NFC North: Cam Newton

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the Green Bay Packers' 38-17 victory Sunday over the Carolina Panthers at Lambeau Field:

Cobb
Ketchup with your touchdown, sir: If Randall Cobb keeps catching touchdown passes at this rate -- he tied his career high with his eighth touchdown (in just the seventh game of the season) -- who knows what else he'll see on his future Lambeau leaps? But he was quite surprised to come out of the stands with ketchup all over his No. 18 jersey after his 3-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter. "I apologize to whoever's hot dog that was," Cobb said. "It was fresh. I know that because I had all of the ketchup on me." Cobb said he likes hot dogs, even ones with ketchup. "I wasn't expecting one to get on my shoulder pads, though," said Cobb, who caught six passes for 121 yards.

Matthews' taunting penalty: Outside linebacker Clay Matthews was close to having a big day with at least two near sacks only to see Panthers quarterback Cam Newton escape, but he did share a sack with Julius Peppers (1.5 sacks) in the fourth quarter. However, he was flagged for taunting on the play. "I think just my body posture was a little too mean-looking," Matthews said. "You know how it is nowadays, we've got to be best buds out there, you can't show any aggression." Of course, Matthews said something, too. "But nothing bad," he added.

Dislocated finger: Packers cornerback Davon House, who started in place of the injured Sam Shields, knew something was wrong with his right ring finger when he deflected a pass in the second half, but "I didn’t want to look at it," he said. House said he dislocated it. He squirmed on the bench when it was popped back in place. "I panicked a little bit," House said. The only other injury announced was to running back James Starks (ankle).
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- It was like the Green Bay Packers were back in San Francisco, circa January 2013, last Sunday in South Florida.

Only this time it was Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill -- not Colin Kaepernick of the 49ers -- who fooled the Packers with the read-option play.

It was really only one option play -- OK, maybe two or three -- that fooled the Packers this time. But when Tannehill ran for 40 yards on a second-and-5 play in the third quarter, it left outside linebacker Clay Matthews looking just as fooled as Erik Walden was by Kaepernick in that playoff loss.

[+] EnlargeCam Newton
AP Photo/AJ MastPanthers quarterback Cam Newton gained 107 yards on 17 carries against the Bengals.
"I know you guys are looking for someone to blame," Matthews said this week. "That's kind of how the zone-read works, is kind of forcing them into one way or another and having those players react off it. It's not, 'one guy is to blame.' It's having responsibilities to it. It's hard to explain.

"We're doing everything we need to this week to kind of make it as black and white as possible, as far as 'This is this and this is that.' That way there is no confusion throughout the game or in general."

That's a good idea considering what the Packers might face Sunday at Lambeau Field against the Carolina Panthers. Last Sunday, the Panthers ran the read-option 12 times in their 37-37 tie with the Cincinnati Bengals and averaged 5.75 yards per rush doing so, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Only one team ran more read-option last week than the Panthers. It was the Dolphins, who did it 18 times.

Against the Bengals, Cam Newton ran for 107 yards on 17 carries -- not all read-option, of course -- after rushing for just 42 yards on 14 attempts in Carolina's first five games.

"It's a concept we spent a lot of time [on Wednesday] at practice," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "Obviously Cam Newton runs it very well; he's been running it for quite some time. He's an excellent football player, he brings a dynamic to the read-option as far as his ability to run the football. That was clearly evident in the Cincinnati game.

"We're preparing and how we handle it, there's other elements involved and other factors involved, but it's definitely a primary concept in the NFL. So we're much better prepared today than we were probably a couple years ago, and I think that's like anything in this game, we've seen it more and we've spent more time on it."

In the big picture, the Packers actually handled Miami's read-option better than you might think. The Dolphins averaged just 4.78 yards per attempt in that formation, according to ESPN Stats & Info. They gained 86 yards on their 18 read-option plays, and 40 came on Tannehill's run. Tannehill kept the ball on one other read-option play and picked up 3 yards to convert a second-and-1 in the first quarter. Running back Lamar Miller's 5-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter also was a read-option play.

One theory for Matthews' inability to get much done against the Dolphins -- he failed to record a single tackle -- was their liberal use of the read-option, which in theory slows down Matthews from playing his usual aggressive style, because he first has to assess where the ball goes.

Don't think the Panthers failed to notice that.

"Yes, you do game-plan accordingly," Panthers coach Ron Rivera said on a conference call with reporters at Lambeau Field this week. "You also look at some of the other things they've had problems with and some of the other teams that had success against them and you try to figure out the best way to attack them."

The Carolina Panthers and Chicago Bears are both 2-2 as they head into Sunday's 1 p.m. game at Bank of America Stadium.

With seven of 16 NFC teams sitting at 2-2, this could be one of those games that propels the winner in the right direction to the playoffs.

The Panthers were 1-3 heading into Week 5 a year ago and rolled off eight straight wins and 11 of 12 to win the NFC South. The Bears were 3-1 a year ago, and then finished 5-7 to miss the playoffs for the third straight year.

What's in store on Sunday? ESPN Panthers reporter David Newton and ESPN Bears reporter Michael C. Wright are here to break it down.

Newton: Michael, why have the Bears seemingly played so much better on the road (2-0) than at home?

Wright: I don't think the sample size is large enough to definitively say whether Chicago is playing better on the road than at home, and I think you also have to take into account the talent of the opponents. The Bears opened at home against Buffalo and its bruising ground attack, then on Sunday faced Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers offense. In both losses, the Bears made easily correctable mistakes. In the opener, the Bears got out of their gaps too much against the run. Against the Packers, the Bears opted to play vanilla football on defense -- pressure only with the front four, with seven in coverage on the back end -- and Rodgers took advantage of the lack of pressure and coverage busts.

David, DeAngelo Williams was the latest running back to go down with an injury, and it appears the Panthers have just two running backs available to face the Bears. What will Carolina do at the position this week, and how much does the situation change the way the Panthers will try to attack Chicago?

