The 1-2 Carolina Panthers, coming off their first win of the season, head into Soldier Field with Cam Newton riding one of the best rookie quarterback starts I’ve ever seen. He’s currently one of two quarterbacks to have thrown for over 1,000 yards so far this season. Along with Newton, comes ex-Bear and head coach Ron Rivera, making his first trip back to Soldier Field since he was Chicago’s defensive coordinator in 2006. And don’t forget Cutler’s former go-to-guy, Greg Olsen.
Upon looking at the Bears’ schedule before the season began, I had this one marked down as an easy victory. But, as it stands, that’s not the case anymore. The Bears offense has been completely pathetic thus far, making Cam Newton and company a real threat to put up more points than Cutler and Co. This is without a doubt a key game for Chicago. If they drop this one, you fall behind three games to, possibly both, Detroit and Green Bay. If the Bears want to show that they aren’t the team they appear to be, this game must be a complete win; dominant on defense, and a return (or better) to how they played offensively in week one.
Keys to the Game
Get off the bus running: Everyone’s screaming for balance, but the offensive line needs to figure out how to block first. This is the week to find that success and build some confidence. Matt Forte had more yards in one game against the Panthers last year, than the Bears have through three games combined this season. After Matt Forte's eight inches per carry last week, the Bears have to run the ball well on Sunday. The return of Marion the Barbarian might help out, too. Bottom line: do whatever it takes to establish a running game.
Brainwash Mike Martz: Someone needs to hypnotize this man and make him STOP calling seven-step drops. Cutler is a run-and-gun quarterback who’s best on the move. Go to a short three and five-step drop passing game and get the ball in the playmaker's hands early. Last week, Martz didn't roll Cutler out once. That has to end now. Roll Cutler out, help the receivers out, let him see it and throw.
If Healthy, Get Matt Spaeth on the Field: I'll save you the bad puns about Spaeth (this time) and just say, “Put this man on the field to help block.” Kellen Davis cannot block to save his mother’s life. Put Kellen or Spaeth in the full back spot if you have to so that the threat in the passing game is still there with Davis.
Throw to the Tight End: Kellen showed last week that he can be effective in the passing game. He’s faster than he appears and can break tackles unlike the late Greg Olsen. He’s a big target for Jay, and you can bet Cutler wants him on the field more.
Stop The Run: The Bears have allowed big chunks of yards up the middle this year to powerful runners. In comes Johnathan Stewart, who is fast and strong. Urlacher and company have to control the middle and put a stop to it. The Bears haven't been close to what they were last season at defending the run, and you can’t let the Panthers establish a run game. That makes life too easy for the rookie Newton.
Things to Look For
Is Cutler Gun-shy? Cutler keeps appearing more and more gun-shy as the time passes. A late hit here, an un-blocked freight train defensive end there, a kick to the throat or two … all that has him feeling pressure that’s not there at times. No, Jay’s not quite dead yet, but he’s seeing ghosts out there. The Bears need to get Cutler comfortable ASAP. When you watch Jay, it’s clear that he is no longer the fearless guy that came to Chicago in 2009.
Greg Olsen: The past two weeks, the Bears have had trouble stopping the opposition’s tight ends; first Jimmy Graham, and then Jermichael Finley. Now Greg Olsen. All of these guys have similar skill sets, and Olsen could be a problem for this defense.
Anything Really Left in Barber’s Tank? The question remains to be seen if Marion Barber can still be the beast that he was in his limited preseason playing time. Injuries have killed him over the past few seasons, and if he can come out and prove that he is still a tough runner who can contribute, it will greatly help the Bears’ rushing attack.
Cover-2: I expect the Bears to play a lot of pure Cover-2 against Cam Newton. Rookies tend to struggle against good Cover-2 teams. Much of Newton’s success thus far in the passing game has come off of big shots down-field. And that’s exactly what the Bears are good at shutting down. They force QBs to take their time with short gains. A rookie will often show his stripes when put in that position. The Bears may be able to bait him into a few key mistakes.
As far as my prediction, I'm really torn. My head says pick the Bears because they are just the better team, but my gut feeling is that because of Ron Rivera coming into town, and the Bears offense struggling to score completely, the Panthers will win.
Prediction: Bears 24, Panthers 16.