Preview: Exploiting Cam Newton's mistakes crucial for Vikings defense
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Who: Minnesota Vikings (1-6) at Carolina Panthers (2-5).
When: Noon Sunday.
Where: Bank of America Stadium (capacity: 73,778), Charlotte, N.C.
Line: Panthers by 3½.
Coaches: Vikings -- Leslie Frazier (1st year, 4-9); Panthers -- Ron Rivera (1st year, 2-5).
Series: Vikings lead 5-4.
Last meeting: Brett Favre had a heated sidelined discussion with coach Brad Childress, who wanted to pull the Vikings' veteran quarterback in a 26-7 loss to the Panthers on Dec. 20, 2009.
At stake: This is the first time in the Vikings' 51-year history that two rookie quarterbacks will start against once another. Beyond that, this one probably doesn't mean much, although the Panthers at least can see the NFC South-leading New Orleans Saints from three games back.
Vikings: RG Anthony Herrera (knee) is out. WR Percy Harvin (ribs), CB Antoine Winfield (neck) and HB Lorenzo Booker (concussion) are questionable. HB Adrian Peterson (ankle), TE Visanthe Shiancoe (foot), NT Remi Ayodele (ankle), MLB E.J. Henderson (knee), LE Brian Robison (shoulder), FS Husain Abdullah (concussion), SS Jamarca Sanford (concussion), C John Sullivan (concussion) and RE Jared Allen (not injury related) are probable.
Panthers: CB Jordan Pugh (head) is doubtful. CB Darius Butler (not injury related) is questionable. LB Omar Gaither (knee) and QB Cam Newton (illness) are probable.
Five things to watch
Contain Cam: The No. 1 overall pick in April's draft, Newton has generated plenty of buzz already with his big-play ability. He has completed only 60.3% of his passes, has an 82.8 passer rating -- almost identical to benched Vikings QB Donovan McNabb (60.3%, 82.9 rating) -- and is tied for second in the NFL in interceptions (nine). But Newton's averages of 8.3 yards per attempt and 300.4 yards per game both rank among the NFL's top five, and he leads the league with 35 completions of 20 yards or more. Against a depleted Vikings defense that continues to play predominantly zone coverage, Newton will have opportunities to make plays. The question is, can the Vikings make plays against him, too? Take away three interceptions and a fumble recovery in their lone win against quarterback-challenged Arizona on Oct. 9, and the Vikings have five takeaways in six games. That's not a recipe for success.
Pound it out: The Panthers have plenty of weaknesses, but perhaps none more pronounced than in the middle of their defense -- which plays into the hand of the NFL's third-ranked rushing team. They'll surely play a safety in the box on over half the Vikings' snaps, as opponents have all season to stop All-Pro HB Adrian Peterson. But Peterson was in rare form again last week against Green Bay and must get off to set up the play-action game OC Bill Musgrave wants to get rookie QB Christian Ponder in rhythm. The Vikings will start their third interior combination in as many weeks, with Sullivan returning from a one-week absence and Joe Berger sliding into Herrera's spot at right guard. If they can move rookie NT Sione Fua, it could be a long day for the Panthers' front.
Running men: Hidden behind Newton's start has been the efficiency of the Panthers' ground game -- although the rookie is a part of that, too. They're eighth in rushing yards (128.1 per game) and fifth in yards per attempt (4.8), with HB DeAngelo Williams (5.0 average on 68 carries, one touchdown), HB Jonathan Stewart (4.8 average on 58 carries, two touchdowns) and Newton (4.7 average on 57 carries, seven touchdowns) splitting the workload remarkably evenly. The Vikings rank No. 4 against the run, but they have a problem at nose tackle and broke down on the final series against Green Bay, allowing 55 yards on six carries that sealed the loss. Henderson's knee still isn't right, putting the onus on OLBs Chad Greenway and Erin Henderson to make more plays than they did a week ago when the linemen do eat up the blockers they're supposed to.
Pressuring Ponder: For all the promise Ponder showed in his first NFL start, he made plenty of mistakes, too -- none more costly than two interceptions during a no-completion third quarter in which Green Bay take control. Both of those picks came against man coverage by CB Charles Woodson, who is as savvy as any corner in the league. They also came against four-man rushes the Packers deployed only 10 times in Ponder's 28 dropbacks (35.7%). The Panthers figure to bring the heat on the rookie, too, and that's all the more reason for Musgrave to move the pocket with bootlegs and sprint-outs. Ponder is at his best getting on the perimeter to work the intermediate passing game anyway -- although there's a good chance the Vikings will take a few shots with max protection against Carolina's Cover-1 and Cover-3 looks as well.
Secondary decisions: Winfield said on Thursday he hoped to return from a three-week absence, but his status remained up in the air on Friday as he watched teammates go through group drills during the portion of practice reporters were allowed to see. If Winfield can't go, Asher Allen presumably would start opposite Cedric Griffin and Marcus Sherels again would take the nickel. How they match up could depend in part on the two Panthers they have to identify on every snap: WR Steve Smith and TE Greg Olsen, who sometimes lines up in the backfield. The Vikings prefer to play sides, rather than shadowing a player around the field. However, if they're concerned about the Panthers freeing Smith downfield with double moves against Griffin, whose surgically repaired knees are failing him, the Vikings could flip-flop him with Allen at times to at least show a different look.
It's tough to bet on the Vikings to win any game right now, particularly on the road. Once again, it's a coin-flip game and this flip's going to the home team.
Prediction: Panthers 27, Vikings 23.