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Five things to watch vs. Minnesota: Eyes on the offense

Ikem Ekwonu

CHARLOTTE – Carolina returns to Charlotte this week looking for its first win against a team also winless on the year.

The Panthers (0-3) are taking on the Minnesota Vikings (0-3) on Sunday in Bank of America Stadium. This week, Carolina will seek out offensive improvements, with starting quarterback Bryce Young back after missing last week with an ankle injury.

Here are five things to check out as you're watching.

Bryce Young is back

Young is returning for the Vikings game after observing veteran Andy Dalton in Week 3 while recovering from an ankle injury.

He said he learned from his week along the sideline, as he looks to work toward his first win in the NFL.

"Just being able to be in a different perspective and be able to learn as much as I can from his highlights," Young said. "It was just a good perspective to have. And that's just something that's been a point of emphasis for us, as a team, obviously, not having started (well), we have to emphasize things, we have to improve the urgency, control, making sure we're executing. And that starts in a walk-through; it starts in practice. So that's really just been a point of emphasis for everyone."

Young impressed coaches as he returned to practice this week, as offensive coordinator Thomas Brown dubbed him the "maestro" of the offense while they prepared for Minnesota.

This week, the Panthers' rookie quarterback will look to improve upon his first two starts, which have resulted in a 59.2 completion percentage with 299 yards and two touchdowns with two interceptions on 42-of-71 passing.

"I think you do have to process it and understand it for what it is," Young said. "But, you know, at the end of the day, of course, obviously, it's not the start we want. But it's nothing we can change now. So, for me, I've said a lot, whether it's good or bad, you have to figure out what's next. And you have to be able to accept that and move on and try to be constructive with it."

Adam Thielen faces his former team

Wide receiver Adam Thielen spent a decade playing for his home-state Vikings, and this Sunday will be his first time facing them since he came to Carolina in free agency last March.

Thielen's getting off to a strong start here, posting 211 yards on 20 catches with two touchdowns through the first three weeks. He tallied 145 yards on 11 receptions with a touchdown last week at Seattle with Dalton in at quarterback. He has previously shown chemistry with Young as well, catching a touchdown pass and 2-point conversion from Young in Week 2 against the Saints.

Thielen said it had been a "weird" week game planning for the team he spent so many years with in Minnesota, but he also expressed gratitude for his new home in Carolina.

"It's obviously tough leaving a place that you put so much into that you gave everything you got for and, you know, maybe didn't end exactly the way that everybody thought it would," Thielen said in a press conference this week. "So there were some tough points of that, but to be here in this organization and this locker room, I'm so thankful. I didn't know where I was going to land, and I'm just kind of trusting in the process, and I'm very thankful to be here. This hasn't been the start we want to have, but, there is no panic and, I still have so much faith and trust, and love for this organization and the people we have here."

Ikem Ekwonu

Offensive line looks to correct mistakes

The Panthers came into Week 4 with a league-high 28 penalties against them. Last week at Seattle, Carolina was called for 13 – including seven false start penalties along the offensive line.

Left tackle Ikem Ekwonu took ownership of his four false start penalties after the Week 3 game.

"My focus just, it wasn't good enough at all," Ekwonu said after Seattle. "Jumping offsides four or five times is ridiculous. You know, something like four or five times in a season. Four or five times in a game is ridiculous. Something I've got to get better at that.

Mitigating penalties is part of the solution needed for the Panthers' offensive line.

As they face a Vikings defense known to blitz frequently, another key point will be protecting Young in his return to the field. The rookie took six sacks in his first two starts against Atlanta and New Orleans to begin his NFL career.

Depleted secondary faces strong Minnesota pass game

Carolina added veteran safety Xavier Woods to its long list of defensive players out this week after Woods sustained a hamstring injury at Seattle. Cornerback Jaycee Horn remains on injured reserve, leaving the Panthers without two key starters against a Minnesota pass game ranked second in the NFL with 1,019 passing yards heading into Week 4.

The Vikings boast veteran quarterback Kirk Cousins along with a deep arsenal of offensive weapons, including wide receiver Justin Jefferson (458 receiving yards this season), tight end T.J. Hockenson (179 yards), and rookie receiver Jordan Addison (185 yards).

Panthers head coach Frank Reich expressed confidence in his group, which includes backup cornerbacks CJ Henderson and Troy Hill seeing more snaps, along with special teams ace Sam Franklin Jr. taking on a more prominent role with Woods sidelined.

"I don't think it's a major adjustment," Reich said of playing without Woods. "I just think that you're losing a great player and a great communicator. But at the same time, there's been so much rotation by everybody in there that everybody's getting a lot of reps, all the way from OTAs to training camp. So I think we'll respond well."

Justin Houston, Brian Burns

Watching for records

Outside linebacker Brian Burns is on track to tally the fifth-most sacks in Panther history. With 40.5 sacks in his career, Burns is just 1.5 sacks away from the mark to pass Kevin Greene's 41.5 sack number.

Punter Johnny Hekker is out for the NFL record books. With his 335 career punts downed inside the 20-yard line, Hekker is eight away from passing Brad Maynard's 342 mark, which would put him at eighth all-time in league history.

Outside linebacker Justin Houston needs 1.5 sacks for 25th-most in league history, as he sits at 112.0 career sacks, one behind Sean Jones' 113.0 total.

View photos from the Panthers' practice on Thursday.

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