CHARLOTTE, N.C. – During a training camp where the Vikings pass rushers swirled around him while their deceptive coverages frayed his nerves, Kirk Cousins met with the defenders to tell them why he believed his frustration would be worth it.
The 12th-year quarterback was the test subject for the drastic change in the Vikings' defensive approach, after coach Kevin O'Connell had fired coordinator Ed Donatell and given Brian Flores the autonomy to build a scheme that would suit his truculent tastes. The Vikings would blitz quarterbacks from places they didn't expect and slip defenders into voids they thought were safe. If Cousins found the defense irritating in practices, the thinking went, young quarterbacks might find it inoperable in games.
Safety Camryn Bynum said Cousins' comments confirmed "the fact that what we're doing is effective. It's cool hearing that from a guy like Kirk, who's seen it all, and we're still able to get that confirmation from him that it's hard to go against."
Bynum held onto Cousins' words during an 0-3 start, believing that even after the Vikings gave up 259 rushing yards to the Eagles in Week 2 and 445 passing yards to the Chargers in Week 3, their approach would be vindicated through the season. It was Sunday, with No. 1 overall pick Bryce Young pursuing a two-touchdown lead after a pair of Cousins interceptions gave the Carolina Panthers 10 points, that the Vikings defense came through when their quarterback needed it most.
The Vikings, and not the Panthers, got their first win of the season because of a second-half tour de force from Flores' defense, which sacked Young on five of his 26 dropbacks and allowed Carolina to gain only 2.9 yards per play in the game's final two quarters. Safety Harrison Smith had a career-high three sacks in the Vikings' 21-13 win; his first of the day, which came when he ran unblocked toward Young as part of a six-man rush, produced D.J. Wonnum's fumble return touchdown that gave the Vikings the lead for good.
"I think it's huge," O'Connell said. "And I also think it's huge for the offense to understand that we cannot do those things and what caused them and how to execute it better. But then, it's a huge thing for team building, when the defense says, 'You know what? I got your back,' and they go out there and make some critical plays."
Had the Vikings hired Ejiro Evero, the former Broncos defensive coordinator they'd planned to interview before he accepted the Panthers job in January, their approach might have resembled the Vic Fangio-influenced scheme Donatell brought to Minnesota last year. Instead, O'Connell hired Flores with visions of days like Sunday, when Smith would return to the multifaceted role he'd enjoyed under Mike Zimmer and the Vikings would rarely be accused of passivity on defense.
The approach found a fuller expression on Sunday than it had in the first three games of the season, with edge rusher Marcus Davenport playing a full game for the first time this year once early work showed the Vikings his injured ankle was doing well enough for them to expand his role. Davenport finished with four tackles, stopping Miles Sanders for a 1-yard loss in the first half, and counted his first full sack since 2021 among three second-half pressures.
At times, Flores put four edge rushers — Davenport, Danielle Hunter, Wonnum and Patrick Jones II — on the field together. In the first half, Flores lined Davenport and Hunter up on the same side of the Vikings' line, when Hunter drew a holding penalty on Panthers center Bradley Bozeman.
"Just watching him practice all week, I was so happy to see how he was moving and how fresh he was," Hunter said of Davenport. "It didn't matter; whoever he was going to go against, it was going to be a hard time, because he's fresh. The ability to come out there, be on whichever side he wants and apply that pressure, I think that's a plus for the defense."
It was only the sixth time in O'Connell's 21 games as head coach the Vikings have held an opponent under 20 points. On Sunday, the Panthers offense only accounted for two field goals, and didn't drive longer than 51 yards after putting together a 63-yard field-goal drive to open the game.
- BOXSCORE: Vikings 21, Panthers 13
That the Panthers still had a chance to send the game to overtime on Sunday was because of the Vikings' continued issues with turnovers.
With the Vikings threatening to score a touchdown on their opening drive, Cousins fired late for K.J. Osborn on an flat route from the Panthers' 5, and threw the ball too close to the receiver's inside shoulder. Safety Sam Franklin Jr. stepped in front of the throw and brought it back from the Carolina goal line to the Vikings' end zone for a 99-yard score, as cornerback D'Shawn Jamison leveled Cousins while the quarterback attempted to knock Franklin out of bounds.
"I think it's a touchdown to K.J. if I'm faster [to throw to him]," Cousins said. "I think it's a touchdown to T.J. [Hockenson] if I let the safety jump the flat [route]. I saw the safety put hands on T.J., so I'm thinking, 'I've got to get to the flat.' Well, I'm late to the flat now, so the safety can cover both. If I let him make his decision and work off of it, it'll be a touchdown to one of those two. So I've just got to be quicker to the flat, or wait a tick for T.J."
Cousins was trying to throw deep to Jordan Addison just before halftime when Yetur Gross-Matos beat right guard Ed Ingram, bounced off right tackle Brian O'Neill and hit Cousins' arm, sending the ball fluttering in position for Kamu Grugier-Hill to pick it off at the Carolina 11. Eddy Piniero hit a career-long 56-yard field goal before halftime to give Carolina a 13-7 lead.
In the second half, the Vikings had only five successful plays: a 17-yard run from Alexander Mattison on their first play of the third quarter, two runs and a 9-yard pass to Cam Akers in the third quarter and the thunderbolt that produced their final score of the day in the last play of the third.
The bipartisan crowd of 72,842 at Bank of America Stadium was subdued enough for Cousins to use a hard count and get Panthers nose tackle Shy Tuttle to jump into the neutral zone. The quarterback used the free play to fire deep for Justin Jefferson, who leapt over the 5-9 Jamison for his second touchdown of the day. For the NFL's reigning Offensive Player of the Year, it was only the fifth multiscore game of his career.
Smith and Davenport would combine for three fourth-quarter sacks of Young to make sure it was enough.
"It's not always going to be three sacks, but [it's] creating pressure in different ways, playing coverage in different ways," Smith said. "Everybody was doing their job. It wasn't anything special. It doesn't matter who gets it. It's just, whoever gets the play, make it, and then we'll move on. That's really all it needs to be."