NEW ORLEANS — If Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton wants to get healthy, the NFL's reigning offensive MVP could not find a better tonic than the New Orleans Saints' defense.
Newton, who sat out the Panthers' ugly 17-14 home loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Monday night due to repercussions from the concussion he sustained in a Week 4 loss to Atlanta, returned to practice Wednesday in a limited role ahead of the Sunday road game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome (1 p.m. ET, FOX).
Although Panthers coach Ron Rivera couldn't promise Newton would start Sunday against one of the league's weakest defenses (allowing 422.8 yards and 32.5 points a game), Newton participated in team drills and looked frisky in working through the NFL's protocol for returning from a concussion.
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At 1-4 and buried in the NFC South cellar, the Panthers, far removed from the team that sailed through the last regular season at 15-1, sorely need a booster shot of classic Newton against the Saints (1-3). New Orleans is coming off a wild 35-34 victory over the San Diego Chargers two weeks ago and is fully rested after a bye week.
“(Newton) looked good and threw the ball pretty doggone well (in practice Wednesday),” said Rivera, who also gave first-team reps to backup QB Derek Anderson. “He was involved with the plays we had scripted for him. We'll see.”
Although Newton has struggled this year in comparisons to his 2015 MVP season — he has five interceptions to go with six touchdowns — the Panthers realize they will need him if they are to claw back into the NFC South race against the Falcons (4-1). Last season, Newton threw 35 TD passes against 10 picks.
Carolina's ground game has been so anemic this year that Newton, with 147 yards on 29 carries, is the Panthers' second-leading rusher, accounting for 24 percent of the team's rushing yards. He also has taken plenty of hits — 13 sacks in four starts.
“(I'm) just really happy that he's better,” center Ryan Kalil said. “To have Cam not feeling like he was last week and seeing him more like himself was really good for all of us.”
Saints coach Sean Payton is well aware of what Newton can do when healthy. Newton torched the beleaguered Saints' defense in a 41-38 victory in the 2015 regular-season finale, passing for 331 yards and five touchdowns.
“In our case, we're preparing for him,” Payton said. “We feel he's going to play. I think that's the only way to approach it, and yet we understand the strengths and weaknesses of Derek.”
Payton said he realizes the Panthers are a wounded team but have plenty of pride after reaching the Super Bowl last year.
“I don't think our team's going to take any team lightly,” Payton said. “We're sitting here at 1-3. I think it's a silly question. We know the team we're playing is a championship-level team that has lost some tough, close games. We're going to have to be at our best.”
Saints quarterback Drew Brees is having a stellar season at age 37, averaging 317.3 yards a game on 65.9 percent completions with 10 touchdowns and three interceptions. Brees played well in two close losses to Carolina last year, and he will not have to face cornerback Josh Norman, who signed in the offseason with the Washington Redskins.
“As I analyze them and from what I'm looking at from a defensive perspective, I think they're as good now as they've been,” Brees said. “I know they've had some tough losses, just like we have. We know exactly what they're capable of, and we know the mindset they have coming in this week, needing a win just like we do.”
After Carolina's young corners — rookies James Bradberry and Daryl Worley — were embarrassed by allowing Atlanta's Julio Jones 12 catches for 300 yards, Rivera said they bounced back in the close loss to Tampa Bay. But they will be right back in the fire against Brees.
“All you have to do is watch the tape (of Brees), and it's scary,” Rivera said. “Drew Brees is a tremendous triggerman. He uses all his targets.”
Rivera believes his team will show some fight after the unexpected 1-4 start.
“We're a team that has been in touch situations before,” Rivera said. “The biggest thing we have to do is stay focused on what the task at hand is.”
Carolina linebacker Luke Kuechly added, “You don't expect to start out this way, but it's a situation we are in now, and it's all about how you're going to respond from it.”