A breakdown of the matchup between the Bears and Panthers on Oct. 2, 2011.
Bears offense vs. Panthers defense
For as poorly as the Bears offense has played over the last two weeks, there is no way that Mike Martz calls a third-straight lopsided game plan, is there? I’m not so sure I can even believe that myself considering Martz’s combination of stubbornness and unpredictability. But if the Bears want to try to “right the ship,” this would be the week to do so against a Panthers team that not only ranks 25th in run defense this year, but against whom the Bears racked up 218 net rushing yards a year ago. Matt Forte’s 166 rushing yards and two touchdowns against the Panthers last year are higher than his totals through three games combined this year. It’s time to stop the assault on Jay Cutler and to get Forte more involved in the game plan considering he’s their best weapon. Martz needs to stop the pulling of linemen who can’t pull — such as Chris Williams from left guard and Roberto Garza from center — and concentrate more on straight-line running. When you have linemen who can sustain blocks, that’s when misdirection and longer, drawn-out plays will work. But when you have the Bears’ line, it’s best to keep it simple, stupid. Marion Barber, whom the Bears picked up in free agency this offseason and who has missed the first three weeks of the season with a calf injury, should make his regular season debut with the Bears and will help the run game in spot duty. The Panthers have a banged-up defense, having lost linebackers Jon Beason and Thomas Davis to season-ending injuries and might be without their No. 1 cornerback, Chris Gamble, who is listed as doubtful with post-concussion symptoms. That won’t stop Ron Rivera from sending an array of blitzes and pressure from all directions to try to get after Cutler. If you remember the Bears’ preseason game against the Chargers last year — when Rivera was defensive coordinator for San Diego — the Bears had to take Cutler out of the game after just eight plays because he got sacked once and hit a couple other times after the line could not handle Rivera’s heavy pressure. The Panthers only have five sacks this season, but that number could easily be doubled if the Bears, based on their struggles along the offensive line, can’t protect Cutler better, particularly in blitz pickup. Although Rivera will send pressure from his linebackers and the secondary, the player to keep an eye on will be defensive end Charles Johnson, who essentially replaced Julius Peppers when Peppers came to Chicago. Although the Bears have struggled mightily on offense, the Panthers have just as many problems on defense.
Bears defense vs. Panthers offense
I can’t imagine anything but a strong performance from the defense against the Panthers this weekend. I think I heard it said best on the radio this week: the Bears faced the “Murderers’ Row” of quarterbacks through the first three weeks of the season. Matt Ryan is a Top 7 quarterback while Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers are in the Top 4. Not only that, but the Saints and Packers offenses have been two of the most explosive in the last few years and the Bears held them to 382 and 392 net yards, respectively. That’s not too bad, considering that both those totals are under those teams’ respective averages on the season. The Bears will now face a rookie quarterback in Cam Newton who is third in the league with 1,012 passing yards and became the first rookie to throw for 400-plus yards in his first two starts. It’s hard to get a read on a player like that because some rookies often take the league by storm because the league isn’t ready for them. Those rookies don’t have NFL game film for opponents to study. The Bears, however, now have three weeks of film to review and I think they’ll be prepared for Newton. Newton, whom Lovie Smith said gets off the bus and looks like Julius Peppers, is a great athlete who not only has succeeded through the air but also plays a big role in the Panthers’ run game. Newton has rushed 25 times for 98 yards and two touchdowns this year. To put that in perspective, he’s carried the ball only two fewer times than starting running back DeAngelo Williams, and he’s also the team’s leading rusher. The Panthers do not run the ball well, so the Bears should have good success at stopping them. What they have done well this season is pass the ball and two of the big reasons why are also two keys for the Bears to stop in order to win the game. Wide receiver Steve Smith, whom the Bears have not faced since the 2005 playoffs when Smith shredded them, has caught 16 passes this year for 349 yards and two touchdowns, proving that he’s still got some gas in the tank at the age of 32. He’s currently the NFL’s third-leading receiver in yards and tied for 19th in receptions. Although he doesn’t possess the elite speed he did six years ago, he’s still a fast player who can burn the Bears’ secondary — particularly the banged-up safety position — if they make a mental mistake as they’ve already done this season. The other player the Bears have to contain is tight end Greg Olsen, whom the Bears traded to the Panthers prior to training camp this season. Olsen is third on the Panthers with 12 receptions for 169 yards and a game-winning touchdown reception against the Jaguars last week. Olsen, like any player whom a team gave up on, certainly would like to get back at the Bears and have the same type of game that Packers tight end Jermichael Finley had last week. The difference is Finley is more physical and imposing in stature while Olsen can be pushed around and taken out of the game. As is typically the key to success for the Bears defense, they have to get pressure up front to make Newton uncomfortable and they also have to take the ball away as often as they can.
The Bears special teams have gotten progressively better since the preseason and yet their return game remains stagnant. Something has to change and it may just be the innovation. Dave Toub’s creative design that nearly led to a punt return touchdown for Johnny Knox against the Packers was the talk of the league all week. With the Packers zeroing in on Devin Hester, Knox snuck over to the opposite sideline and caught the ball over his shoulder on the run and sprinted down the sideline untouched for a score. That play was only made possible because of Hester’s status as the greatest returner of all time, plus a pretty darn good actor to sell the fake. The Bears might not be able to run that exact play again now that it’s out there for teams to prepare for, but Toub insists the Bears still have plenty of tricks up their sleeves and I believe him. Unless the Bears can start blocking better on special teams, they’ll have to get creative. The Panthers do not have a great return game. Mike Goodson is averaging just 22.3 yards per kickoff return and Armanti Edwards just 5.8 yards per punt return. Both Robbie Gould and Panthers kicker Olindo Mare have been perfect on their field goals this season although Mare has a long of just 35 yards and is 38 years old. Adam Podlesh is sixth in the league with a 42.2-yard net punting average while Carolina’s Jason Baker is ranked 32nd with a 29.1-yard average.
The Bears have to play better on Sunday, don’t they? We’re talking about the Carolina Panthers, a team that went a league-worst 2-14 last year. The reward for their struggles was the first overall pick in the 2011 draft, which they used on Newton, but one player alone cannot make a team that much better, can he? Although Newton looks like he could have a productive career, he’s bound to suffer the lows as much as he’s been enjoying the highs. The Bears are coming off a miserable two-game stretch against the Saints and Packers, two of the league’s best teams, and will be looking to defend their home field against a conference opponent in a game that borders on must-win territory. The turf at Soldier Field is not conducive to fast players so that could slow Newton down. The Panthers run game has been a drag this season and their defense has holes all over the field — some of which were created by injuries and others just by poor play. I’m expecting a little more balance — more in the line of 60%-to-40% pass-to-run ratio — from the Bears offense this week as they move the chains better and keep the defense rested. Peppers will get after Newton and have a good game, which will help the rest of the defensive line succeed. I think it’ll be a rough game for Newton and the one-dimensional Panthers will suffer for it as the Bears even up their record and conclude Smith’s “first quarter” of the season on a positive note.
Final Score: Chicago 24, Carolina 16