Five things we learned from the Carolina Panthers’ 34-28 loss to the Minnesota Vikings

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The Panthers have lost three consecutive games and are currently in the same place they were at this point in 2020: 3-3 and without star Christian McCaffrey, who was put on the injured reserve Saturday.

Their latest loss came to the Minnesota Vikings at home, in what was one of their worst offensive performances of the season.

Still they rallied in the fourth quarter to send the game to overtime.

Here are five things we learned from the Panthers’ 34-28 loss to the Vikings.

1. Sam Darnold’s mistakes continue

Life without McCaffrey has been difficult for Darnold in particular. After turning it over only once in the first three games, he has turned it over seven times in the past three.

Darnold looks like he’s overthinking. When the pressure gets to him, he gets excited in the pocket and makes poor decisions. He did that again on the game’s first play.

The Panthers tried to go to a deep play to DJ Moore, who wasn’t open. Nor were any other receivers. But instead of throwing it deep, Darnold tried to force it to Robby Anderson.

And Vikings cornerback Bashaud Breeland stepped in front of Anderson for the pick. Darnold also lost a fumble in the fourth quarter after he was sacked by nose tackle Armon Watts. Both turnovers were in Carolina territory. The Panthers defense held the Vikings to one field goal on the two turnovers. However, those were momentum changers.

“We’re going to have to do a better job of getting our guys to understand that we can’t have turnovers,” Panthers coach Matt Rhule said. “To even be in that game with those turnovers that we did have. ... We’re just not going to be able to win doing it like that.”

Darnold finished 17 of 41 for 207 yards, one touchdown and an interception.

2. Not all Darnold’s fault

Darnold wasn’t the only player with a bad game.

His wide receivers, Moore and Anderson, both struggled to catch the ball. Both players dropped three balls each, and Moore had a fumble.

This seemed like an anomaly for Moore, who has been one of the top receivers in the league this season.

But Anderson has struggled in every game this season. He has been targeted 40 times this year, and has 15 catches.

Running back Chuba Hubbard also dropped a couple of passes, which is the one area he has struggled with this season. Those are eight completions Darnold could have had.

“What Sam needed today was a little help from his friends at times,” Rhule said. “He needed some plays to be made.”

3. Panthers need to run more

The Panthers abandoned the running game in the second half, even though rookie Hubbard had played well. Hubbard had 11 carries for 47 yards and a touchdown in the first half.

But he had only five carries for 15 yards in the second half.

The Panthers are obviously struggling in the passing game. And they didn’t do enough Sunday to establish the run. Rhule said they needed to run it more.

Hubbard has played well this year in relief of McCaffrey. He had 101 yards rushing on 24 carries against the Eagles. Establishing him will make things easier and take pressure off Darnold.

“We’ll have to go back and look at do we need to call more runs? I think we probably do, to be quite honest,” Rhule said. “It’s something I’ve felt but you get in the flow of games and you’re just trying to hang in there because it felt like it was getting away from us there. But that’s probably what we need to do moving forward.”

4. Running defense is a problem

The Panthers have been worn down by talented running backs in recent games. After three games, their running defense was the best in the league.

But against Zeke Elliott and Dalvin Cook, they struggled.

Often times, there have been missed tackles and big holes. The Cowboys ran for 245 yards against the Panthers in Week 4. The Vikings ran for 198 yards, including 140 yards and a rushing touchdown from Cook.

Cook is one of the top running backs in the NFL and has been since he was drafted in 2017. The Panthers were intent on stopping the run, but that’s easier said than done.

When the Panthers can’t stop the run, they are unable to get to the quarterback.

They had no sacks against Kirk Cousins. Ultimately, it was the running game that wore down the Panthers defense.

5. Silly timeouts continue

There’s perhaps no team that calls more early timeouts than the Panthers.

And then in the second quarter, it just got weird. Remember in the 1993 national championship basketball game between Michigan and UNC when Chris Webber tried to call a timeout at the end of regulation, and Michigan didn’t have any?

Darnold made a similar mistake in the second quarter when he tried to call a timeout on back-to-back plays. (It’s a delay-of-game penalty if teams call two timeouts without a play in between.)

Players were lined up wrong after the first timeout. Terrace Marshall and Brandon Zylstra, who would have normally been in on a particular play, were hurt. The Panthers put in Alex Erickson, who appeared confused as to where he should line up. Darnold didn’t recognize it till late and tried to call the timeout.

“It’s really no excuse for it, I’m just telling you what happened,” Rhule said. “Just poor by us. The way our language works, they should know it, but I don’t want to put that on the guys. At the end of the day, if a guy gets hurt we have to have the next guy ready, and we were lined up wrong so we had to adjust.”

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