When Cam Newton faced the Minnesota Vikings in 2013, he passed for three touchdowns and rushed for another in a decisive Carolina Panthers victory at the Metrodome.
Then Mike Zimmer came along.
In the two meetings since, Newton has had a pair of miserable days against Minnesota’s formidable defense in some relatively lopsided losses.
On a cold afternoon at TCF Bank Stadium in 2014, he finished 18 of 35 passing with one touchdown, one interception and four sacks as Minnesota cruised to a 31-13 win.
Last season in Week 3 — coming off an MVP award — he was even worse, going 21 of 35 with zero touchdowns, three interceptions and eight sacks as the Vikings upset the Panthers 22-10 in Carolina.
The Vikings have sacked Newton more than any non-division team he has faced in his career.
“You keep on hitting him,” said defensive end Everson Griffen. “He’s a big guy.”
Six-foot-6, 260 pounds, to be exact.
But despite his rare size, Newton has been prone to sacks in his career. In each season since Newton was taken with the first overall pick of the 2011 draft, he was been in the top 12 in sacks taken. This year, he’s tied for ninth. Newton had a stretch earlier this season when took multiple sacks in six consecutive games and 22 total over that span.
With the Panthers teetering on the edge of the playoff picture, it’s safe to assume the Vikings will get a desperate Carolina team on Sunday.
ESPN’s David Newton — no relation, presumably — thoroughly covered Newton’s struggles against the blitz, which were put on display in his losing Super Bowl 50 performance. The league keyed in on that last year as Newton posted his worst career QBR. This season, Newton is 22nd in the league against the blitz, according to ESPN Stats & Information, with his second-worst career QBR when facing extra rushers.
Perhaps Newton holds the ball too long. Pro Football Focus charted the quarterback as holding the ball for 3.94 seconds on average before sacks, the second-longest in the league behind Trevor Siemian. His 5.69 seconds before scrambling is the third-longest behind Drew Brees and Philip Rivers, who only scramble on rare occasions.
Obviously, there are other factors in play with that data like pass protection and Newton’s evasiveness, but it’s worth considering. For example, Vikings defensive end Danielle Hunter sacked Newton for a safety last season on a play where Newton held the ball for over four seconds in his own end zone.
Sunday he’ll face a unit that blitzes rarely but effectively, though Minnesota could ratchet up the pressure against Newton, knowing his struggles. Out of their eight sacks last year in Carolina, four of them came with extra pressure.
“Every time you play someone it’s a different deal,” Zimmer cautioned. “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.”
Newton has six interceptions against zero touchdowns in his last four games, and the offensive line has permitted just six sacks in the last five games — four of those being wins. The one loss came last week as Newton was pressured 56 percent of the time in the second half in a 31-21 loss to the New Orleans Saints.
With the Panthers teetering on the edge of the playoff picture, it’s safe to assume the Vikings will get a desperate Carolina team on Sunday. Minnesota will have a chance to embarrass Newton for the third time in a row and strike a huge blow to the Panthers’ postseason hopes.
Unleashing the pass rush might do the trick.
“With each quarterback,” said Zimmer, “you pick your spots and try to get them off rhythm.”