After two straight losses, the Chicago Bears look to rebound this weekend with a home win against the Carolina Panthers. It's essentially a must win for both teams if they want to keep their playoff hopes alive. Of the 12 teams that made the playoffs last season, none started 1-3.
This will be the sixth regular-season meeting between the two clubs. Chicago leads the series, 3-2. The Bears dominated the Panthers 23-6 last October in Julius Peppers' return to Bank of America Stadium.
Carolina hired first-time head coach Ron Rivera this offseason. It will be an emotional game for him, as he played for the Bears, winning a Super Bowl in 1985, and served as the team's defensive coordinator from 2004-2006. His roots to the area and the team run deep.
The Panthers are coming off their first win of the season against the Jacksonville Jaguars last week, where rookie QB Cam Newton found TE Greg Olsen late in the fourth quarter for the game-winning touchdown. They come into town with plenty of momentum, whereas the Bears are still reeling from last week's miserable loss to the Green Bay Packers.
Both teams have been dealt major blows due to injury. For Chicago, T Gabe Carimi and WR Earl Bennett will not play. S Chris Harris looks like he'll miss his third-straight game. TE Matt Spaeth is also doubtful. The Panthers have lost two of their starting linebackers, Pro Bowler Jon Beason and Thomas Davis. It also appears they'll be without starting cornerback Chris Gamble, and RT Jeff Otah is questionable with a back injury.
Keys to the Game
QB Cam Newton
rian A. Westerholt/Getty
-First and foremost for Chicago's defense is to limit the effectiveness of Cam Newton. The rookie has played extremely well in his first three career games. He's third in the league in passing yards and he leads his team in rushing. He's a dual threat that must be contained. The front seven cannot allow him room to run when plays break down. He can be deadly on third downs using his legs to keep drives alive. It wouldn't be surprising if the Bears use Brian Urlacher to shadow Newton so as to keep his rushing yards to a minimum. Defensive ends Julius Peppers and Israel Idonije must keep contain on the edges and not allow the speedy quarterback to get to the sidelines. By corralling him inside the pocket, the Bears' defense will be able to take away a crucial aspect of his game.
-Steve Smith is the only wideout Chicago needs to worry about. Newton looks his way early and often. The Bears will be starting Brandon Meriweather at free safety in place of Chris Harris. He needs to roll Smith's way on nearly every play, providing bracket coverage on Carolina's only deep threat. Smith has singlehandedly beaten the Bears in the past. CB Charles Tillman will likely be tasked with covering him one-on-one. He needs to chuck the receiver at the line and not give him big cushions. If Smith gets into a comfort level, he can be extremely dangerous, especially running after the catch. Making his day miserable will go a long way toward shutting down Carolina's passing attack.
-The Panthers utilize a two-headed monster at tight end with Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey. Both are pure pass catchers and have played very well up to this point. Matched up on most linebackers, these two will have the advantage. Lance Briggs and Nick Roach cannot cover them one-on-one. It wouldn't be surprising for the Bears to use a heavy dose of nickel in order to get an extra corner on the field to matchup with the tight ends. Both can work the underneath routes and Olsen is deadly down the hash. The Bears have been awful against opposing tight ends so far, with both Jimmy Graham and Jermichael Finley eating up the secondary the past two weeks. Now they face a pair of quality tight ends. If Shockey and Olsen get in a rhythm, especially on third downs, the Panthers will be able to move the ball.
-Under head coach John Fox the past few seasons Carolina was a run-first team using the tandem of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. That rushing attack is still in place but it has been far less effective under Rivera. Both are averaging less than four yards per carry and have been outrushed by Newton through the first three games. Yet they cannot be forgotten about as booth backs can still do damage.
-If Otah can't play, that would create an extremely weak right side for Carolina's offensive line. DT Henry Melton needs to take advantage of Geoff Hangartner, whom the Bills cut late in the offseason, and get pressure up the middle. The same goes for Amobi Okoye. Carolina's signal caller is still a rookie and getting players in his face will surely rattle him and could force a few turnovers.
RB Marion Barber
Don McPeak/US Presswire
-If the Bears cannot run the ball this week, then the situation can be officially classified as hopeless. The Panthers have two sub-par rookies at defensive tackle and are without two starting linebackers. The team will finally get Marion Barber on the field, which will help keep Matt Forte fresh throughout the game. Expect the Bears to run early and often in an effort to wear down Carolina's front seven. RG Lance Louis is listed as probably, although it's unclear if he'll be starting. Chris Spencer has filled in well in Louis' absence, while LG Chris Williams has struggled. Whatever combination line coach Mike Tice throws out there, the interior of the line needs to step up and open some holes, otherwise we can close the book on the Bears in 2011.
-Jay Cutler needs his confidence back. The Bears have allowed the most sacks in the league and are on pace to give up 75 this season. The bleeding has to stop. Cutler had good time last week yet he was so preoccupied with the pass rush that he couldn't focus downfield. He has seemed jittery in the pocket, and for good reason, resulting in a number of poor throws and bad reads. If the line can give him time to throw early in the game and he can establish a rhythm, Cutler could again be the player who was lights out this preseason.
-Every defensive coordinator in the league knows that bringing pressure can derail Chicago's offense. Expect Carolina's Sean McDermott to follow suit. Tackles J'Marcus Webb and Frank Omiyale need to be strong on the edge and work in tandem with the guards, tight ends and running backs to get the blitzers picked up. With that accomplished, the onus falls onto the receivers. They've been given plenty of one-on-one opportunities the past two weeks due to the number of blitzes executed by the opposing defenses. Yet no one has stepped up and exploited the man coverage. Roy Williams, Johnny Knox and Devin Hester must raise their game and get open. It doesn't do any good for the line to pick up an all-out blitz if the receivers can't create space. And when the ball does come their way, they must haul it in. Drops are killing this team.
-I've written all year that TE Kellen Davis needs to be used more in the passing game but apparently coordinator Mike Martz has other plans. He's been targeted just eight times all season. Last week, he was targeted twice, and he promptly took his one catch for a 32-yard TD. His size and athleticism could make him a matchup nightmare for Carolina's weak crop of linebackers but he'll most likely be asked to stay in and block, something at which he's awful. Pay attention to how his talents will again be wasted in this game.
-Receiver Dane Sanzenbacher has found a groove in this offense. Cutler looks his way often in the red zone, looking to utilize the receiver's quickness on underneath routes. With Bennett still sidelined with a chest injury, Sanzenbacher again will see plenty of time on the field. He's the most reliable receiver on the team right now so expect the Bears to line him up all over the field. If he can get a mismatch on a safety or linebacker, expect Cutler to take advantage.
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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.