He was right: Several of the sacks came when Newton held the ball too long, including a first-quarter safety that was the Vikings’ first score.
Asked about the coverage sacks afterward, Newton said: “A sack is a sack.”
The pressure affected Newton, who threw three interceptions and finished with the fourth-lowest passer rating (47.6) of his career.
Newton – like everyone watching at Bank of America Stadium or from their couch – found it “baffling” that leading receiver Kelvin Benjamin had zero touches and only one target.
A lot of that falls on offensive coordinator Mike Shula. But there were a couple of plays when Benjamin was open and Newton was flushed from the pocket and never saw him.
A momentum shift
Newton, wearing a top hat with an ace of spades stuck in the band, said momentum seemed to shift after the safety.
“It was running the football extremely well, keeping them off balance, and then all of a sudden after the safety it was good riddance,” Newton said. “That’s a great football team, built very solid from the back end as well as the front seven.”
Munnerlyn, who spent five years with the Panthers, keeps in touch with several of his former teammates, including Newton. And when Munnerlyn saw the sacks and the hits begin to take a toll on Newton, he started chirping.
“I was talking to him and let him know, ‘I see it.’ Just to mess with him,” Munnerlyn said. “I’m a good friend of his. We’ve been talking about this game for a while. I circled it on my calendar. I’m sure they had it circled. Because I told them they’re lucky we didn’t get to play them last year.”
If the Panthers get another shot at the Vikings in the playoffs, they’ll need a lot better protection – and a better plan.