Bears-Panthers Ultimate Game Preview

Our ridiculously deep collection of notes, stats and quotes to prepare for Sunday’s Week 5 NFC matchup between the Chicago Bears and Carolina Panthers.

SERIES HISTORY

Sunday’s game will be the ninth all-time contest between the Chicago Bears (2-2) and the Carolina Panthers (2-2), with the Bears holding a 5-3 edge, which includes winning the last three in a row. The Bears won the last meeting in 2012, a 23-22 victory in which Chicago overcame a 19-7 fourth-quarter deficit to win on a last-second Robbie Gould field goal.

Sunday’s contest will be the fifth meeting between the two franchises in the past seven years, and the fourth in the last five. The two teams met once in the playoffs, a 29-21 Panthers victory in the 2005 Divisional Playoffs.

The Bears are 2-0 on the road this year, having beaten the Jets in New Jersey and the 49ers in Santa Clara.

INJURIES

For the Bears, the following players have been ruled out:

T Jermon Bushrod, knee/ankle S Ahmad Dixon, hamstring LB Shea McClellin, hand DT Jeremiah Ratliff, concussion

Michael Ola will start at left tackle for Bushrod, Jon Bostic will start in place of McClellin at linebacker and Will Sutton will replace Ratliff at defensive tackle.

The following Bears are doubtful:

C Roberto Garza, ankle CB Sherrick McManis, quadriceps

Brian de la Puente will start for Garza and Isaiah Frey will work at nickelback in place of McManis.

Left guard Matt Slauson is questionable but expected to play.

The following Bears are probable:

DE Jared Allen, illness LB Lance Briggs, knee S Chris Conte, shoulder WR Brandon Marshall, ankle LB D.J. Williams, neck

For the Panthers, TE/FB Richie Brockel (ankle) and RB DeAngelo Williams have been ruled out. RB Jonatahn Stewart (knee) is doubtful. TE Ed Dickson (hip) is listed as questionable.

The following Carolina players are probable:

DT Coline Cole, not injury related LB Thomas Davis, hip DT Dwan Edwards, not injury related DE Charles Johnson, hip CB Melvin White, thigh RB Fozzy Whittaker, thigh

THE CUTLER REPORT

Jay Cutler is coming off his second two-interception performance of the year. Not coincidentally, the Bears are 0-2 in both of those contests.

Cutler’s 10 passing touchdowns are tied for second most in the NFL, while his 1,006 passing yards are 10th most. His 65.8 completion percentage and 94.7 QB rating are both career highs. Cutler has also added 68 rushing yards (5.2 ypc), sixth most amongst quarterbacks.

At his current pace, Cutler will finish 2014 with 4,016 passing yards, 40 touchdowns and 16 interceptions.

Cutler is on pace to set career highs in nearly every statistical category. He has taken a step forward in his second year under Trestman, yet his five turnovers – four interceptions, one fumble – have been killers, with each of his four picks thrown in enemy territory.

And so it will go for Cutler and the Bears this season. If Cutler doesn’t turn the ball over and plays at a consistently high level, as he’s done through the first quarter of the season, Chicago is going to win 10 or 11 games this year, no matter the performance of the defense. The offense can be that good but only if he ceases the costly interceptions.

The Panthers boast the 12th-ranked passing defense, so they present a tough test. Yet there should be plenty of opportunities against starting cornerbacks Antoine Cason and Josh Norman, who replaces Melvin White, who was benched this week. Opposing quarterbacks have a QB rating of 110.3 when throwing at Cason, who has given up two touchdowns already this year. Norman, an undisciplined defender who himself was benched a few years ago, hasn’t started a game since Week 13 of the 2012 season.

Throwing to a healthy Marshall and Jeffery, Cutler can have a lot of success against Carolina’s wide corners, but only if he’s smart with the ball. The Panthers had one of the league’s best defenses last season and, while they haven’t been as strong this year, they will still make you pay for dumb throws into double coverage.

“Their secondary is all good players,” Cutler said this week. “Their front seven is really good. They're going to get some pressure. They throw some different looks at you, throw a lot of different coverages at you, so you have to be on it.”

Cutler Career vs. Carolina

GP/GSAtt.Comp.YardsTDINT Rating
Jay Cutler3/378494602371.5

HEAD-TO-HEAD COMPARISON

BEARS (NFL Rank) PANTHERS (NFL Rank)
23.0 (T-17th)Points Scored18.3 (28th)
349.0 (20th)Total Offense327.8 (25th)
106.8 (20th)Rushing Offense71.0 (29th)
242.3 (14th)Passing Offense256.8 (13th)
25.0 (22nd)Points Allowed24.0 (T-17th)
372.8 (22nd)Total Defense373.8 (23rd)
122.5 (20th)Rushing Defense140.8 (27th)
250.3 (20th)Passing Defense233.0 (12th)
2 (T-9th)Turnover Ratio3 (T-7th)

BEARS ON OFFENSE

Matchups to Watch

WR Brandon Marshall vs. CB Antoine Cason

Marshall said this week that he’s finally recovered from the ankle injury that has plagued him the past three contests.

