EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — The Vikings are prepping to face a recent NFL MVP and NFC Champion for the second time in as many weeks.
After limiting Atlanta's Matt Ryan to 16-of-29 passing for 173 yards and snapping his streak of 30 straight games with a touchdown last week, Minnesota is turning its attention to Carolina's Cam Newton, who accounted for 45 touchdowns in 2015 when he claimed MVP honors and helped the Panthers make it to Super Bowl 50.
The Vikings under Head Coach Mike Zimmer have fared well against Newton in two games. He is 39-of-70 passing for 456 yards with one passing touchdown and four interceptions for a passer rating of 56.6 in those contests. Newton rushed a combined 16 times for 75 yards and a score but was sacked a total of 12 times for a combined loss of 88 yards in those games.
In 2014, the Vikings built a 28-6 halftime lead thanks to a pair of blocked punts returned for touchdowns on a 12-degree day at the University of Minnesota. Newton was 18-of-35 passing for 194 yards with one touchdown and an interception in a 31-13 loss.
Last season in Week 3, the Vikings snapped the Panthers home win streak that dated to 2014 with a 22-10 victory. Newton completed 21 of 35 passes for 262 yards but threw three interceptions and took eight sacks. Newton's passer rating of 47.6 is the sixth lowest in 105 career games.
"I've got good players," Zimmer said when asked about the past two games. "They played those games well. Each game is different, though. Every time you play someone, it's a different deal. He 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're good on third downs. They use him a lot in the running game, so it makes it difficult."
Zimmer pointed out Wednesday that previous success doesn't guarantee future desired results.
The coach said he's focused on everything the QB does well. He's had three games this season with a passer rating of 120.7 or higher and four games under 60.0.
"I think throughout the course of the season everybody has their little ups and downs a little bit," Zimmer said. "I see the things that he does really good, and that's what we try to defend. He throws the ball good down the field. He moves in the pocket well. He runs good. On the move, he throws well. I don't know. I can't tell you about all that. I know the guy that went to the Super Bowl a couple years ago."
Here are four other topics that Zimmer discussed:
1. Handling success
Minnesota is 10-2 and can clinch the NFC North with a victory in any of its final four regular-season games. The four-game gap over Detroit and Green Bay for the division is new territory for the Vikings under Zimmer.
In 2015, Minnesota traveled to Green Bay for a season finale that determined the winner of the division.
With the Vikings riding a five-game win streak in road games and eight-game heater overall, Zimmer was asked why some teams handle success better than others.
"I think it's human nature," Zimmer said. "Some guys get full of themselves and go from there. Everybody is telling them how good they are and they listen. But it goes the other way, too. Everybody tells you how bad you are and you listen. It's really human nature to back off of those things."
Look back at photos over the course of time featuring games between the Vikings and the Panthers.
2. Tracking multiple Panthers
Jonathan Stewart is back for his 10th season in Carolina and leads the rushing attack with 531 yards on 164 carries. Newton has rushed 89 times for 515 yards, and rookie Christian McCaffrey has 284 yards on 82 rushes.
McCaffrey lines up in the backfield and as a receiver. He has a team-high 64 receptions for 501 yards.
Zimmer said the versatility of the eighth overall pick of the 2017 NFL Draft poses a challenge.
"They put him in a lot of different places and move him around," Zimmer said. "He's a good player. Sometimes he's a back, sometimes he's a receiver. It makes it difficult."
3. On 'blitzen'
The Panthers have held three opponents (San Francisco, Buffalo and Tampa Bay) to three points each this season and are sixth in total defense (297.6 yards allowed per game), fourth in rush defense (88.6) and seventh in pass defense (209).
Zimmer said Carolina is frequently stopping the run or affecting the quarterback with pressure, often turning to blitzes.
"They're very high on blitz percentage on first, second, and third downs, so they pressure the quarterback," Zimmer said. "[Linebackers Luke] Kuechly and [Thomas] Davis run around, their two inside tackles are hard to move off the ball, and the ends are very good pass rushers. They use [safety Kurt] Coleman down in the box quite a bit, and these two corners get up and challenge you.
"They give you a lot different looks," Zimmer added. "Stature-wise they are a little bit like our defense: 4-3 base that does a good job with the pressures and the things that they do. If they get the run stopped, then they can really try to affect the quarterback."
4. An energetic guy
The Panthers have recorded 34 sacks on the season. The Vikings have allowed a total of 14.
Case Keenum has been sacked just nine times in 10 starts and has developed a rhythm to navigate the pocket created by the offensive line since suffering two sacks in his first start (Week 2 at Pittsburgh).
After initially intending to bridge the gap until Sam Bradford could return, Keenum has now started seven games in a row. Zimmer was asked about the change in Keenum over the course of the season.
"Maybe a little bit more assertive at practice," Zimmer said. "He's out there leading the team, so he might be little more assertive, but Case is kind of an energetic guy anyways. That's kind of how he always is."