The Chicago Bears host the Carolina Panthers at Soldier Field on Sunday at noon at Soldier Field. At 5-1, the Bears are currently in first place in the NFC North, a game and a half ahead of the Minnesota Vikings and two games in front of the Green Bay Packers. At 1-5, the Panthers are in last place in the NFC South.
The two franchises have squared off seven times since Carolina joined the league in 1995. The Bears hold a 4-3 edge in the all-time series. The teams are meeting for the third straight season and the fourth time in five years. They have met once in the playoffs, a 29-21 Panthers win in the 2005 divisional playoffs.
For the Panthers, DE Antwan Applewhite (thigh) has been ruled out, while DE Thomas Keiser (elbow) is doubtful. DT Dwan Edwards (hand), TE Ben Harstock (calf), DE Charles Johnson (hip) and CB Captain Munnerlyn (leg) are all probable.
T J'Marcus Webb
Jerry Lai/US Presswire
Bears on Offense
Chicago's offensive rankings
Points scored: 8th (27.0)
Total offense: 22nd (337.8)
Rushing offense: 9th (131.5)
Passing offense: 25th (206.3)
Carolina's defensive rankings
Points allowed: 20th (24.0)
Total defense: 21st (366.2)
Rushing defense: 19th (120.3)
Passing defense: 19th (245.8)
Turnover ratio: 26th (-6)
Matchups to watch
LT J'Marcus Webb vs. DE Charles Johnson
Besides Cutler, no player is under a bigger microscope in Chicago than Webb. He had a very poor outing in Week 2 against the Packers but in the other five games this season, he's been serviceable to say the least. He hasn't given up a sack in two straight weeks, while also showing a lot of improvement as a run blocker. He'll need to again be on his game against Johnson, who has 3.5 sacks this season.
RB Matt Forte vs. LB Luke Kuechly
Chicago's rushing attack has been cooking since Forte's return from an ankle injury three weeks ago. He has rushed for 203 yards the past two games combined, which has masked some of the recent struggles in the passing game. The Bears will want to pound the rock early and often against Carolina's 19th ranked rushing defense. That means a heavy dose of Forte, with some Michael Bush sprinkled in. The Panthers lost their three-time Pro Bowl linebacker Jon Beason two weeks ago and have turned to Kuechly, a rookie out of Boston College, at middle linebacker. He's arguably the best rookie linebacker in the league, leading his team in tackles. Chicago must get him blocked if the run game is going to have success.
Keys on Offense
-For Chicago, it all starts on first down, where they are averaging a league-low 4.11 yards per play. This has forced them into 2nd-and-long and 3rd-and-long situations. The offense has to start gaining consistent yards on first down or they will continue to climb an uphill battle.
-Fortunately for the offense, they have been very good on 3rd down. The Bears are converting 41.4 percent of their third downs this year, which is tied for eighth best in the NFL.
-WR Brandon Marshall has been targeted 66 times this season, seventh most in the NFL and 44 more than any other Bears player. Don't expect that to change against Carolina, a team without its best cornerback in Chris Gamble. Marshall will likely matchup with Captain Munnerlyn, as it's doubtful the Panthers will put the rookie Josh Norman on one of the game's best receivers. Marshall has an eight-inch height advantage over Munnerlyn, so expect another big receiving game.
-WR Devin Hester played 61 snaps last week, which is nearly double his previous single-game snap count this year. The extra reps appeared to hinder him in the return game. Expect Earl Bennett to get more snaps this week, as well as Dane Sanzenbacher, in order to keep Hester fresh for his duties as a kick returner.
-Carolina boasts a powerful pass rushing defensive tackle in Dwan Edwards, who has 3.5 sacks in 2012. RG Lance Louis, C Roberto Garza and LG Chilo Rachal must work in tandem to keep Edwards out of Cutler's face.
-RT Gabe Carimi is slowly becoming a liability as a pass blocker. He's allowed three sacks and 18 hurries this year, which is tied for eighth most in the league. He'll square off against DE Greg Hardy (2.0 sacks) and DE Frank Alexander (2.5 sacks) in nickel packages. Carimi needs to start improving in pass protection; now is a good week to start.
Bears on Defense
Chicago's defensive rankings
Points allowed: 1st (13.0)
Total defense: 6th (299.3)
Rushing defense: 2nd (71.3)
Passing defense: 16th (228.0)
Turnover ratio: 1st (+13)
Carolina's offensive rankings
Points scored: 28th (17.7)
Total offense: 24th (335.5)
Rushing offense: 13th (113.7)
Passing offense: 22nd (221.8)
Matchups to Watch
CB Tim Jennings vs. WR Steve Smith
Steve Smith has torched the Bears throughout his career, including an eight-catch, 181-yard performance last season. Because Smith (5-9, 185) is a smaller, quicker receiver, the Bears like to line up Jennings (5-8, 185) across from him, leaving Charles Tillman (6-1, 198) to cover Brandon LaFell (6-2, 211). Despite being 33, Smith is still one of the most-explosive receivers in the game, especially on the deep ball. The Bears would be wise leave Tillman on an island with LaFell and roll safety help over the top of Smith, allowing Jennings to use trail technique, bracketing Carolina's best receiver.
DEs Israel Idonije and Julius Peppers vs. QB Cam Newton
Newton is one of the most athletically gifted quarterbacks in the league, one who can just as easily beat you with his feet as he can with his arm. He has struggled early on this season, throwing just five touchdowns compared to six interceptions. His 79.3 passer rating is ranked 23rd in the league. Newton has been particularly bad on third downs, completing just 43.6 percent of his passes, second worst in the NFL. So it's likely he'll want to use his legs more than his arm against Chicago's stout defense. This means Peppers and Idonije must contain the edges. If they lose contain and Newton is able to roam free, he'll make them pay on third down.
Keys on Defense
-The Panthers have a pair of quality running backs in Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams. Carolina is ranked 19th in rushing yards per game but that's mainly because they've had to fall back on the passing attack after falling behind. In rushing yards per attempt, the Panthers rank sixth in the NFL. Last season, Carolina rushed 169 yards against the Bears. Yet this is an improved Chicago rush defense, one that ranks second in the league against the run through seven weeks. If they shut down the run game, this one won't even be close.
-Bears fans know all about TE Greg Olsen, who trails only Smith in catches (26), targets (39), receiving yards (324), receiving yards per game (54.0) and first-down catches (17) for the Panthers. Down the seam, Olsen is a big threat. It's unlikely Brian Urlacher and his bum knee will be able to keep up with Olsen, so the Bears would be wise to line up a safety across from him.
-Sound tackling the biggest key in this game, particularly against Newton. When he gets to the second level, the Bears must gang tackle and make sure he can't gain big chunks of yards on the ground.
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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.