In a game that made it seem as though we were watching sandlot football, the Bears outlasted the Panthers on Sunday and secured a much-needed, 34-29 conference victory.
Neither team seemed to want to play defense — or maybe they just couldn’t — as the two offenses combined for 860 total yards and 63 points.
The Bears took advantage of a Panthers defense missing several key cogs by stuffing the ball down their throats for 224 rushing yards behind a strong day from Matt Forte. In unconventional fashion, Mike Martz called seven-straight run plays on the Bears’ first possession as the offense marched right down the field. On third-and-goal, which would seemingly suggest a passing down, Cutler operated out of shotgun formation and ran a quarterback draw. The play came up two yards short and the Bears settled for a field goal, but the eight-run-play drive clearly showed the Bears had every intention of exploiting the Panthers’ woeful run defense and that drive was just the beginning of something special.
Following the Robbie Gould field goal, Panthers rookie quarterback Cam Newton forced a pass over the middle on Carolina’s next series that was tipped in the air and intercepted by D.J. Moore. The Bears’ nickelback had a penchant for being in the right place at the right time last year and he has picked up where he left off. Moore returned the interception for a touchdown to give the Bears a 10-3 lead
The Panthers answered in quick fashion with a touchdown drive on the next series. Newton ran the ball in from one yard out to tie the game at 10.
For three straight weeks the Bears have sputtered while trying to return kickoffs due to the new kickoff rule and shoddy blocking. By taking Devin Hester out of the return game, teams can neutralize his value to the Bears because he’s not a very good receiver. Fortunately, Hester contributed to the win in a big way on special teams.
First, on the ensuing kickoff after the Newton touchdown run, Hester fielded the ball nine yards deep in the end zone. After deciding to take it out, he crossed the field from right to left and found a lot of green down the left sideline. Unfortunately, Chris Conte missed the opportunity to spring Hester for a touchdown by neglecting to block kicker Olindo Mare, who was out in front of the play, and instead looking behind him for somebody to block. Nevertheless, Hester’s return set up a Forte 17-yard touchdown run.
Hester’s next contribution came on the following series. After a three-and-out by the Panthers offense, punter Jason Baker kicked the ball right down the middle of the field. Hester corralled it, hit the holes, and was off to the end zone for his NFL-record 11th punt return touchdown.
It seemed like Hester’s punt return was the turning point in the game, the point at which the Bears broke open the contest and were on their way to a rout. That was not the case. With a 24-10 lead, the offense began to stall and the defense relented as the Panthers stormed their way back into the game.
Newton brought the Panthers to within seven after he scored his second rushing touchdown of the game. Mare tacked on another field goal and the score was 24-20 heading into halftime.
Neither team managed to score in the third quarter but the Panthers continued to dominate offensively. About midway through the third, the Panthers began a drive at their eight-yard line and marched down the field, almost undeterred. They picked up four first downs on the drive and only had one third down. Newton connected with Jeremy Shockey for an apparent 22-yard touchdown on the drive, but Shockey was flagged for offensive pass interference. The call was spotty, as it appeared Charles Tillman was stumbling on his own accord, but, as color commentator Brian Billick pointed out, Shockey extended his arm out to ward off Tillman, which is a penalty.
The Panthers had to settle for a field goal, but Julius Peppers came up big with a block, something he’s done so well throughout his career.
Unfortunately for the Bears, the offense sputtered on the next series and had to punt the ball away. Once again, Carolina’s offense began a drive deep in its own end, but they managed to once more gash the Bears defense and move down the field with ease. Mare kicked a 38-yard field goal to bring the Panthers to within one, 24-23.
In the middle of the fourth quarter, while in the midst of an offensive drought, the Bears made a key play that turned out to be a confidence builder. Facing a fourth-and-one at midfield — nursing just a one-point lead — the Bears risked field position and decided to go for the first down. Forte plowed through the line for a four-yard gain and a new set of downs. The first down gave them new life and they continued moving the chains before concluding the drive with a Gould field goal with under seven minutes to play.
With less than two minutes to go, the Panthers failed to convert on fourth down and the Bears took over. On their first play, Forte completed his great game with a 40-yard run down to the Panthers’ three-yard line. Two plays later, Marion Barber scored his first touchdown as a Bear and celebrated with a backflip — almost. He wound up on his face. Not the smartest idea for a guy who missed the first three games with a calf injury.
The Panthers tried to make a last-ditch effort at a comeback and Newton found former Bear Greg Olsen for a three-yard score, but their two-point conversion attempt failed and their onside kick attempt was a squib that Hester fielded and secured for the win.
For the glass-is-half-full audience who witnessed the Bears’ triumph, the story of the game was Forte’s 205-yard rushing day, making him only the third Bears running back in history to top the 200-yard plateau. Of course, credit Mike Martz — or, should we give the credit to Lovie Smith? — for calling such a run-heavy game plan against one of the league’s worst run defenses. The Bears called 31 run plays — including the Cutler draw on the opening drive — compared to just 17 pass plays, which is a complete 180-degree turn from the past two weeks when the run game was all but nonexistent.
Subplot one for the optimistic was the protection Cutler received from the offensive line. Sure, he had defenders in his face on a number of occasions, including on one play in which he got jittery and overthrew Johnny Knox for an interception. But he was sacked just one time and the conservative game plan prevented him from getting roughed up as has become the weekly ritual.
And if you’re looking for a second subplot as an optimistic fan, how about the defense and special teams coming up big with scores after seeming irrelevant through the first three weeks?
Now, for those of you who are the half-empty glass analyzers — and I’ve already read plenty of the pessimism from the Chicago media as well as hearing a lot of complaining from postgame callers to radio stations — you’re clearly upset with the defensive performance, and you have every right to be. We’re used to seeing quarterbacks slice and dice the defense for big chunks of yardage because that’s how the system operates. But we’re not used to, nor can we stomach, a team shredding the Bears for 169 rushing yards.
Henry Melton failed to show up on the stat sheet for the second time in four weeks and the rest of the defensive tackles did next to nothing to deter the Panthers from running up the gut on them. Matt Toeaina had a shot at a sack but could not wrap up Newton. Sure, Newton is an athletic quarterback with good escapability, but when the quarterback is in your grasp, you have to make the play. Amobi Okoye and Anthony Adams barely had their names mentioned.
I won’t pin all the blame on the defensive tackles, though. Israel Idonije had all but a few pressures and Peppers wasn’t much of a factor, at least not on defense. His field goal block was a big play.
For this defense to operate — and this cannot be stressed enough — the defensive line, particularly the three-technique, has to put more pressure on the quarterback. They also have to explode into the backfield and disrupt running plays, because if they don’t shoot their gaps and cause disruption in this gap-control defense, the opposing running backs will be at the second level in a heartbeat.
The most important thing at the end of the day was that the Bears evened their record at 2-2 and kept pace with the Packers and Lions, both of whom are 4-0 and are playing great football to start the season. The Bears have a tough task traveling to Detroit next Monday for a nationally-televised showdown with their division rivals.
If they run the ball half as effectively as they did against the Panthers, they have a shot at keeping the Lions’ explosive offense on the sideline and controlling the tempo of the game.
The longer the Bears defense has to stay on the field and try to cover Calvin Johnson, among others, the tougher it’ll be to leave with a win.
Check back later in the day for a few more thoughts from Sunday’s game.