Newton: Starting running back Darrin Reaves was signed off the practice squad two Saturdays ago as insurance. The backup would be Chris Ogbonnaya, who was signed off the street on Monday. Ogbonnaya has the most experience after rushing 49 times for 240 yards last season at Cleveland. But there’s a reason he was available, and it's probably not good.

The good news for Carolina is Fozzy Whittaker, who led the team in rushing during the preseason, is set to return after missing the past two games with a quad injury. But the issue isn't running back as much as it is the offensive line, which has been dreadful in run blocking as well as pass protection. I'm not sure Emmitt Smith could have been effective behind this group. That quarterback Cam Newton has contributed only one percent to the run game after accounting for 31.3 percent the past three seasons is an issue, as well. This could be the week he's turned loose after undergoing offseason ankle surgery and fracturing his ribs in August. Then again, it might not be.

I see the Bears rushed for 235 yards on 41 attempts in their loss to Green Bay this past week. Is this an area they can exploit against a Carolina team that has allowed just under 400 yards rushing over the past two weeks against Pittsburgh and Baltimore?

Wright: I think that's exactly what the Bears will try to do, which is interesting because this matchup reminds me a little of the last time these teams played at Carolina back in 2010. In that game, Matt Forte -- after rushing for a combined 81 yards in the previous three outings -- broke out with a season-high 166 yards on 22 attempts for two touchdowns. Getting Forte going also takes pressure off receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, who have both been hobbled in recent weeks with nagging injuries.

The Bears rolled up 496 yards on offense against the Packers and came out of that game confident about what the group can do, provided it eliminates the turnovers. Seeing Carolina’s struggles the past two weeks, the Bears will definitely try to establish Forte and the rushing attack so Jay Cutler can operate effectively off play-action.

Newton seems to be getting healthier, to the point where Ron Rivera said the team can "start to expand" the offense. What exactly does that mean, especially given the situation in the backfield?

Newton: It means offensive coordinator Mike Shula could call some plays for Newton to run out of the read-option. Newton hasn't hinted at being a threat in the read-option the past three weeks. It has allowed teams to gang up on the backs, another reason the run game hasn't been effective. Newton has rushed only eight times for 33 yards. This from a quarterback who averaged 7.5 carries and 42.3 yards a game in his first three seasons. Because the staff is being cautious as Newton continues to recover from injuries -- the ankle is less of a worry -- they've taken away one of his greatest assets. I understand being cautious, but if they're going to make him a dropback passer they might as well go with Derek Anderson, who is more accurate.

While we're on the quarterback, how has Cutler performed thus far?

Wright: It has definitely been a mixed bag for Cutler, which for the Chicago fan base is unacceptable, given the seven-year commitment and big bucks invested by the franchise. After throwing two picks that led to points in the opener, Cutler performed well in the next two games (passer ratings of 119.2 and 94.7 to go with six touchdowns and no interceptions) before tossing another two interceptions Sunday in the loss to Green Bay.

What I've noticed lately is Cutler is taking more accountability for the role he played in the two losses, and seems to be working harder than before to make the corrections. Cutler seems to care more deeply about his position as leader of the offense than in years past. That has manifested itself into more consistency, despite his maddening penchant to make one or two bad decisions in a game that can result in turnovers. Working under Marc Trestman, Cutler hasn't produced back-to-back stinkers, and I don't anticipate that happening Sunday at Carolina.

Coming into the season, I expected Carolina's defense to be one of the best in the league, but the group has struggled recently against both the run and the pass. What problems have this defense experienced over the past two games, and what chances do you give the Panthers of finally rebounding this game on that side of the ball?

Newton: The staff will tell you it's a lack of discipline, that players are trying too much and losing gap control. What they won't admit is they miss defensive end Greg Hardy, who is on the commissioner's exempt list until his domestic violence case is resolved. Hardy could do it all. He led the team in sacks last season with 15. He was big in stopping the run. He could play end and tackle. He could drop back into coverage. He drew double-teams that made it easier for right end Charles Johnson, who is sackless through four games.

Carolina has tried to replace Hardy with three players, none of whom is as good at Hardy at any of his specialties. That's why players are trying to do too much, because they feel they have to in order to replace Hardy. The return of Frank Alexander from a four-game suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy could have helped, but he was suspended Wednesday for 10 more games for a second violation.

Do I think the Panthers can turn this around? Yes. They played well without Hardy in the second game against Detroit. They overcame undisciplined play after four games last season to win eight straight. But they had Hardy. Stay tuned.

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- In researching this game, there was nothing that stood out on either side that screamed extreme mismatch. Detroit's secondary is a question and even though Kelvin Benjamin looked good in his debut (six catches, 92 yards), he is still a rookie so consistency could be an issue. If Cam Newton plays, both offenses should be able to score in bunches and both defensive lines have enough star quality to put pressure on the quarterbacks. It feels like a fairly even matchup and since Newton didn't play in the opener, it is tough to even judge numbers. Provided Newton is healthy and sharp, his scrambling ability could be the small enough difference.

Another concern developing through the week has been Detroit's issue at right tackle, where Corey Hilliard is out for the season and LaAdrian Waddle is highly unlikely to play. This leaves the Lions with either rookie Cornelius Lucas or just-signed veteran Garrett Reynolds starting at right tackle potentially opposite Greg Hardy. Considering Carolina's strong front seven, this does not bode well for the Lions' run game and their chances in general.

Other than the right tackle issue, these teams feel pretty equal. When teams are equal, I usually give the edge typically goes to the home team, and that's what I'm doing here. Pick: Carolina 31, Detroit 28

Panthers vs. Lions preview

September, 11, 2014
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The Carolina Panthers and Detroit Lions enter Sunday's 1 p.m. game at Bank of America Stadium coming off strong opening day victories.

