The Minnesota Vikings have come to count on their defense early in the season.
That might be a message to the Carolina Panthers to crank up the offense a few notches when the teams collide Sunday afternoon in Charlotte, N.C.
The feel-good moments for the Panthers have vanished, particularly after squandering a late-game lead in last week's loss to Philadelphia.
Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold has struggled the past two games and the Vikings (2-3) might be a tough foe against whom to get back on track. He has been sacked eight times and thrown five interceptions in Carolina's two losses.
"We've got to coach it better, play better," Panthers coach Matt Rhule said, noting shortcomings along the offensive line. "We have to do a better job of protecting Sam."
Minnesota's defense has given up just one passing touchdown over the past three games combined.
The Panthers (3-2) began the season with a three-game winning streak, but there were few signs of that level of play for much of the past two games.
"I think this week will really define who we are," Rhule said.
The Vikings are aiming to reach a .500 mark before an open week on the schedule.
"I think it would be a good milestone for us to get to there," coach Mike Zimmer said. "If we can just continue to improve, we'll win our share of games."
Zimmer said he's encouraged by the approach from quarterback Kirk Cousins, who has become more vocal.
Cousins knows the Panthers can be tough to throw against. They're allowing just 161.6 yards per game in the air, tops in the NFL.
"A really good defense," Cousins said. "They challenged us last year."
The Vikings won 28-27 against Carolina last November at home.
Minnesota has used more three-wide set-ups on offense this season, something that Cousins said can offer more variety.
"So much of it is situationally based," Cousins said. "You try to study every situation of how will they defend us or play against us."
A mixture of pass formations could prove even more invaluable against the Panthers, who've dealt with injuries and significant personnel changes in the secondary the past few weeks. It's unclear if Carolina newcomer CJ Henderson, a cornerback, will be available.
Minnesota, which has dropped both of its road outings, managed just one touchdown in last week's 19-17 home victory against Detroit. The outcome was determined on Greg Joseph's last-second 54-yard field goal.
That helped soothe some of the shortcomings for Minnesota.
"It's all fixable. We just got to clean it up," Zimmer said. "We need to be focused again."
Both teams are waiting on the status of standout running backs. Minnesota's Dalvin Cook has missed two games, including last week, with an ankle injury. Alexander Mattison has been filling in for Cook.
"They're not going to put me out there if they feel I'm a liability," Cook said Wednesday.
Carolina's Christian McCaffrey has been out for two games because of a hamstring injury, but could be ready for action against Minnesota, Rhule said. He has practiced on a limited basis early this week.
Rookie running back Chuba Hubbard gained 101 yards on 24 carries in the Philadelphia game.
"I think he'll be a tremendous complement whenever Christian is back with us," Rhule said.
The Vikings are 9-6 all-time against Carolina, but just 2-3 in five previous trips to Charlotte.
--Field Level Media