Vikings-Panthers Preview

BY foxsports • October 28, 2011

The Carolina Panthers aren't having an ideal season, but the play of Cam Newton is providing a bright outlook for the future.

The Minnesota Vikings hope to have the same feeling now that they've turned to Christian Ponder.

The rookies square off when Carolina hosts Minnesota on Sunday.

Newton, the No. 1 overall pick and Heisman Trophy winner from Auburn, has headed the Panthers' offense from Day 1, performing well and helping star wide receiver Steve Smith bounce back from a rough 2010.

Carolina (2-5) has scored 18 offensive touchdowns, exceeding the 16 it scored all of last season. Newton has thrown for eight touchdowns and run for seven more - tying the rookie record for rushing TDs by a quarterback and putting him on pace to top Steve Grogan's QB record of 12 in 1976.

Newton has rushed for a touchdown in six of the seven games and ran for a season-high 59 yards in last week's 33-20 win over Washington.

Newton has gone through some growing pains - his nine interceptions are tied for second-most in the NFL - but first-year coach Ron Rivera said the Panthers are more than confident with Newton moving forward.

"We knew we had to find a franchise quarterback,'' Rivera said. "We knew we had to find that guy, whether he was on our roster, through a trade or through the draft. We knew what we wanted to do and we went out and got him.''

The message has been heard clearly by Smith, who leads the league with 818 yards after having 554 in 2010. The changes in head coach and at quarterback have helped Smith become rejuvenated after many felt his career was on the decline.

"Sometimes you open up a restaurant and it's under new management and you just have to blow the restaurant up and start all over,'' Smith said. "That's what Coach Rivera has done. He just didn't slap a new menu on there; he did it all over, new paint, new walls, new furniture, new everything.''

Carolina is second in the league in yards per touch from scrimmage (8.8) and fifth in total offense (416.6 yards per game).

Minnesota (1-6), meanwhile, is also starting anew with Ponder after the Donovan McNabb experiment failed to spark the offense.

The 12th overall pick out of Florida State went 13 for 32 for 219 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions in his first career start last week, a 33-27 loss to undefeated Green Bay.

Coach Leslie Frazier was pleased with Ponder but made clear it will take time for him to adjust to the pro game and the Vikings' offense.

"That's what we're hoping, that he will continue to gain more confidence, get comfortable with some of the things we're doing, and continuing to grow as a quarterback," Frazier said. "If that does happen, we should continue to develop and come together as a football team as well."

Carolina's defense ranks 12th against the pass, allowing an average of 225.0 yards through the air.

"The more that I get comfortable, the more that I trust things to know that they'll be there," said Ponder, who connected three times with Michael Jenkins for 111 yards and a touchdown Sunday.

Jenkins' 27 receptions tie him for the team lead with Percy Harvin, who is questionable for Sunday with a rib injury.

One target Ponder definitely won't have going forward is Bernard Berrian. The wideout was cut Tuesday after a tumultuous season that included a Twitter spat with a local politician and his reported absence from two team meetings, the latter incidents which led to him being inactive for two games.

Fortunately for Ponder, Adrian Peterson is still around to relieve some pressure.

Peterson ran for a season-high 175 yards and a touchdown against Green Bay, his most yards since running for 180 on the opening Sunday of the 2009 season. His 712 yards and eight rushing TDs are tops in the NFL, and he'll look to add to those totals against a Carolina run defense that allows 133.4 yards per game - 29th in the league.

Carolina's formidable rushing attack of Newton, DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart may not find things as easy. Minnesota ranks fourth against the run, allowing 87.9 yards per game.

The Vikings are 29th against the pass, though, giving up 274.9 yards per game, and starting cornerback Antoine Winfield (neck) could miss a fourth straight game. Newton averaged 427.0 yards passing in his first two NFL games, but that number has dropped to 249.8 the past five weeks.

Carolina won the most recent meeting 26-7 on Dec. 20, 2009, holding Peterson to 35 yards on 12 carries.

Smith has 20 receptions for 358 yards and two TDs in two career home games against the Vikings.

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