The Panthers (1-0) won 20-14 at Tampa Bay without Pro Bowl quarterback Cam Newton, sidelined with fractured ribs. The Lions (1-0) dismantled the New York Giants 35-14 Monday night on the strength of 346 yards passing by quarterback Matthew Stafford.

The last time these teams met it was a shootout, with Detroit winning 49-35 in 2011. Stafford threw five touchdown passes in that game, but the Panthers have a much-improved defense with only two starters remaining from that team.

NFL Nation Lions reporter Michael Rothstein and Panthers reporter David Newton are here to break this one down:

Newton: Michael, the Lions started fast last season before fading down the stretch. What did you see in Monday's victory that makes you believe this team might be in it for the long haul?

Rothstein: Saw two things, David. The first is Stafford, who looked calmer, more confident and more comfortable than at any previous point of his career. He appeared at ease in the new Detroit offense, executing checkdowns correctly and making the right reads and smart calls. If Stafford continues to play the way he did Monday, the Lions will be in every game.

The other thing was Detroit's defensive front. The Lions didn't have a lot of sacks -- two, including 1.5 by George Johnson -- but they pressured Eli Manning often and were good against the run, as well. The Lions held the Giants to 2.4 yards a carry. Here's the problem, though: As good as Detroit looked, its secondary is already in some tatters. Bill Bentley, the nickelback, is out for the season. The Lions have two safeties banged up.

Receiver was a question for Carolina entering the season, but can that group exploit a somewhat suspect back four for Detroit?

Newton: Did you happen to get a look at rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin against a pretty good Tampa Bay defense? He caught six passes for 92 yards, including a 26-yard touchdown catch few in the league outside of Detroit's Calvin Johnson would have made. So the answer is yes. I said this a hundred times in the offseason: The Panthers are better off now at receiver than they were a year ago. Benjamin is the real deal. Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant might be role players, but that's why they were brought in.

The biggest task for Detroit will be stopping tight end Greg Olsen and the backs on swing passes. When teams shift toward Benjamin on the outside, that leaves the middle of the field open for Olsen. He had eight catches for 83 yards and a touchdown and had another 30-yarder that went just off his fingertips that would have made it 24-0 in the fourth quarter. The Panthers are running a lot of two-tight-end sets to force teams to load the box to stop the run, which is going to set up a lot of one-on-one coverages. If there's a weakness, Carolina has enough weapons to exploit it.

I noticed Stafford was under a lot of pressure at times Monday night. He handled it really well, but the Panthers led the league in sacks last season and have the entire front seven back. How do you see that matchup against Detroit's offensive line?

Rothstein: It's an interesting question because Detroit had one of the best offensive lines in the NFL last season from a pass-protection standpoint. This season, there are a few more questions, particularly at right tackle. Stafford was sacked once against the Giants, and it could have been more if not for Stafford's footwork. Plus, Detroit's right tackle situation is in flux as LaAdrian Waddle is hurt and being replaced by Corey Hilliard. Hilliard can play -- he almost beat Waddle out in the preseason -- but he was limping after the game and the team's fourth tackle is undrafted rookie free agent Cornelius Lucas.

The interior of the line should be able to handle most tests, as Larry Warford might be one of the top two or three young guards in the NFL. It'll be interesting to see whether this line can hold up through the whole year, though, as Dominic Raiola is in his mid-30s and Rob Sims didn't play much in the preseason as he recovered from a knee injury.

Since you asked about the line, the Giants did what most teams do to Detroit's defensive line -- double-team Ndamukong Suh and force his teammates to cause havoc. Suh is one of the most extraordinary players in the league. How do the Panthers come up with a game plan for him?

Newton: Probably like they handled Tampa Bay's Gerald McCoy last week, with double-teams and throwing fresh bodies at him. McCoy is one of the best defensive tackles in the league, if not the best. He had eight tackles and one sack against Carolina, but the sack was more the fault of quarterback Derek Anderson than the line, and it was the only sack Carolina gave up. You also have to remember the Panthers were playing without Newton, so the Bucs didn't have to respect the quarterback as a threat to keep the ball on the read-option. That'll keep a D-line from teeing off some. Surprisingly, the line played well with basically four new starters. The key for Carolina will be establishing the run to keep Suh and the Lions from causing havoc.

When these teams last played, in 2011, it was a shootout. And the Lions just put 35 up on the Giants. What type of a game do you expect this time?

Rothstein: I'm thinking it'll be somewhat similar because of the potency of both offenses, assuming Newton plays for Carolina. Add in the issues in the Lions' secondary and there is a good chance it will end up being a game in the 30s on both sides.

For Detroit to win, this might have to be a shootout because the run game is suspect right now. Although the stats looked bad at the end -- 2.0 yards a carry -- it was actually worse. The Lions averaged 1.2 yards a carry in the first half against the Giants. If Carolina can force Detroit to rely solely on the pass and get some pressure, it could force Stafford into the mistakes he didn't make Monday night.

Carolina has been known for so long for DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, who end up as a combined top-10 rushing duo most seasons. Has Newton's maturation changed their roles, and how do the Panthers divide carries provided Stewart stays healthy?

Newton: Before I get to the backs, let me assure you that if this is a game with scores in the 30s, the Lions will win. Only one team scored more than 24 points last season against the Carolina defense, which ranked second in the league. New Orleans scored 31 at home and won. I just don't see Detroit scoring that many.

As for the backs, this is the first time in about three years Stewart has been healthy, and even though he didn't have big numbers against Tampa he ran hard. It's really a three-headed situation with Mike Tolbert added to the mix. Tampa stacked the box for much of the day, but the Panthers still managed to rush for 113 yards, and that again was without Newton in there as a threat. He makes it a four-headed situation, although I'm not so sure he'll run as much this week in an effort to protect the ribs.