“I feel great. I can pretty much do everything,” said Marshall. “I was practicing much better this week, much better. It feels good to go out there and be back with the guys. After a while you kind of get out of shape a little bit and I feel like I got my wind back and feel more explosive, so it's good.”

Marshall has just eight catches the past three weeks and his miscommunication with Cutler last week led to the second interception. With a week of practice under his belt, the Bears believe those communication issues will soon end.

“It's hard, any position it's hard to miss practice and then line up on Sunday and be perfect, just with the little details that we put into the week and tweak things and for defenses and different coverages and things that we see,” Cutler said. “So it's definitely good to have him out there, just to make sure all the details are taken care of.”

Cason, in his first year with the Panthers, is a seven-year veteran who is decent in man coverage but not great. He’s been beaten twice for scores through the first four games. If Marshall is healthy and has a big game against Cason, as well as Norman on the other side of the field, the passing attack will shift into second gear.

LT Michael Ola vs. DEs Wes Horton and Mario Addison

Ola will be making his first NFL start at left tackle, so it’s anyone’s guess how he’ll perform on the edge. He was serviceable at left guard in place of Slauson, showing good movement and balance in pass protection. That will have to carry over to tackle if the Bears have any hope of keeping Cutler’s blindside clean.

Horton will square off against Ola on 1st and 2nd down, while Addison will rush off the edge on passing downs. Addison, who played for the Bears in 2011, is tied for third in the NFL with 3.5 sacks. If those two take advantage of Ola, Cutler will get happy feet in the pocket and turnovers will commence.

Keys to the Game

-Moving Panthers NT Star Lotulelei at the point of attack can be a nearly impossible task at times. The reason LB Luke Kuechly was the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2013 had much to do with Lotulelei’s ability to occupy at least two blockers on nearly every play.

The addition of Slauson will be a big boost to the interior of Chicago’s offensive line, as he’s the only “mauler” on the roster. Yet even Slauson won’t be enough to keep Lotulelai at bay. The double teams at the point of attack must be sound to limit the big man’s ability to penetrate.

-As far as Kuechly, many believe he’s yet to play to his potential this year, yet he still leads the NFL in tackles (46). He’s a sideline-to-sideline linebacker with great instincts and tackling ability. If the offensive line can’t occupy Kuechly at the second level, RB Matt Forte will find no room to run.

-In four games against Carolina, Forte has 460 rushing yards at 6.3 yards per carry, with four touchdowns. Forte is coming off a season-high 122 rushing yards and will need a repeat performance to keep Carolina’s defense honest.

-RT Jordan Mills faces a tough test against DE Charles Johnson. Despite not picking up a sack so far this season, Johnson is still a handful off the right edge. He’s accumulated 45.0 sacks and 10 forced fumbles the past four years combined, so it’s only a matter of time before the veteran goes off. If Mills struggles, Johnson’s breakout game will come tomorrow.

BEARS ON DEFENSE

Matchups to Watch

CB Kyle Fuller vs. WR Kelvin Benjamin

Benjamin is the only threat the Panthers possess at wide receiver. The rookie already has 21 receptions for 329 yards and 3 TDs, with one score apiece in his last two games. Benjamin is huge (6-5, 240) and presents a tough test in jump-ball situations, particularly in the red zone.

“He’s a tough match up now. He’s got length. He’s got speed. He’s strong to the ball and will block in the run game,” defensive coordinator Mel Tucker said. “I think he makes it a point at the beginning of every game to try and set the tone in terms of how he’s going to play and he’s a big-play guy for them.”

Fuller will draw Benjamin in man coverage and needs to have a better outing than he did in Week 4, when Green Bay’s Jordy Nelson posted 10 catches for 108 yards and 2 TDs.

“We’re just going to go out there and play,” said Tucker. “Use the technique and fundamentals that we’re teaching. It doesn’t matter how big a guy is, size-wise or anything like that.”

DE Lamarr Houston vs. RT Nate Chandler

Chandler has been horrible this season, allowing three sacks and eight QB hurries through four games. At the same time, Houston has made very few impact plays for the Bears. He has just three total tackles and zero sacks. An outing against Chandler could be just what Houston needs to emerge as the playmaker the Bears thought they were getting when they signed him to a $35-million free-agent contract. But if Houston can’t make it happen against one of the worst pass-blocking right tackles in the league, we might have to start lowering our expectations.

Keys to the Game

-The Panthers are a complete mess at running back, with the club’s top four backs in the infirmary. That leaves just undrafted rookie Darrin Reaves to handle the rushing duties for Carolina’s offense. Reaves has just 12 carries in his career. If the Bears are disciplined in their run fits, they should have very little trouble keeping Reaves under wraps.

-Cam Newton is hampered by ankle and rib injuries, which is why he’s carried the ball just eight times for 33 yards. For a player who has topped 33 yards in 32 of his last 48 starts, it’s unusual to see Newton spend so much time in the pocket.

Yet that hasn’t been such a bad thing, as Newton has completed 63.8 percent of his passes and has yet to throw an interception. With that in mind, Chicago’s secondary must take advantage of every opportunity to create turnovers. If they can force Newton into mistakes and win the turnover battle, the Bears should win this one going away.

PREDICTION: Bears 24, Panthers 16

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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his fourth season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter.

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