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What to watch: Panthers at Redskins


Understandably, large chunks of the chatter surrounding Sunday's matchup between the Carolina Panthers and the Washington Redskins has centered on the showdown between the last two Heisman Trophy winners.

"I don't have to play against Cam Newton," Redskins rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III said. "I just have to play against their defense."

That is true, but it's also true that how Newton and Griffin play will go a long way toward determining a winner. Griffin has enjoyed a better statistical season to date, and the Redskins (3-5) have a better record than the Panthers (1-6), but that won't matter much Sunday.

Both teams are hungry for a victory, with the Panthers struggling through a five-game losing streak and the Redskins on a two-game skid. Beyond the obvious Griffin vs. Newton matchup, here are some keys for the Panthers being the ones to end their drought.

MANAGING MORRIS: Sometimes lost in the buzz around Griffin is that the Redskins rank second in the NFL with 166.2 rushing yards per game. Another rookie, sixth-rounder Alfred Morris out of Florida Atlantic, is third in the NFL with 717 rushing yards.

The Panthers are in the middle of the pack in terms of run defense for the season, but they've improved significantly of late. Each of their last three opponents has failed to reach 100 yards, a stretch that featured Marshawn Lynch (second in NFL in yards) and Panthers nemesis Matt Forte.


BE READY TO PLAY (ACTION): The Redskins run game features the zone-read option that the Panthers have primarily employed with Newton, but Washington uses play action out of the look significantly more than the Panthers – and with great success.

"They do a lot of tricky stuff to try to catch you undisciplined. And when you get undisciplined, they make you pay for it," Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. "They try to put the secondary to sleep, and then all of a sudden they hit you with an 80-yard touchdown pass. We know they're going to run the ball. The secondary just has to be ready for play action."

BE PREPARED TO PASS: The Redskins defense has consistently been vulnerable to the passing game, yielding league highs in yards per game (314.2) and passing touchdowns (19).

The Panthers are plenty capable of exploiting that weakness, but Newton must be strong with the ball. Washington has somewhat made up for its issues by picking off 10 passes. Only two NFL teams have more interceptions.

Newton has thrown interceptions (three total) in each of the Panthers' last two games, but before that he didn't toss a pick in three of four games. He should have ample opportunity to throw to Steve Smith and Co. on Sunday but must be on-target.

BE WILLING TO RUN: Featuring more of a power game than the read option look, the Panthers grinded out a respectable 119 rushing yards last Sunday against a Chicago team that leads the league in run defense.

The Redskins aren't easy to run on, either, ranking 10th with 92.1 yards allowed per game, but the Panthers must run the ball at times.

"I'd like to see if pick up from where we were," Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said. "I thought there were some really good things. Sprinkling in some of the quarterback read stuff was good, too. Depending on how the flow of the game is, you can do more or do less of it, but I like the mixture that we had."

Explosive running plays obviously are invaluable, but so is the ability to gain five yards on a first-down play or have confidence in third-and-short situations.

BE SHARP ON SPEICAL TEAMS: If the game comes down to a field goal, it will be a battle of former UCLA kickers that are in the process of becoming battle-tested.

The Panthers feature Justin Medlock, a rookie in 2007 enjoying his first extended NFL stay after a long stint in the Canadian Football League. Medlock is 7-for-7 on field goals, including five last Sunday at Chicago.

The Redskins feature Kai Forbath, a second-year pro who made his NFL debut three games ago. He is 6-for-6 so far.

And on paper, this looks like the kind of game that could come down to a kick.

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