The Panthers want to run and control the clock as they did last week. They held almost a 3-1 advantage in time of possession in the first half against the Bucs. Their goal will be the same against Detroit, figuring Stafford and all his weapons can't hurt them when they're not on the field. For the Panthers to win, they have to do that and keep this game in the low 20s at the most.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The recent restructuring of defensive end Charles Johnson's contract could put the Carolina Panthers closer to a new deal for quarterback Cam Newton.

Newton
Newton
Johnson
The Panthers cleared about $5.2 million from the 2014 salary cap by reducing Johnson's cap figure from a team-high $16.4 million to $11,225,600. According to ESPN's Roster Management, that leaves the team $6,975,208 in cap space.

It was the second time in the past two seasons that Johnson, who in 2011 signed a six-year, $72 million deal that was the biggest in franchise history, has renegotiated.

He still is set to count $20,020,000 million against the 2015 cap and $15,020,000 in 2016, and that probably will have to be dealt with later.

Clearing cap space now, however, allows the Panthers to work toward a long-term deal with Newton sooner rather than later.

The Panthers in May exercised the fifth-year option on Newton, locking him up through the 2015 season. If the team wanted, it could extend that one more year and use the franchise tag in 2016.

But after two Pro Bowls in three seasons and leading Carolina to the NFC South title in 2013, the Panthers are committed to Newton long term. There's been speculation a new deal could be made before the end of this season.

Johnson's restructuring will only fuel that fire.

Newton, who missed his first NFL start in Sunday's opener at Tampa Bay because of fractured ribs, counts a little more than $7 million against this year's cap and will count $14,666,666 in 2015.

The first pick of the 2011 draft has been projected to make in the $18 million to $20 million range per year with his next deal.

Cincinnati's Andy Dalton, selected in the second round of the 2011 draft, recently signed a six-year, $115 million deal that included a $12 million signing bonus and $17 million guaranteed. He will average about $16 million a year.

Newton, expected to start in Sunday's home opener at Detroit, has made it clear he's not concerned about his next deal. He made his offseason focus on recovering first from March ankle surgery and now the rib injury.

"For me, that's the last thing that's on my mind,'' Newton said of his contract status in June.
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Three years ago, the Minnesota Vikings took Florida State quarterback Christian Ponder with the 12th overall pick in the draft, setting in motion a chain of events that ended -- or at least crossed the start/finish line for a second lap -- on Thursday night, when they spent the 32nd overall pick on Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, hoping to give new coach Mike Zimmer a better solution at quarterback than they gave former coach Leslie Frazier.

[+] EnlargeTeddy Bridgewater
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesWith QB Christian Ponder mostly ineffective in his three seasons in Minnesota, the team will be looking to quickly develop Teddy Bridgewater.
It was no surprise at all the Vikings would take a quarterback high in the 2014 draft, after emerging from the rubble of what turned out to be a disappointing 2011 quarterback class. What was interesting, though, was how much company they had in making a quick pivot at the position.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Vikings, Jacksonville Jaguars and Cleveland Browns became just the fourth, fifth and sixth teams in the common draft era to take a quarterback in the first round for the second time in three years. Before Thursday night, it had never happened twice in the same draft, and it hadn't happened at all since 2005, when the Washington Redskins took Jason Campbell three years after drafting Patrick Ramsey.

There are multiple reasons why it's easier to move on from quarterbacks after the 2011 collective bargaining agreement than it used to be, but the structure of the current CBA -- and the profound changes it's enacted on rookie contracts -- might also be driving teams to be less patient. Gone are the days of contracts like the six-year, $78 million deal the St. Louis Rams had to give No. 1 overall pick Sam Bradford in 2010.

It's much less cost-prohibitive to replace a quarterback, with both salaries and contract guarantees down significantly for young players, and there's also an incentive to get players on the field sooner. Four of the final six teams playing last season -- the Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers, Carolina Panthers and Indianapolis Colts -- all had quarterbacks playing in their rookie deals, and all four got high-level quarterback play at a price that allowed them to spend money on other players. Those teams all have bills coming due for Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick, Cam Newton and Andrew Luck, respectively, but they've combined to get seven playoff appearances out of those players while ranking in the bottom half of the league in quarterback spending.

With quarterbacks directing more complex offenses in college and high school, it's easier to expect more out of them at a young age, and while the Vikings have talked about wanting Bridgewater to sit this season, it wouldn't be surprising if they want to have him on the field by 2015. They've got a little extra time, thanks to the fifth-year option that will automatically be added to his contract after they took him in the first round, but one of the best tools in roster construction these days is to have good quarterback play at below-market cost.

If the Vikings can capitalize on those years from Bridgewater, they'll be in great shape to put a playoff team around him. If they can't? Well, as Ponder can attest, it isn't expensive to be impatient in today's NFL.

Upon Further Review: Colts Week 16

December, 23, 2013
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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- An examination of five topics from the Indianapolis Colts' 23-7 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs.

[+] EnlargeDonald Brown
Denny Medley/USA TODAY SportsDonald Brown had 110 total yards and two scores against the Chiefs.
Charles causes pain: Colts defensive lineman Cory Redding left the game in the fourth quarter with a shoulder injury. He said it happened while trying to tackle Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles. “I was trying to get a diving tackle on Jamaal and landed on my shoulder, and it just kind of popped out and came back in,” Redding said. “I’m good to go. I’m from Texas where we’re tough.” Redding took part in the sack party that the Colts had on Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith. Redding had a sack and recovered a fumble.

What can Brown do for you? Running back Donald Brown rushed for a team-high 79 yards on 10 carries with a touchdown. His 51-yard touchdown is the longest run of the season for the Colts. Brown also had two catches for 31 yards and a touchdown. The 110 total yards are a season high for Brown. He’s averaging 5.6 yards a carry this season. That average is good enough for second-best in the NFL among running backs with at least 90 carries. That’s the good. Here’s the not-so-good part. The rest of the Colts are averaging 3.7 yards a carry this season, with quarterback Andrew Luck averaging 6.1 yards a carry.

