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Vikings' key to containing Cam Newton? 'Hit him like he's a running back'

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Vikings look to stay hot against Panthers (0:47)

Herm Edwards says Cam Newton can carry the Panthers to a win over the Vikings, despite Minnesota's success this season. (0:47)

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- The career high Cam Newton posted the last time he faced the Minnesota Vikings defense is one he’d probably like to forget.

Six Vikings sacked the former MVP a total of eight times in that September 2016 game. Three came from Everson Griffen, while Danielle Hunter, Linval Joseph, Brian Robison, Anthony Barr and Harrison Smith each got a piece of Newton in the Vikings' 22-10 win.

Two seasons prior, in 2014, the Vikings sacked Newton six times. He posted his second-lowest completion percentage of that season (51.4) in a demoralizing loss to Minnesota in which the Vikings returned two blocked punts for touchdowns.

And now on Sunday, at a time when the 2010 Heisman Trophy winner is beginning to look like his old self, Newton runs into the No. 2 defense in the NFL as his Carolina Panthers host the Vikings. The Panthers have won four of their last five games, with Newton going 80-of-146 passing for 896 yards, seven touchdowns and one interception.

The designed runs installed in Carolina’s offense are Newton’s bread and butter. His scrambling and ability to pick up yards on broken plays have led to his 515 rushing yards, which ranks him second on the team behind running back Jonathan Stewart

The Vikings have faced other mobile quarterbacks this season, but the 6-foot-5, 245-pounder poses a different challenge. Newton keeps defenders on their toes because the Panthers’ system hinges on unpredictability. Mixing in some well-timed runs when teams might be expecting the opposite has played a big role in his success.

“He is a very, very talented athlete,” Mike Zimmer said. “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.”

Yet despite the league-wide notion that Newton is hard to bring down, the Vikings have done it far more often than others. Preparing for a quarterback they know is going to keep the ball and run with it puts them on alert.

“You have to be disciplined in your gaps,” Everson Griffen said. “You have to get off, escape the block and, when he runs by design, you have to hit him like he’s a running back and not like he’s a quarterback, because he’s not protected then.

“He’s a big guy. You just hit him.”

The pressure Minnesota will put on Newton is pivotal. The quarterback has struggled when being forced to make quick throws. That’s what the Saints did against Newton last week, resulting in a win over the Panthers that put New Orleans in control in the NFC South for now.

Against a traditional four-man pass rush, Newton was 13-of-15 passing with two touchdowns. Against the blitz, he finished 4-of-12 for 35 yards. New Orleans went from sending a blitz on 23 percent of snaps in the first half to 66 percent in the second half in Week 13, according to ESPN Stats and Information.

The Vikings don’t utilize a ton of blitz packages but will likely get creative in the way they send in pressure to keep Newton at bay.

“With a quarterback like that, he’s going to try to extend the play,” Andrew Sendejo said. “Sometimes you can force him into bad decisions, bad throws. It’s kind of the same thing every week: Have to stop the run, get them behind schedule, get them in third-and-long.”

It’s what worked for the Vikings in their 14-9 win over the Falcons last week. Minnesota didn’t register a sack in Week 13, and it didn’t need to with the pressure it was able to get on Matt Ryan in other ways, which forced him to make quick throws.

It showed up most on third down, where Ryan averaged 2.19 seconds from snap to release, which is much quicker than his 2.48-second season average. That was his third-fastest release time on third down this season, which resulted in the NFL’s best third-down offense converting on just one of 10 attempts.

“If they’re getting the ball out quick, they’re 1-for-10, that means they’re not throwing the ball downfield, they’re not giving us a chance to get a sack,” Griffen said. “We hit him, we affected him. If we go up against any team in the league and they’re 1-for-10 on third down, we’re going to win the game.”