Four Downs: Keys to beating the Panthers (10/10/10)

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A look at four keys for the Bears to beat this week’s opponent.

1. Make a commitment to the run game
It’s a fact we knew the moment that Mike Martz was hired as offensive coordinator and were prepared for before the season even began. It was evident that Martz historically ignored the run and focused more on the passing game. After witnessing last week’s dismantling of Jay Cutler, surely Lovie Smith has gotten into Martz’s face and let him know that he’d like to see more from the run game. We know Matt Forte and Chester Taylor haven’t had much success this season due to a lack of running room, but the Bears must make an effort to run the football this week. Even a running attack that doesn’t net a healthy yards-per-carry average can still play a factor in a game plan. I keep referencing the 2007 Bears-Packers game at Lambeau Field, three years ago tomorrow (Oct. 7). Cedric Benson rushed 27 times for 64 yards, a paltry 2.3 yards per carry. But because Benson rushed more times than Brian Griese threw the ball that game, it set up the game-winning touchdown. On third-and-two and with a little over two minutes to go, the Packers stacked the box as the Bears came out in a running formation. The Packers bit on the playaction fake and Griese hit a wide open Desmond Clark for a 34-yard touchdown. If the Bears had attempted to run the ball more against the Giants, how many less sacks would Cutler have taken? How much less punishment would he have endured? What’s to stop a defensive line from pinning its ears back and rushing the passer every play if they know the Bears won’t run the ball? If Culter plays this week, I hope Martz commits to running the ball more to lessen the beating he’ll take. If he doesn’t play, that’s all the more reason to run.

2. Get rid of the ball quickly on passing downs
You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. That old adage rings true. While you may be able to introduce him to new concepts, he’s still going to do what he knows best. So, even if Smith has commanded Martz to call more run plays this week, that doesn’t mean Martz will stick to the game plan. In fact, Martz is notorious for changing the game plan on the fly based on what he sees in the game. Hopefully he’ll learn from last week and understand the importance of getting rid of the ball quickly. Martz certainly learned that during the Dallas game and Cutler and the offense adjusted and Cutler was able to get rid of the ball before the pressure could get to him. In a perfect world, Martz would be blessed with a solid offensive line featuring at least two Pro Bowlers that would allow Cutler to take seven-step drops and spread the field like the days of the Greatest Show on Turf. He can’t do that with one of the league’s worst lines. Here’s hoping that whoever is taking snaps from Olin Kreutz, he’ll have more three- and five-step drops and hit more receivers underneath the coverage.

3. Focus on defending the run
The Panthers have a rookie quarterback under center and will be missing at least one, and maybe two of their top receivers this week. Dwayne Jarrett, a talented underachiever, was released by the team on Tuesday after his second arrest in less than three years for driving while impaired. Their top target, Steve Smith, suffered a high ankle sprain and may not play this week. Panthers coach John Fox said Smith was day-to-day, but Smith was walking around on crutches Wednesday and doesn’t look ready to play anytime soon. Regardless of who is at wide receiver, the Panthers have always been a running team featuring a talented duo in DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. The Panthers run game only ranks 17th, so they’re not without their problems. The Bears defense got its first real test of the season last week from Ahmad Bradshaw, who rushed for 129 yards on 23 carries, and Brandon Jacobs, who rushed for 62 yards on 6 carries, but a good chunk of those yards came late in the game when the contest was already getting out of hand. If the Bears can stop the Panthers’ run game, it’ll put that much more pressure on young Jimmy Clausen.

4. Put pressure on Clausen
After a modest starting debut in Week 3 against the Bengals, Clausen nearly led the Panthers to an upset over the Saints last week. Still, his numbers are far from flashy and the majority of rookie quarterbacks will buckle under pressure. Clausen has thrown two interceptions, has fumbled four times and lost two of them, and has been sacked four times in his two and a half games of action this season. I think back to last week’s triumphant return to Philadelphia for current Redskins quarterback Donovan McNabb and I’m hoping for a similarly triumphant return for Julius Peppers. It’s unknown as of now if new defensive end Charles Grant will play on Sunday, but if he does I’m sure he’ll help upgrade the defensive line. Grant has had a successful career in the NFL and is flat-out a better player than Mark Anderson. Whichever three players are lining up next to Peppers, the onus is on the front four to generate a consistent pass rush that will rattle Clausen. Even if the Bears can’t sack him, they at least have to make him feel uncomfortable with the hopes that he’ll turn the ball over.

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