CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — The Panthers were determined not to let quarterback Case Keenum get comfortable in the pocket.
They succeeded in that mission Sunday.
Carolina turned up the heat on the Vikings upstart quarterback, sacking Keenum six times and forcing two interceptions and a fumble to earn an important 31-24 victory that helped the Panthers pull even with the New Orleans at 9-4 in the NFC South. Keenum spent most of the day on the run or looking over his shoulder, never really sure where the next pass rusher was coming from.
“The guys up front did a great job with the game plan, mixing it up, throwing some blitzes in there to kind of keep them guessing,” linebacker Thomas Davis said. “And we did a good job on the back end disguising it a little bit and giving our defensive line a chance to get to the quarterback. Give those guys a chance to get there and they’re going to do well.”
The Panthers also moved their cornerbacks up to the line of scrimmage.
“We wanted to be physical with them, get them up to press and move into it late, show one thing, do something different,” coach Ron Rivera said.
It all led to what Keenum described as a frustrating day.
“I mean, they’re really good,” Keenum said of the Panthers sixth-ranked defense. “They did a really great job of stopping the run all day, and obviously disrupting the things pass game as well.”
The Vikings were without starting center Pat Elflein and right tackle Mike Remmers to start the game, then lost left tackle Riley Reiff to a left ankle injury in the second half.
Reiff had his foot in a boot after the game.
“That’s why we need players to come in and perform,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said.
The Panthers took full advantage, bringing relentless pressure against the Vikings, blitzing early and often to throw Keenum off his mark. On occasion, he would tuck the ball and run for first downs. But more often than not, the Panthers forced him into taking a sack or throwing the ball away.
Mario Addison’s strip sack led to a Carolina field goal.
Kawann Short had two sacks, Julius Peppers, Luke Kuechly and Kyle Love and Addison all had one. Both starting cornerbacks James Bradberry and Daryl Worley turned in their first interceptions of the season while safety Mike Adams recovered a fumble as seemingly everyone contributed on defense.
Keenum entered the game 8-2 as a starter this season and there was some talk of him being an MVP candidate.
But he wasn’t happy with his own play after Sunday’s game.
“I know that a lot of sacks are on me,” Keenum said. “We got out of a few and made some good plays, but they got to the quarterback a few times. I have to look at film and see how I’m moving in the pocket and how I adjust, and maybe get the ball out a little quicker.”
Carolina came into the game tied for fifth in the league in sacks.
The biggest came from Short after a change of possession late in the fourth quarter.
The Panthers, who hadn’t trailed all game, led by 11 midway through the fourth quarter. But after giving up a 52-yard touchdown pass to Adam Thielen and a 2-point conversion that cut the lead to 34-31, Vikings safety Andrew Sendejo intercepted a tipped pass and returned the ball to the Carolina 6.
Just like that, the Vikings had a chance to steal the game.
But the Panthers responded by stuffing a run play, breaking up a pass in the end zone and with Short sacking Keenum for a 3-yard loss to force a field goal. Instead of taking the lead, the Vikings had to settle for a tie.
Carolina scored a touchdown on the next possession to secure the win.
“The mindset is something that we talk about all of the time,” Davis said. “When we get in those sudden change situations, we have to hold teams to field goals and take the ball away. It’s drilled into your head (by the coaching staff) — field goals and takeaways, field goals and takeaways.”