Four Downs: Keys to beating the Panthers (10/02/11)

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A look at four keys for the Bears to beat the Carolina Panthers.

Panthers rookie quarterback Cam Newton has had a great start to the season, but he still has yet to be fully tested.
Panthers rookie quarterback Cam Newton has had a great start to the season, but he still has yet to be fully tested.

1. Confuse Cam Newton with pressure from different locations

Through the first three weeks of the season, Panthers rookie quarterback Cam Newton has looked impressive. Former Bears player and defensive coordinator, and current Panthers head coach Ron Rivera has heaped praise on Newton for his work ethic and leadership ability at his young age. Newton is averaging 337 passing yards per game after throwing in excess of 400 in each of his first two games against the Cardinals and Packers. Newton has been sacked eight times, 10th-most in the league, and has also thrown four interceptions, fourth-most in that category. That means he is capable of making mistakes if the Bears can apply pressure. Given that he is young and hasn’t experienced all that the NFL has to offer, it’ll be Rod Marinelli’s job to mix up the way his defense attacks Newton to try to force the young quarterback into making mistakes and giving away the football.

2. Improve field position with better production from the return game

Last year the Bears had the best starting field position of any team in the league thanks to Devin Hester, Danieal Manning and the return teams. Yet, the Bears offense still was among the league’s worst at sustaining long drives. Now that the league has moved the kickoff forward five yards, it has neutralized the Bears’ special teams prowess and the lethargic offense is having all the more difficulty moving the ball into scoring position. The special teams can help that problem by finally popping a big return if and when Hester or Johnny Knox get the opportunity to return one. Shortening the field for the offense would go a long way toward putting more points on the board and, at the very least, flipping field position and making it harder for the opposing offense to score.

3. Convert first downs and sustain drives

It’ll take more than just a good return game to help the Bears offense. The offense has to help itself and the defense, too. Part of the problem through the last two games has been the time of possession difference between the Bears and their opponents. The offense has repeatedly stalled while failing to pick up first downs and the short drives have caused the defense to be on the field longer than it should be. When loaded with talent and anchored by an offensive line that can hold blocks for more than three seconds, Mike Martz’s offense is designed to strike quickly and hit the big play. It’s time Martz concentrated less on big plays and more on setting up manageable second and third downs so that the offense can convert a few first downs, move into scoring position, and keep the defense rested.

4. Simplify the run game and man up

The Bears once again had a lopsided game plan on offense with only nine carries by Matt Forte against Green Bay. He only recorded two yards with those rushing attempts, so, that, paired with the Bears trailing the Packers all game, led Martz to abandon the run for the second straight week. Part of the problem with the run game is that Martz is getting too cutesy with it. With misdirections and a pulling center and guards, the Bears are getting dropped in the backfield almost simultaneously as Forte is taking the handoff from Jay Cutler. Left guard Chris Williams whiffed twice while pulling last week against the Packers. The simplest way to rectify this problem is to call some straight up run-blocking plays. Have the linemen fire off the ball in one direction or the other and just let Forte hit whatever small crease is available. Will this yield big results? Probably not. But it’ll preserve Cutler, eat up time, and wear down the defense so that eventually a big run might open up. Marion Barber practiced fully on Wednesday and may make his regular season debut on Sunday. If that’s the case, let him pound the holes and wear down the linemen so that Forte can evade them in the fourth quarter.

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