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MINNEAPOLIS — The top of the 2011 draft was stacked with quarterbacks, starting with Carolina’s unquestioned first overall pick of Cam Newton.
Down the list a bit was Christian Ponder, taken by Minnesota with the 12th selection. Six quarterbacks were drafted in the top 36.
Cases of instant, sustained success at this critical position are rare, though, as Newton and Ponder and their teams have been reminded. Even in their third years on the job, the Panthers and Vikings have experienced plenty of growing pains.
Ponder might have played his last game for the Vikings. After three more turnover-filled, up-and-down performances to start the season, all losses, he broke a rib and was replaced by Matt Cassel in a win over Pittsburgh. Then the Vikings signed the suddenly available Josh Freeman, and Ponder’s future in Minnesota is murky at best.
“It’s more competition, which ultimately makes everyone better,” Ponder said this week, doing his best effort toward diplomacy.
Cassel is expected to start Sunday against Carolina, another 1-3 team with passing issues.
While Newton is still the unquestioned cornerstone of the franchise, he hasn’t improved on a promising rookie year when he passed for more than 4,000 yards and totaled 35 touchdowns between the air and the ground. Last week, the Panthers were stifled by Arizona in 22-6. They gave up seven sacks, and while Newton passed for 308 yards he threw three interceptions without a score.
“I have to be more consistent,” Newton said, “whether it’s the obvious or just something like carrying out my fake or just putting the ball a little bit more out in front of the receiver.”
OLD FRIENDS: Panthers coach Ron Rivera and Vikings coach Leslie Frazier played together for Chicago’s stingy defense in the mid-1980s, and Frazier was the one who encouraged Rivera to get into coaching after their days with the Bears were done. They also spent four seasons together as assistants for the Eagles from 1999-2002. They still talk once or twice per week.
“Leslie’s probably one of the few people I can honestly say I do turn to for guidance in more ways than one, not just in an everyday but in the spiritual sense,” Rivera said. “Leslie is just one of those really good people you can always rely on.”
Frazier is 17-25 and Rivera is 14-22, and with each team struggling so far, they’re both facing pressure to secure their status beyond this year.
“During this early stretch of the season we’ve tried to pick each other up at times,” Frazier said, adding: “I just try and encourage him as best I can and share some insight from my perspective, and he does the same thing with me.”
RUNNING GAME GROUNDED: After totaling 291 yards over the first three games, DeAngelo Williams came back from the bye without much of a bang. The Cardinals held him to 39 yards on 12 carries, though Newton and Mike Tolbert totaled 56 yards on eight attempts. The Panthers lost another starting guard to a season-ending knee injury last week, though, and now have Travelle Wharton and Chris Scott in those spots instead of Garry Williams and Amini Silatolu.
SMITH SUCCESS: Starting with his kickoff return for a touchdown to start his career, in the 2001 season at Minnesota, Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith has thrived against the Vikings. In five matchups since his debut, he’s totaled 36 receptions for 609 yards and four scores. The Vikings so far this year have allowed an average of 326 yards passing per game, tied for third most in the league.
PETERSON’S PACE: Adrian Peterson had a 78-yard touchdown run for the Vikings on their first play of the year and he broke free for a 60-yard score in their last game against the Steelers. But otherwise the first quarter of his season has been relatively quiet. Still, he’s on pace for 1,684 yards and a whopping 20 touchdowns rushing.
Last year, on his way to winning the NFL MVP award, he didn’t hit his stride until late October.
STRUGGLING SECONDARY: Speaking of that Minnesota pass defense, cornerback Chris Cook and safety Jamarca Sanford are expected back in the starting lineup after missing the last game because of leg-muscle injuries. Cornerback Josh Robinson has also kept his starting spot despite a series of coverage breakdowns, with rookie Xavier Rhodes remaining the next cornerback in the nickel package.

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