Protecting the ball: Protecting the football is part of the reason the Colts have a chance to match their win total of 11 from last season. They didn’t commit a turnover against the Chiefs and have committed a league-low 14 turnovers this season.

Toler returns: Cornerback Greg Toler returned to the lineup for the first time in seven weeks. He didn’t start, but the fact that he was able to play after an extended absence because of a groin injury was a step in the right direction for him. Toler didn’t have any tackles. “I was happy. I was able to get my foot in the ground when I wanted to,” Toler said. “They had me on a couple of meds before the game, but I was happy to have a chance to get back out there. I’ve been past the stage of thinking about my groin.”

Moving up the rankings: Luck was 26-of-37 for 241 yards and two touchdowns. Luck is 7 yards shy of surpassing Carolina quarterback Cam Newton for the most passing yards in the first two seasons of a career. Luck shouldn’t have a problem moving ahead of Newton because the Colts close the regular season against the Jacksonville Jaguars on Dec. 29. Luck threw for 257 yards against the Jaguars in the Week 4 meeting between the two teams.
Newton/PetersonGetty ImagesCam Newton looks to take advantage of a spotty Vikings secondary, but the Panthers may have their hands full with Adrian Peterson.
Both the Minnesota Vikings and Carolina Panthers have reason to feel they should be better than 1-3 through their first four games of the season. One of those teams will get to stoke its flickering playoff hopes Sunday at Mall of America Field, while the other will fall even further out of the picture.

The Vikings have yet to announce whether Christian Ponder or Matt Cassel will start, and it might not be long before Josh Freeman takes over the quarterback job. But while the quarterback position might be the most intriguing question facing the Vikings at the moment, it probably isn't the most pressing one. That would be in the secondary, where the Vikings are hoping Chris Cook and Jamarca Sanford return from injuries to help a team that's given up an average of 326 passing yards a game and allowed decisive touchdowns on a pair of last-minute drives.

That could be good news for a Panthers team that's so far had more problems on offense than defense. Carolina has scored just 74 points, turning the ball over nine times and throwing for more than 220 yards just once this season. Third-year quarterback Cam Newton -- who came into the league with Ponder in 2011 -- has continued to struggle. Even though the Panthers have allowed the third-fewest points in the league, outscoring opponents through four games, they are trying to keep their season alive, just like the Vikings are.

ESPN.com Vikings reporter Ben Goessling and Panthers reporter David Newton broke down this week's matchup:

Ben Goessling: David, I have a feeling the Panthers are as steamed about their record through four games as the Vikings are. Both of these teams lost in the waning seconds in Week 2, and neither has gotten good enough quarterback play to help their playoff aspirations after late-season surges in 2012. At first glance, though, this matchup would seem to favor the Panthers, who have done an excellent job of stopping the run and might force the Vikings to lean on their passing game more than they'd like to at home. How do you think this defense matches up against Adrian Peterson, and how much trouble can it give whomever starts for the Vikings at quarterback?

David Newton: This matchup definitely seems to favor the Carolina defense that has played well enough to win every game. Yeah, Arizona scored 22 points. But that's a bit misleading since two came on a safety late in the third quarter and the last came on a real short field with just over two minutes left after Cam Newton's fourth turnover. The Panthers actually improved from 10th to third in total defense, holding Arizona to 250 total yards. Stopping Adrian Peterson will be the challenge, but Carolina has done a good job all season of making opponents pass with a stout front seven that is allowing only 92.3 yards a game. The key in my opinion will be how much pressure the front four can put on whomever the Vikings play at quarterback. Arizona went with three-step drops and quick passes to somewhat negate that and frustrate pass-rushers Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson. But what has made Carolina successful against the rush and the pass is that it has been able to stop both without using a lot of blitz packages that sometimes opens big holes for big-time backs like Peterson.

While we're on defense, the Vikings haven't really faced a quarterback that can run and throw like Newton this year, and they are ranked 30th on defense. How do you see that matchup?

Goessling: I don't particularly like it for the Vikings. They probably struggled the most in Week 1 against the Detroit Lions, when they were facing a team with a dynamic passing game and a shifty running back (Reggie Bush) who did a lot of his damage thanks to missed tackles on the first and second levels of the Vikings' defense. The Vikings also haven't faced much of the read-option in the last two years, and when they did see it -- particularly against Robert Griffin III last year -- they struggled with it. I could see Cam Newton giving the Vikings problems with his feet, and Ben Roethlisberger also showed how you can burn the Vikings' young secondary by keeping plays alive. If Newton can avoid turnovers (and the Vikings have caused 12 of them this season), he could direct the Panthers' offense to a big day.

Here's the question the Vikings are probably asking themselves, though: How erratic will Newton be? He's part of that 2011 quarterback class (like Ponder) that has struggled quite a bit in the NFL, and as you mentioned, his turnovers cost the Panthers against Arizona. Will he be able to take advantage of the Vikings defense, or will they have their chances to create a few takeaways off of him?

Newton: Let me clarify first. Newton's turnovers in the fourth quarter did lead to the widening of the margin at Arizona, but he played well early and the Panthers would have been -- should have been -- up by two scores at halftime if Steve Smith hadn't dropped a 4-yard touchdown pass and Brandon LaFell a first-down pass at the Arizona 15. But Newton has been inconsistent with his throws, particularly if pressured. When given time like he had against the Giants he was able to pick apart the defense. Teams that have pressured Newton, particularly with five-man fronts, have forced him into mistakes. Looking at the numbers, it appears the Vikings haven't done a great job of pressuring quarterbacks. That to me is where this game will be won or lost for Minnesota.

While we're on quarterbacks, what's been wrong with Ponder this year? And if Josh Freeman is the answer, why not go ahead and give him a shot this week?

