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Five Things to Watch: Panthers vs. Cardinals

1. Containing Johnson: Arizona's passing attack against the Carolina secondary is getting a lot of attention, as you'd expect, but priority No. 1 for the Panthers defense is stopping running back David Johnson, who has rushed for more than 100 yards in three consecutive games.

Johnson is the NFL's second leading rusher with 681 yards entering Week 8, and his eight rushing touchdowns are the most in the league.

"David Johnson is a stud," linebacker Luke Kuechly said. "That's one thing we talk about every week: Limit the run game. If we can do that, hopefully we can make them have restrictive throws on offense."

Johnson presents a unique challenge with his ability as a receiver out of the backfield. He's recorded 28 catches for 323 yards and leads the league in total yards from scrimmage.

"He's a very talented player and they're doing a good job of utilizing his skillset," linebacker Thomas Davis said. "He's a guy that can line up and hand him the ball out of the backfield and he can get you, or they can flex him out at receiver and he can beat you. We have a huge challenge for us coming up this weekend at the linebacker position, and we're excited by that."

2. Arizona's defense among the best: The Panthers offense started to get into a groove against the Saints, and they'll try to keep it going against one of the stingiest defenses in the NFL.

Arizona ranks second in total defense (289.6 yards allowed per game) and fifth in scoring defense (15.7). The Cardinals haven't allowed a touchdown since Week 5.

"They're very talented in all three levels," tight end Greg Olsen said. "They can get after the passer. They're very aggressive with their blitz packages. They can play a lot of multiple looks with their personnel. They're up there in the rankings in production for a reason, so it's going to be a great challenge."

The Cardinals' attack-minded 3-4 defense looks a lot like the unit Carolina faced in the NFC Championship last season, but there are a couple notable differences.

Safety Tyrann Mathieu will be in action this time around, and linebacker Chandler Jones is making a big impact after coming to Arizona in a trade from New England.

Jones has five sacks, but it's second-year linebacker Markus Golden who leads the team with six.

"Chandler has been a huge addition to this defense because he can do some things that we weren't able to do in the past," head coach Bruce Arians said. "Play a little bit more coverage and let him and Markus get after the quarterback, which they have been doing such a phenomenal job for us throughout the season."

3. Another new look for Carolina secondary:Cornerback Leonard Johnson was activated from the non-football injury list on Friday and head coach Ron Rivera said he's ready to play, adding that he'll line up at nickel. But based on the success in last season's meeting, expect to see linebacker Shaq Thompson operate from the nickel spot as well.

It will be Robert McClain and Daryl Worley on the outside, although there is hope that James Bradberry, who is questionable with a foot injury, factors in.

At safety, the Panthers are planning to rotate Tre Boston and Michael Griffin more than they have in recent weeks based on Arizona's personnel groupings, who feature more two-tight end sets.

"For us, it's really about not giving up the deep ball, and then if you can get to Carson Palmer," safety Kurt Coleman said. "As DBs we need to be able to cover guys for three or four seconds to give our front line time to get to Carson."


4. How often will Newton run? This is once again a topic of interest after quarterback Cam Newton ran the ball just twice against New Orleans in his first game back from a concussion.

Offensive coordinator Mike Shula said Newton wasn't told to scramble any less than usual and the run game was productive in other ways against the Saints.

Ultimately, Newton and the coaching staff know running the ball is an integral part of the quarterback's game.

"That's me. That's who I am," Newton said. "I know, as the Panthers, that's our edge."

The Cardinals know it, too. Newton ran 10 times for 47 yards and two touchdowns in the NFC Championship.

"It would definitely be a blessing to not prepare for Cam Newton as a runner, but we know that's not reality," Arizona cornerback Patrick Peterson said. "You can tell that gets him into the game. That gets him fired up. Not only him but his team.

"I'm sure he knows how to be smart and watch himself for another (injury) because he is a very valuable piece to that Carolina offense."

5. Playing takeaway:The Panthers have been making a concerted effort to protect the ball, and that will be extremely important against an Arizona team that has recorded 14 takeaways – the second-highest total in the NFL.

But as you might recall, when these teams met in the NFC Championship, it was the Panthers who were playing takeaway. Carolina picked off Palmer four times and recovered two of his fumbles.

"We did a pretty good job of getting after those guys defensively," Davis recalled.

The Panthers would love to see a sequel of that dominant performance play out on Sunday.

View photos of the Panthers' week of practice leading up to their game against Arizona.

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