A preview and breakdown of the matchup between the Bears and Panthers on Oct. 28, 2012.
Bears offense vs. Panthers defense
The primary concern when the Bears offense takes the field will be the health of Jay Cutler and if his rib injury from last week will have any effect on his performance. Cutler had two days of full participation in practice this week and is all set to go, and fortunately the Bears won’t need him to be at his best in order to beat the Panthers. We have yet to see through six games this year just how good a tandem Matt Forte and Michael Bush can be. We caught a sneak peak against the Colts in Week 1 when the duo rushed for 122 yards and three touchdowns. Since then, they haven’t been used as much as they should be either due to injury or neglect. This week’s matchup presents offensive coordinator Mike Tice the opportunity to utilize the ground game. The Panthers are ranked just 19th against the run and the defensive line is more apt to rush the passer than defend the ground game. Defensive end Charles Johnson is the most notable of the front four. He has 3.5 sacks this year after posting 21.5 in the two prior years. Opposite Johnson, end Greg Hardy has two sacks, while defensive tackles Dwan Edwards (3.5 sacks) and Ron Edwards (1 sack) have created pressure up the middle. Veteran linebacker Jon Beason, a very solid player, was placed on IR after undergoing season-ending knee surgery. He’s battled injuries in each of the past two seasons. In his place, rookie linebacker Luke Kuechly has performed well and is currently leading the team with 51 tackles. The Panthers secondary has had its struggles this season and Brandon Marshall could have a big day taking advantage of them. Fifth-year pro Charles Godfrey anchors the defensive backfield at strong safety. He’s second on the team in tackles and has one interception. Haruki Nakamura lines up next to him at free safety after playing four years with the Ravens. At cornerback, the diminutive, 5-foot-8 Captain Munnerlyn and rookie Josh Norman will have their hands full with the Bears receivers.
Bears defense vs. Panthers offense
Bears cornerback Charles Tillman was named NFC Defensive Player of the Week for the second time in three weeks due to his coverage on Lions star receiver Calvin Johnson. His reward? Having another tough battle this week but in a different form. Tillman will go from battling a big, physical receiver to a smaller, shifty one in Carolina’s Steve Smith. Smith has had success torching the Bears secondary throughout his career, including last year’s performance of 8 receptions for 181 yards. Former Bears tight end Greg Olsen also had a big game with five catches for 50 yards and a late touchdown. Expect those two players to receive the bulk of the attention from quarterback Cam Newton, as Newton figures to be under heavy duress for most of the game if the Bears defensive line continues to play the way it has this season. Although the Bears have the top-ranked run defense up to this point, they figure to be in for a long afternoon facing the Panthers’ running trio of Newton and running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. That threesome rushed 26 times for 169 yards (6.5 yards per carry) in last year’s meeting. The key to the game might come down to the performance of the Bears linebackers as they’ll have to pull double duty in covering the middle of the field and yet remain honest in stopping the run. Brian Urlacher’s range and change of direction could be tested in this one while both dropping back to cover Olsen and pursuing Newton when the quarterback scrambles. Coming off a short week, the Bears have to guard against complacency and they really have to come out and set the tone physically. Fortunately, with a hungry defense full of veterans who feel the urgency of this season, up against an offense that is fourth-worst in scoring, the Bears defense should have the big edge in this matchup.
The talk of this week was about Devin Hester’s struggles in the return game and the revelation from coordinator Dave Toub and Hester himself that on one of the punt returns he signaled a fair catch, he had the blocking and space to make a big return, possibly for a touchdown. Hester admitted this week to Toub’s assertion that his returner wasn’t being aggressive enough, saying: “I’m going to man up and confess that I haven’t been as aggressive as I normally should be.” Hester claims he knows what mistakes he’s made and knows how to fix them. Let’s see if that’s just talk or if he’s right. The important thing for Bears fans to remember is that while the return game isn’t exactly providing highlights, the Bears overall special teams are playing really well. Robbie Gould is consistently sending kickoffs through the end zone, the coverage teams are preventing big returns that would result in dramatic shifts in field position, and Adam Podlesh is doing just enough to flip fields and give the defense a strong starting point with which to work. Their counterparts this week offer little to the opposition. Kicker Justin Medlock has just 11 touchbacks on the season despite kicking in a warm climate. That ranks him 24th in that statistic. Medlock also ranks 34th — keeping in mind there are only 32 teams in the NFL — in field goals converted. That’s more an indictment on the offense than on him, though. Punter Brad Nortman is ranked 28th in net average. Captain Munnerlyn and Joe Adams have split the punt return duties this year with Munnerlyn averaging just five yards per return and Adams 8.4. Adams, meanwhile, has been the primary kickoff returner while averaging 23.1 yards per return.
This is the type of game the Bears must win. With some tough remaining games on the schedule like Houston, San Francisco, Seattle and Green Bay, and trips to Minnesota, Arizona, and Detroit, the Bears can’t afford to trip over an opponent like the Panthers. While Carolina is certainly no pushover, they lack the talent and discipline needed to beat a seasoned Bears team like this unless the Bears refuse to take them seriously. Former Bears defensive coordinator and current Panthers head coach Ron Rivera is on the hot seat after the Panthers fired their general manager recently. Rivera has the knowledge and experience to put a solid defense on the field but he’s lacking the talent to fit his scheme. Meanwhile, second-year quarterback Cam Newton is experiencing a sophomore slump of sorts and he’s being critiqued almost as much as Cutler is for his body language and professionalism. When teams find themselves in desperate situations, that’s when they can become dangerous. But with the Bears playing this one at home and riding a wave of momentum, not to mention with one of the top defenses in the league facing one of the lowest-scoring offenses in the NFL, it’s hard to find a plausible path to victory for the Panthers.
Final Score: Chicago 27, Carolina 10