Goessling: Ponder's issues have been the same ones we've seen from him during his entire run in Minnesota. It just seems like he's apprehensive about pulling the trigger unless he's got a perfect throwing lane or a receiver who's a step clear of his defender. That throws off his timing, or he gives up and takes off, when a more confident quarterback might be able to hit a receiver for a 15-yard gain in tight coverage. Essentially, he's just not confident enough to make the tough throws, and his interceptions have come when he's flinched and either thrown a pass too early or failed to put enough on the ball. That might be why the Vikings seem ready to move on -- Ponder's issues are about more than his physical attributes, and that's a hard thing to fix.

As for Freeman, the Vikings want to give him time to learn the offense, and while I'm guessing we'll see him in a week or two, particularly if the Vikings lose, my hunch is Matt Cassel will get a chance to build on his Week 4 win this Sunday.

To wrap this up, what do you think is the biggest key to a Panthers victory?

Newton: I almost laugh when you say key to victory because this team simply doesn't know how to win -- at least on a consistent basis when it matters. This is the third straight 1-3 start and they haven't had a winning record since 2008. But as coach Ron Rivera keeps saying, they are close. But they were close last week and blew countless opportunities to take command in the first half and wound up looking dismal. It seems almost every week it's a breakdown in another area, or multiple areas. If I had to pick one key, though, it would be for the offensive line to give Newton protection. When he has time, the Panthers score points. If they score points, the defense will take care of itself.

How about for the Vikings?

Goessling: I agree that getting to Newton is a big part of the equation; they need to force him into turnovers and keep him from putting their defense on its heels. This is a team that plays its best when it gets an early lead, can run Adrian Peterson and turn its defensive line loose. If the Vikings do that, they might be able to cover up their issues in the secondary and sneak out with a victory.

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Here are a few quick thoughts from Chicago's 24-17 loss to the Carolina Panthers on Friday in the preseason opener:

What it means: There's still work to do on both sides of the ball. What's most important is the team came out of the game relatively injury free while still managing to get in some much-needed work.
On offense, the protection was somewhat inconsistent, which led to a sack of Jay Cutler, who also tossed an interception on the group's first play of the game.

"It was an unfortunate start," Cutler said. "I have to put the ball on Alshon’s [Jeffery] other shoulder. We had some good stuff after that; we had some bad stuff. Typical preseason game. We just have to take a look at it and get better next week."

The first team managed to gain just three first downs in three series, but there's no denying that outside of the interception, Cutler was pretty much on target with his throws.

Cutler completed 6 of 8 passes for 56 yards and finished with a passer rating of 54.2.

"Well, other than the pick we had, we moved the ball a little bit," Bears coach Marc Trestman said. "We got a few throws in. Jay made some great throws. We caught some slants in contested throwing areas. We got a few runs in. Matt [Forte], got a couple of catches, moved the ball around. Certainly didn't do what we wanted or up to our expectations. But other than the first play and the one sack -- we've got work to do."

Defensively, the bad news was the group gave up one touchdown trying to defend a short field created by Cutler's interception, combined with a pass-interference penalty on James Anderson on the next play as he tried to cover former Bears tight end Greg Olsen. The Anderson penalty put the Panthers at the Chicago 4. Three plays later, Cam Newton hit Brandon LaFell for a 3-yard touchdown at the 10:14 mark to give the home team an early lead.

The good news is the defense put points on the board with Jon Bostic's 51-yard interception return at the 6:09 mark of the first quarter. Bostic filled in for injured starting middle linebacker D.J. Williams (calf) and while it's too soon to definitively gauge his performance (that comes after film study), the showing appeared promising.

"There were a lot of things we could do better," linebacker Lance Briggs said. "There were some things we did well. When we put on the tape, we'll all evaluate the things to improve on. All in all, when you are getting turnovers in the game that is very big."

Injury update: Long-snapper Pat Mannelly suffered injured ribs when he was blindsided on a punt in the first half. The severity of that injury wasn’t immediately known. Team officials took defensive tackle Henry Melton back into the locker room in the first quarter, where he was diagnosed with a concussion. He’ll have to follow the NFL's new concussion protocol before he's allowed to practice again. It is possible Melton could be back on the field for Chicago's next practice at training camp, but unlikely given his importance to the defense. There's no need to rush him back into action.

Webb of inconsistency: J'Marcus Webb performed inconsistently in 2012 at left tackle, and his move to the right side for 2013 wasn't promising in the first preseason game.

During Chicago's third series of the night, Carolina defensive end Charles Johnson blew past Webb on the outside. In his attempt to recover, Webb overstepped outside, and Johnson cut back inside to sack Cutler along with Kawann Short.

Don't count out Webb just yet though. It's only the first preseason game.

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Second-team sloppiness: Josh McCown zipped a near perfectly thrown ball to tight end Fendi Onobun in the end zone for what should have been a touchdown in the second quarter, but he dropped the pass. On the next play, running back Armando Allen fumbled after catching a pass from McCown, with Anderson Russell recovering for Carolina at the Panthers' 12.

Onobun has struggled to catch the ball throughout the preseason, but seemed to come on in recent practices after the team had brought in Leonard Pope to compete for the job. The Bears rave about his consistency, but the truth is Onobun needs to be more consistent at catching the ball if he expects to make the 53-man roster at the end of camp.

Lopsided time of possession: Both teams played the majority of the first quarter with starters on the field on both sides of the ball, and the Panthers dominated time of possession. Carolina was 2-of-5 on third-down conversions, while the Bears finished 0-for-2 in that category. The Panthers held the ball for 9 minutes, 31 seconds in the first quarter, and the Bears held possession for 5 minutes, 29 seconds.

Bostic time? Not yet, but the rookie definitely showed why the Bears made him their second-round pick in the draft. In addition to the 51-yard interception return for a touchdown, Bostic was credited for two tackles and a pass breakup. He's probably not ready to take over D.J. Williams' starting job in the middle, but his play should definitely raise the comfort level of the coaching staff if the rookie is forced to play in a pinch.

Bostic wasn't the only rookie to show promise. Fourth-round pick Khaseem Greene came into the game during the team's third defensive series and contributed two tackles, including one for lost yardage.

