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Vikings' plan for Cam: Hit him like a running back

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The Carolina Panthers offense has improved since the team took the shackles off Cam Newton and called more quarterback runs.

Newton's legs have keyed a surging Panthers rushing attack, which was stymied to start the season. Carolina's signal-caller leads the NFL in rushing yards per game by a QB (42.9) this season and is averaging 78 rush yards per tilt since Week 6.

On Sunday, Newton faces a Vikings defense that is allowing a minuscule 4.7 rushing yards per game to quarterbacks. Minnesota, however, knows they haven't faced anyone like Cam yet.

"You have to be disciplined in your gaps," Everson Griffen said, via ESPN.com's Courtney Cronin. "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 Vikings hit Newton plenty in their double-digit win last season in Carolina. Griffen & Co. sacked Newton a whopping eight times and allowed just 26 rushing yards to the QB, but did give up a 3-yard score early.

With Newton struggling under pressure, expect a bevy of blitzes from Mike Zimmer on Sunday. Since Zimmer took over the Vikings in 2014, the Vikings have faced Newton twice, sacking him 12 times and allowing the quarterback to rush for 75 total yards.

"With a quarterback like that, he's going to try to extend the play," safety 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."

Those third downs will be key Sunday in Charlotte.

Newton has the NFL's seventh-best QB conversion percentage on third down this season (41.5). The Vikings have destroyed teams on third down, allowing a league-low 27.2 percent -- on pace for the lowest rate since the 1992 Cowboys (27.2) team that won Super Bowl XXVII, per NFL Research.

Newton is the beating heart of the Panthers offense. The Vikings know if they take out the quarterback on Sunday, their grip on a playoff bye becomes tighter.

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