5 things to watch in Week 3: Vikings vs. Panthers

Minnesota heads to Bank of America Stadium at 2-0, but hobbled at key positions.

Jeremy Brevard—X02835
Sep 18

The Panthers got back to looking like the NFC champs in Week 2 against the 49ers. Cam Newton passed for 353 yards and four touchdowns in a 46-27 throttling of the Niners at home to move to 1-1.Unfortunately, that win came at a cost. Jonathan Stewart suffered another hamstring injury and will be out for at least this Sunday. That leaves leading rusher Fozzy Whittaker, Jonathan Tolbert and Cameron Artis-Payne, who is set to play in his first game this season.Not exactly ideal against a Vikings defense that ranks fifth in the NFL in yards and points per game allowed through two games. Before the NFC showdown kicks off at 1 p.m. on FOX, here’s a look at five things Panthers fans need to know.Breaking BradfordIn his first start for Minnesota, former No. 1 overall pick Sam Bradford carved up Green Bay for 286 passing yards and two touchdowns while completing 71 percent of his passes. Despite losing Adrian Peterson during the third quarter, Bradford outdueled Aaron Rodgers for a 17-14 victory.”He’s everything you look for in a quarterback,” Vikings offensive coordinator Norv Turner told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. “I think he’s a great passer, and I think he makes great decisions. That combination is what you need in a good quarterback. He can change his delivery, and he can speed up when he needs to.”He’s got great presence in the pocket. I coached a guy like that for six years in [San Diego’s] Philip Rivers. They play the game differently. They get rid of the ball quick, and they have great pocket presence.”The Panthers started the season against Trevor Siemian and Blaine Gabbert, so Bradford will serve as the biggest test yet. After coming away with two interceptions in the first two games, a similar performance would force the Vikes to run the ball with a backup corps.Replacing PetersonPeterson is likely done for several months after tearing his meniscus and in his place are Jerick McKinnon and Matt Asiata. Back in 2014, McKinnon was used as the main running back as a rookie out of Georgia Southern. Asiata was the power back near the goal line, rushing for three touchdowns in a single game on two separate occasions in Peterson’s absence.But this running back committee hasn’t faced a defense as stout as the Panthers. With a strong defensive line and one of the best linebacker corps in the NFL, this was the worst possible time for the Vikes to lose Peterson (as if there was a good time to lose the leading rusher from 2015).RBBC, part deuxThe Panthers are in a similar running-back-by-committee predicament. With Stewart out, Artis-Payne has been named the starter against the Vikes. This also happens to be the first game of the season for the second-year back.If CAP can’t get the job done, there are two other backs ready to step in. Last Sunday, Whittaker posted the first 100-yard rushing game of his career against the Niners. Tolbert is a goal-line bruiser with 31 rushing touchdowns from 2010-13.The Panthers are in slightly better shape with their committee, especially given the experience for Tolbert and Whittaker. If Cam can get the passing game going again, this group could start to establish the run.Voracious VikesLet’s pump the brakes for a second, because in no way is it an easy task for Newton to get the passing game going against Minnesota’s defense. The Vikings are the ninth-best unit in the league against the pass, allowing just 216 yards per game and three total touchdowns.With experienced corners like Terrence Newman and former Panther Captain Munnerlyn to go along with the youth of Trae Waynes, Harrison Smith and Xavier Rhodes, even the best quarterback in the world can struggle against this group.”We just try to go out there and compete at a very high level,” Munnerlyn said. “That shows you all the hard work we put in at practice, in training camp and going forward. We know we still have a lot of work to do, and we’re ready for it.”Newton struggled in the opener against Denver, but still came away with a passing and rushing touchdown. Thanks to his weapons heading into Sunday, there’s a good chance he still gets the best of this Vikings defense.Repeat for Cam?It’s extremely early in the discussions for MVP, but Newton certainly didn’t hurt his chances of a repeat against San Francisco. Already responsible for five passing touchdowns (to two interceptions) and 273.5 passing yards per game, Newton has proven his arm is still elite.While he only has 17 rushing attempts through two games, Cam’s 5.4 yards per carry are second only to Whittaker’s 5.9. He’s also rushed for a first down on five of those 17 attempts along with a touchdown in the season opener.The re-emergence of Kelvin Benjamin along with the reliability of Greg Olsen only helps Newton’s chances of repeating as the league’s top player. And with all three rolling during the first two games while the running back stable is hobbled, Newton will likely look to do it all again Sunday.