Frey maintains: Second-year veteran Isaiah Frey maintained the momentum he's been riding throughout training camp practices with a solid outing in his first preseason game. Frey took over at the starting nickel corner when Kelvin Hayden suffered a season-ending hamstring injury. The youngster hasn't disappointed.

Virtually every day of practice at training camp, Frey has made a head-turning play, whether it's an interception or a pass breakup. Against the Panthers, Frey nearly picked off a Derek Anderson pass in the second quarter.

Briggs makes calls: With Brian Urlacher now out of the picture, Briggs has taken on the responsibility of making the club's defensive calls. Briggs said it went well.

"It went smooth. I got the call, called it out to teammates, they heard it, they received it, and they played the play," Briggs said.

What’s next: The Bears receive a day off on Saturday, before hitting the practice fields at Olivet Nazarene University on Sunday for the final week of training camp. Chicago hosts the San Diego Chargers on Thursday night at Soldier Field for the second game of the preseason.

Free Head Exam: Chicago Bears

October, 29, 2012
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After the Chicago Bears' 23-22 victory over the Carolina Panthers, here are three issues that merit further examination:

  1. Free Head Exam
    ESPN.com
    I don't care how favorable the matchups might have been, or the Bears believed them to be, against the Panthers' pass defense. It's hard to reconcile a game plan that called for more passes than runs in the first half. Jay Cutler was playing on a short week after his well-documented bruised ribs Monday night against the Detroit Lions. He also needed several moments to regroup after Panthers lineman Greg Hardy sacked him on the Bears' first play from scrimmage. At that point, if not before, the Bears would have been well-advised to feed a steadier diet of running backs Matt Forte and Michael Bush than they did. Cutler had 15 drop backs in the first half and was sacked six times. Forte and Bush combined for 10 carries over that stretch. I understand not wanting to limit the offense based on an injury Cutler said he could play with, and there's no doubt Cutler could have thrown the ball away a few times. But it wouldn't have been criminal to flip that run-pass ratio given Cutler's condition.
  2. With that said, the Bears' offense deserves credit for taking exactly what the Panthers were giving it during its game-winning drive. As several have pointed out, including Panthers safety Charles Godfrey, Carolina never came out of its soft zone shell as the Bears took their yardage in small chunks on nearly identical plays. Cutler completed 5 of 6 attempts that gained between 4 and 12 yards, moving from the Bears' 22-yard line to the Panthers' 26 in two minutes, 16 seconds with only one timeout at his disposal. Cutler might be known for his aggressive downfield approach, but he smartly dialed it back on that final drive. It helps to know you have a reliable place-kicker in Robbie Gould, but there was a time in Cutler's career when he absolutely would have pressed the ball downfield against the Panthers' soft zone.
  3. The Panthers didn't dare test cornerback Charles Tillman after he shut down the Lions' Calvin Johnson last Monday night. According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), quarterback Cam Newton targeted receivers Tillman was covering on three of his 39 attempts. (One was caught.) Cornerback Tim Jennings was obviously the Panthers' target, and according to PFF he was covering a receiver Newton threw to on 17 of his attempts. Eight of the passes were complete for 127 yards, but Jennings also intercepted two of the passes -- returning one for a go-ahead touchdown -- and deflected another away. As we approach the season's midpoint, I think we can safely say the Bears have the NFL's best cornerback tandem. Both are on the way to the Pro Bowl. But here's a real question: Should Tillman and Jennings be the NFL's first-team All-Pro cornerbacks?
And here is one issue I still don't get:
When will the Bears get to the receiver rotation we all expected when the season began? Brandon Marshall and Earl Bennett have long histories with Cutler and he clearly trusts them without reservation. Regardless of Devin Hester's big-play potential, I think it's pretty clear the Bears are best suited to use Marshall, Bennett and rookie Alshon Jeffery -- when he returns from a fractured hand -- as their three-receiver set. Sunday, Hester played 40 snaps (73 percent) and Bennett 37 snaps (67 percent) on offense. Based on what I saw, Bennett is healthy and ready to leapfrog Hester on the depth chart.

RodgersWatch: Speed? Still got it

September, 7, 2012
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Two years ago, we noted that Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers had established himself as one of the better running quarterbacks in the NFL. Of course, that was when he was 26 years old and midway through his third season as a starter.

Now 28 and entering his fifth year at the Packers' helm, Rodgers would be excused for backing off the scrambles and focusing on pocket passing. But based on the 2012 preseason, as well as some extensive comments on the subject this week, it appears Rodgers has prepared himself to continue taking off whenever he sees open turf.

[+] EnlargeAaron Rodgers
David Stluka/AP ImagesPackers QB Aaron Rodgers said he worked on becoming more flexible during the offseason to help improve his mobility.
He scrambled eight times for 76 yards in three games this summer, including two touchdowns against the Cincinnati Bengals. Speaking during his ESPN 540 radio show , Rodgers said he spent the offseason focusing on "my foot speed, my endurance and my strength" through greater flexibility.

"I want to be able to move around a little bit better out there," Rodgers said, "and I thought flexibility would be a good way to do that. So I focused on that a lot."

Among other things, Rodgers said he spent 20-30 minutes stretching after workouts. I'll let him explain the rest because, frankly, I'm not sure I fully understand the details myself.

"I did a lot of posture stuff with my workouts," he said, "making sure that I was doing more pulls for my back then pushes for my chest. Because whether you're an athlete or not, a lot of people internally rotate their shoulders which decreases your flexibility in your shoulder if you're a thrower.

"Or when you're sitting at a desk most of the days you're going to have your shoulders internally rotate. So to combat that, I'm doing more exercises to open up my chest and pull my shoulders back. It increases the flexibility on your shoulder and takes stress off of it. So those are some of the things I thought about."

