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Vikings' key to stopping Cam Newton? 'You keep on hitting him,' says Everson Griffen

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) is tackled for a safety by Minnesota Vikings defensive end Danielle Hunter (99) in the 1st quarter at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C., on Sept. 25, 2016. Bob Donnan / USA TODAY Sports

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Cam Newton has been one of the NFL's better quarterbacks since starting all 16 games as a rookie out of Auburn in 2011, but it's been rough sledding against Mike Zimmer's Minnesota Vikings.

Newton, 28, is in many ways the prototypical NFL quarterback: 6-foot-6, 260 pounds with a strong, accurate arm and the ability to take off and make tacklers miss. In 2015, he led the Panthers to a 15-1 regular-season record and the franchise's second Super Bowl appearance.

The Vikings, however, have kept the 2010 Heisman Trophy winner in check. Since Zimmer became the Vikings' coach in 2014, Newton is 0-2 against Minnesota with four interceptions and 12 sacks. In a 35-21 loss last September in Charlotte, N.C., Newton was sacked eight times and intercepted thrice without throwing a touchdown.

"Well," Panthers coach Ron Rivera said Wednesday, Dec. 6, "different year, different group of players. So, we'll see what happens."

The Vikings and Panthers meet Sunday in a rematch at Bank of America Stadium with much on the line. Minnesota (10-2) is trying to retain its hold on the NFC's top playoff seed; the Panthers (8-4) are trying to solidify a return to the postseason after a 6-10 finish in 2016.

Newton's ability, or inability, to crack the NFL's second-ranked defense will likely be the story. After missing much of training camp as he recovered from offseason shoulder surgery, Newton seems to be his old self. In his past five starts, he has completed 80 of 146 passes for 896 yards and seven touchdowns against one interception.

Maybe more scary for the Vikings, he has run 40 times for 304 yards and two touchdowns, gaining an average of 7.6 a rush. He was listed on the Panthers' injury report Wednesday as a limited participant because of a right shoulder injury.

"He's a great player," Zimmer said Wednesday. "Best player in the league two years ago."

After a 14-9 victory at Atlanta last week, the Vikings rank second in total (289.1-yard average), rushing (77.7) and scoring (17 ppg) defense. They didn't managed to sack Matt Ryan at Mercedes Benz Stadium but held the Falcons to 1 of 10 on third down. It was a disappointment for end Everson Griffen, whose 12 sacks rank fourth in the NFL this season. But, he added, "If we go up against any team, in the entire league, and they're 1 for 10 on third down, we're going to win the game."

Ryan is a different target, a pocket passer whose best defense against a strong rush is a quick release. Newton can take off and run. The Vikings have handled him their past two meetings — a 35-18 victory Nov. 30, 2014, at TCF Bank Stadium and last season's victory in Charlotte — but as safety Andrew Sendejo said, "You don't really want to talk about previous years because they don't really matter."

So, what has been the key to Minnesota's success against Newton and the Panthers?

"I've got good players. They played those games well," Zimmer said. "Each game is different, though. Every time you play someone, it's a different deal. (Newton) is a very, very talented athlete. They're doing a few different things with him now. He's got a very strong arm. Competitive. ... They use him a lot in the running game, so it makes it difficult."

The Vikings want to pressure Newton as a passer, force him into mistakes and turnovers, but they won't be able to do that if he remains a running threat. That's not easy.

Even Vikings quarterback Case Keenum, a less accomplished rusher than Newton, has made teams pay with his legs this season by extending plays and forcing the secondary to scramble. Newton is a good enough runner to be the running back by design. The Vikings want to take that away early.

The deciding factor in who wins those plays seems to be execution rather than some arcane scheme.

"You're just alert for it, that he can keep the ball," safety Andrew Sendejo said. "I mean, that's really it. You're alert for it."

And when he does take off, Griffen said, "You've got to hit him like he's a running back. Don't hit him like he's a quarterback because he's not protected then. No cheap shots, you just hit him like he's a running back. You just hit him."

Griffen was asked if that means the Vikings need to, uh, discourage Newton from playing tailback.

"Well, you just hit him," he answered. "You keep on hitting him. He's a big guy."

The Pioneer Press is a Forum News Service media partner.

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