Vikings’ defensive lapses costly in loss to Panthers

MINNEAPOLIS — All Josh Robinson had to do was turn his hips and sprint.

With the Vikings in prime position to reverse course following a dismal first half, the second-year cornerback lined up less than a yard off the line against Carolina, which faced third-and-3 from its own 21-yard line. Robinson stayed stride-for-stride with slot man Brandon LaFell into the right flat, Minnesota’s defensive ends formed a tight containment umbrella, and Panthers quarterback Cam Newton suddenly had nowhere to go.

Then suddenly, inexplicably, Robinson stopped. LaFell turned down the right sideline, hauled in a perfectly-placed ball from Newton and scampered 79 yards, untouched. Panthers wide out Ted Ginn Jr. clocked Xavier Rhodes with an open-field block on the play, freeing up LaFell to trot into the end zone and blow a kiss to the disgruntled home fans seated behind it.

It was a zone coverage designed to limit a short gain. But Robinson said he was responsible for anybody that went deep on his side of the field.

Coach Leslie Frazier pulled Robinson aside after Carolina went up 21-3 less than a minute into the third quarter, chiding his second-year starter for failing against a play Minnesota’s scout team had run in practice.

“He just told me I’ve got to take that route deep,” Robinson said. “I knew that.”

And he didn’t make it happen — a far-too-common phenomenon for the Vikings’ stoppers these days.

The latest series of them made for a 35-10 route by Carolina on Sunday afternoon. The Panthers came in with an equally inept 1-3 mark, but Newton and company were decisively crisp in becoming the fourth adversary to hang 30 or more points on Minnesota this season.

They had a little help from across the way.

“This is embarrassing,” cornerback Chris Cook said.

Nothing went right at the Metrodome for a pass defense that has yet to limit an opposing signal caller. Even with Cook and strong safety Jamarca Sanford back in the lineup after missing the Vikings’ win against Pittsburgh in London two weeks before, Newton picked them apart for the most efficient passing day of his young career.

Robinson, as he has too often this season, didn’t complete necessary coverage obligations. Sanford dropped an interception on Carolina’s tone-setting, first-quarter-consuming opening drive. Free safety Harrison Smith and rookie cornerback Xavier Rhodes left with ailments.

Additional headaches for coach Leslie Frazier after overseeing most of the past two contests with a shorthanded defensive backfield — and with an extra week to prepare, to boot.

“It’s a tough one,” Frazier said. “You’re coming out of the bye and playing at home, you expect to play better. And we didn’t handle situations very well today.”

Robinson’s hiccups resounded the loudest, resulting in two of Newton’s three touchdown tosses. In addition to the LaFell play, Robinson let Steve Smith leak out for a fourth-down score that capped Carolina’s 15-play, 62-yard opening scoring drive.

The possession alone chewed up 9 minutes, 29 seconds of first-quarter clock. Had Sanford kept his hands under a misplace Newton pass on the Panthers’ first offensive snap, it never would’ve happened.

Facing fourth-and-goal from the 2 after converting on third down twice and fourth down once, the Panthers offensive line afforded Newton time to find Smith dragging across the goal line. He’d lined up in the middle of a tight bunch formation then crossed paths with LaFell.

In man coverage this time, Robinson did little to fight through the traffic, and Smith came out wide open on the other side.

“Very frustrating,” Robinson said. “We’ve just got to start executing more often. Too many times not executing as a whole entire defense, and it bites us in the butt.”

The Vikings used five defensive backs often against Carolina’s spread, option-heavy scheme. After Smith’s touchdown, Robinson shared reps with rookie Xavier Rhodes for the first time this season.

Rhodes left the game twice with a left-ankle sprain, and Smith was sidelined with turf toe. Linebacker Desmond Bishop suffered a knee sprain and didn’t return.

All three will receive MRIs and be reevaluated, Frazier said.

Newton completed 20 of 26 passes, scored four total touchdowns and accumulated a career-best passer rating of 143.4. Running backs DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert mixed in a steady, ground-and-pound rush attack that amassed 131 yards.

After yielding seven sacks a week ago in a 22-6 loss to Arizona, the Panthers allowed only one Sunday — and it came with a facemask penalty on Shariff Floyd, who brought down Newton from behind in the second quarter.

Carolina’s first two scoring drives took up more than 16 minutes, contributing heavily to a 36:27-23:33 edge in time of possession.

“It doesn’t feel like it was just like score, score, score,” defensive end Jared Allen said. “You come out, and the next thing you know it’s like, ‘They’re putting points on us. Double-check this, please?'”

But the numbers hold solid: coming into the weekend, only Denver had allowed more passing yards per game than Minnesota’s 326.

Allen stopped short of blaming the secondary for such woes.

“Yeah, I don’t know,” sputtered Allen, who said the loss made him want to vomit. “I just can’t — I play D-line. That’s all I know. I feel like if I get them on the ground faster, then maybe that helps. That’s all I focus on.

“I hope we rebound a little angry. I hope guys are pissed off. I hope their feelings are hurt. I’m a positive human being, and I believe in focusing on the positives, but I also believe there’s something to a little negative reinforcement, you know what I’m saying?”

But backfield breakdowns remain a central thread. Newton’s 242 yards through the air were actually a season low against Minnesota this season; Matthew Stafford, Brad Hoyer and Ben Roethlisberger all threw for more than 320.

Robinson, especially, Frazier said, has got to stop missing assignments.

“There are some things that we want him to do better,” Frazier said. “We’ll evaluate it this week and just see what’s going on at that position.”

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