Since becoming the Packers' starter in 2008, Rodgers has scored more rushing touchdowns (16) than any other quarterback. Over that span, via the database at pro-football-reference.com, he ranks second in rushing yards by a quarterback (1,136). What's amazing is the Packers only occasionally call runs for him the way the Carolina Panthers might for Cam Newton or the Atlanta Falcons did for a younger Michael Vick. Most of Rodgers' production is what he calls "reactionary." He's quick to recognize when a combination of man-to-man defense and deep routes will force defenders to run away from him with their backs turned. He also tries to keep what he called a "pass-first mentality outside of the pocket." In essence, he wants to avoid tucking the ball away because the threat of a pass -- even if he is a yard or two past the line of scrimmage -- can give him an advantage in the open field.

"The defensive guy isn't looking over at the sticks…," Rodgers said, "so I want to make sure that it looks like I at least have the ability to throw the football because that's going to keep them away from me a little bit more."

Still, even as he approaches middle age in football terms, Rodgers demonstrated this summer that he still has the raw speed and athletic ability to run past presumably faster defenders. Against the Bengals, he broke the pocket at the 12-yard line and simply ran around Bengals cornerback Nate Clements to the end zone. (Video here courtesy NFL.com.)

"[That] was fun for me because I spent a lot of time working on my athletic ability this offseason," he said. "My speed, my stamina, my quickness, and I felt like I kind of separated a little bit from the corner."

Someday, opposing defensive coordinators will be able to remove Rodgers' scrambling tendencies from their Packers game-day check list. It won't be in 2012, however.
In March, two Minnesota Vikings players -- punter Chris Kluwe and center John Sullivan -- called for the NFL to suspend New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma for his role in the Saints' bounty program prior to the 2009 NFC Championship Game. At the time, we noted a developing and awkward dynamic: NFL Players Association (NFLPA) members advocating against their union brethren.

Sullivan, in fact, went so far as to say: "As a union member, I'll be very upset if we come to the defense of these acts. They're indefensible. You can't defend them. It's despicable, has no place in the sport."

Vilma, whom the NFL said offered a $10,000 reward for any player who knocked then-Vikings quarterback Brett Favre out of the 2009 NFC Championship Game, received a one-year suspension. We haven't yet heard from Sullivan, but Kluwe said via Twitter that the suspension is "just."

Kluwe also provided an extended and nuanced analysis of the what he called a "tough spot" for the NFLPA, which has already pledged to "vigorously protect" Vilma and the three other suspended players and "pursue all options on their behalf."

Here's what Kluwe tweeted:
"Vilma and the others deserve the right to an appeal; while I agree with the commissioner's decision others may not, and that's fine, this is America. However, the union has to simultaneously balance defending four guys against the judgment, of [Roger] Goodell (which needs oversight, make no mistake) while at the same time recognizing those four guys were attempting to harm other union members, who also deserve that same protection. The union cannot be just about appeals when someone does something wrong. It also has to be a shield for those men who are a part of it that you never hear about, but pay the same dues and play the same game. I can only hope that the leadership of the NFLPA realizes this, and acts in *all* of its members' interests, however that takes place."

I find this a fascinating, if subtle, subplot of this story. The NFLPA argues the NFL hasn't provided evidence of its accusations, but obviously there are at least some players -- and union members -- who are convinced otherwise. By definition, players engaging in a bounty system are trying to harm other players. Why isn't the union jumping to the defense of the targeted players, which according to the league includes Favre, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner and Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton?

I realize this is a tough day in the NFL for a lot of reasons. I just think this issue merits some discussion along with everything else. The story has thus far centered around the aggressors. What about the victims?

I can't bring myself to write another word about the "Madden Curse."

It's real. It's not real. Is it going to ruin the Detroit Lions season? Is it going to enhance it? Are robots, including Megatron, immune? I have no idea. Like most intangible, mystical figments of the netherworld, it's difficult to pinpoint, understand and project consequences for.

So on the occasion of Lions receiver Calvin Johnson winning a national vote Wednesday to make the cover, let's not freak about the Madden Curse. Let's instead note how thoroughly impressive Johnson was on the SportsNation reveal show when compared to an insufferable, and presumably nervous, Cam Newton.

The Carolina Panthers quarterback strutted around the stage as if he believed he was a pre-ordained winner. For a moment I wondered if ESPN producers had informed him before the show that he had won. Just before the announcement, Newton jokingly (I think) said he would toss free copies of the game to the crowd "like Frisbees" if he won. Utimately his "Cam-pain" didn't work.

All the while, Johnson sat back, chuckled, and didn't have much to say. When the announcement was made, Newton said: "I thought you guys loved me." Johnson said: "People voted. They got what they wanted. I am very grateful for that. This is great."

I don't want to pick on Newton. In truth, his approach offered us yet another example of the best thing about the Lions' return to competitiveness: It has introduced the country to Johnson's genuinely understated and mature personality. For the same reason it was nice to see him rewarded with a $132 million contract in March, I'm glad that it's him and his Calvin Johnson Jr. Foundation will draw the attention that goes with the Madden cover. That's all.

'Madden 13:' Final day of voting

April, 24, 2012
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Cam Newton vs. Calvin JohnsonESPN.com IllustrationIt's Cam Newton versus Calvin Johnson for the right to be cursed.

We're down to the final day of voting for the cover of "Madden 13," which according to our friends at SportsNation is a "neck-and-neck" battle between Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson and Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton. ESPN's Zack McCann reported that Newton has a "small but vulnerable" lead in balloting that concludes Wednesday afternoon.

The winner will be announced at 5 p.m. ET Wednesday.

Johnson reiterated to Detroit-area reporters that he is "looking forward" to being on the cover of the wildly popular game if he wins the voting. Newton challenged Johnson to a live, one-on-one game of Madden in the video below, and on Tuesday, Johnson said: "Don't worry. Don't worry. I got something for that. Leave it at that. We've got something for that."

Newton has dubbed his push to win his "Cam-paign Challenge." We'll get a final answer Wednesday -- if you can bear the suspense.

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