Chicago Bears vs. Carolina Panthers game preview

Chicago Bears vs. Carolina Panthers game preview
Bears coach Lovie Smith chats with Panthers coach (and former Bears defensive coordinator) Ron Rivera during pregame warm-ups at Soldier Field in 2011. — José M. Osorio, Chicago Tribune

Despite a somewhat promising 2011 campaign that saw the Panthers to a 6-10 record with reason for future optimism—that reason namely being quarterback Cam Newton, who ran away with NFL Rookie of the Year honors—Carolina’s football team is now riding a downward spiral with a 1-5 record.

What happened?

Cam Newton is no longer unstoppable, and the Panthers don’t seem to know how to cope with that. It’s not that Newton isn’t the same player, it’s that the League has caught up to a player they weren’t sure how to best defend in 2011. The immediate success Cam earned in 2011 has made this 2012 campaign a bigger disappointment than Newton appears mature enough to deal with.

In fact, many have recently taken to comparing the Carolina QB’s attitude and demeanor to our own Jay Cutler. But, the comparisons don’t stop there. The Chicago Tribune’s Brad Biggs listed the two player’s individual stats this week and the similarities are striking:

  • Cam Newton has completed 101 of 173 passes for 1,387 yards, 5 TDs, 6 INTs, 8.02 yards per attempt, for a 79.3 passer efficiency rating.
  • Jay Cutler has completed 106 of 187 passes for 1,359 yards, 8 TDs, 7 INTs, 7.27 yards per attempt, for a 78.3 passer efficiency rating.

The Panthers are simply struggling to find an identity on offense, while the Bears have been dealing with the same. But, despite the similarities, the fact remains that even on offense the Bears are a step above Carolina and should be able to come out of Sunday’s contest at 6-1. Here’s why:

Let’s start with the Bears’ defense

Defending Cam Newton these days is about a different player altogether. Panthers’ WR Steve Smith is still on track for over 1,000 receiving yards this season, but given Newton’s limited options at receiver, the numbers alone don’t tell the story.

Smith has yet to pull down a single touchdown pass this season. Opposing defenses have focused on taking Smith out of the game and forcing Newton to run through his progressions. But stopping Smith is something the Bears have struggled to do. The wideout has 34 receptions for 568 yards against the Bears in their last three matchups (189 YPG).

Bears’ CB Charles Tillman is coming off a career performance against Detroit WR Calvin Johnson, but he understands that Smith is a different player entirely. "He is shorter, he's faster, he is a little bit quicker (than Johnson)," Tillman told reporters this week. "He's a smaller guy but he plays big. He's a nightmare to defenses and this will be another good matchup.”

Smith plays physical, and the Bears need to match his physicality at the line of scrimmage.

What makes the Carolina offense difficult to defend is what has made them inconsistent all season. The playbook appears to be more about confusion than continuity, and it’s why the Bears’ veteran group matches up so well against them.

The defense will have to read play action, not get complacent and play disciplined football. The rush men will get after Newton and keep him from converting on third down. The reality is that the Panthers are fourth in the League in points scored, and the Bears have allowed the fewest points of any team in the NFL.

Despite all of that, the Panthers have managed to keep games close this season, losing by just six points at Tampa Bay, five points against Dallas, four points against Seattle and two points at Atlanta. The Bears can’t take them lightly.

Switching sides to the Bears’ offense

This game is tailor-made for the Chicago offense. Given their defensive prowess and the emergence of a one-two Forte-Bush combo last week, the Bears will look to run the heck out of the football against a team allowing 120+ yards on the ground per game.

But, when the Bears do look to pass, Jay Cutler should be upright and clean for the most part. The Panthers are riddled with injuries at the defensive end position heading into Sunday’s game and were just middle of the pack in terms of sacks prior to this weekend.

In the middle of the field, the Panthers just learned starting LB Jon Beason will miss the rest of the season with a knee injury. They’ve been playing without him with rookie Luke Kuechly, this year's No. 9 overall pick out of Boston College, in Beason's spot. But the group as a whole has been mediocre.

The Panthers have also learned that they have lost veteran cornerback Chris Gamble, the team’s career interception leader, for the season with an injured shoulder. Gamble has missed the last two games against Seattle and Dallas and has been replaced by Captain Munnerlyn.

In short, the Panthers’ defense is undisciplined and no match for the Bears muti-faceted offensive attack.

Special teams

The Panthers rank 25th out of 32 teams in the League, according to Football Outsiders. The Bears pull up at fifth. Oh, and it just so happens that Devin Hester had a punt return for touchdown against this group last season (hey, I'm trying!). I'd also be remiss to not remind you of Charles Tillman and Julius Peppers' blocked field goal attempt against the Panthers last season, too.

How about some nuggets?

  • This is the eighth time since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger that Chicago has started a season 5-1 or better. In the previous seven occasions, the Bears made the playoffs that season (2006, 2001, 1990, 1988, 1987, 1986 and 1985).
  • Chicago enters Week 8 eighth in the NFL in points per game (27.0) and tops in the League in scoring defense (13.0 points per game). The Monsters of the Midway are also first in takeaways (21) and turnover differential (+13).
  • Carolina and Chicago will be squaring off for the third-straight season and fourth time in the last five years. The Bears hold a slight 4-3 edge in the overall series after winning last season’s meeting 34-29 at Soldier Field.
  • The Panthers are ranked 27th in the League on third-down on both sides of the ball, offense and defense.
  • Panthers head coach Ron Rivera played for the Bears from 1984-92, was the Bears defensive quality control coach from 1997-98 and was the Bears defensive coordinator from 2004-06.

And, what the heck, how about some stats?

Carolina Chicago
Offense Avg. Rank Avg. Rank
Yards per game 335.5 24 337.8 22
Rush yards per game 113.7 13 131.5 9
Rush yards per attempt 4.6 6 4.3 10
Pass yards per game 221.8 22 206.3 25
Sacks per pass play 7.8% 25 9.1% 31
Sacks allowed 15 N/A 19 N/A
Third down efficiency 31.7% 27 41.4% 13
Points per game 17.6 28 27 8
Yards per game 366.2 21 299.3 6
Rush yards per game 120.3 19 71.3 2
Rush yards per attempt 4.1 18 3.9 12
Pass yards per game 245.8 19 228 16
Sacks per pass play 6.2% 18 7.8% 4
Sacks 14 N/A 21 N/A
Third down efficiency 45.1% 27 29.2% 4
Points per game 24 20 13 1

Final prediction: Bears 27, Panthers 10

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