Fresh off their 13-7 win over the Detroit Lions, the Chicago Bears have six days to prepare for a visit from the talented but struggling Carolina Panthers. Being the better team and playing at home, Chicago is clearly the favorite here, but no game in the NFL is guaranteed. Here are some key issues for Chicago as they look to keep their 4-game winning streak alive.
How healthy and effective is Jay?
After taking a from Detroit defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, quarterback Jay Cutler had to leave the game briefly for X-rays on his ribs. He returned and played every snap in the second half, and the team says the injury is nothing more serious than bruised ribs.
Cutler has , but it still remains to be seen how effective he can be if the pain is severe. Chicago should do everything in their power to keep Cutler from taking big shots, which means plenty of running, quick passes, and screens. Carolina has a decent pass rush (14 sacks in six games), but is very susceptible to the run (giving up 120 yards per game and 4.1 yards per carry), so a heavy dose of running backs Matt Forte and Michael Bush should be just what the doctor ordered.
If worse comes to worst and Cutler has to leave the game, Chicago can at least breathe easy knowing they have Jason Campbell ready to come in instead of Caleb Hanie.
Get the offense going
Chicago’s offense struggled mightily against Detroit last week, putting up only 13 points while amassing a paltry 296 yards (4.3 yards per play). It was enough for the win, but a more productive offense is going to be needed when the schedule gets tougher in a few weeks.
The Panthers’ suspect defense should be exactly the jolt the Bears need to get their offense jumpstarted. They are giving up 366 yards and 24 points per game, are rated on as the second worst defense in the NFL, and can be beat by both the run and pass (opposing quarterbacks have a 93.2 passer rating against them). Additionally, middle linebacker Jon Beason, Carolina’s defensive captain and best player, was just placed on injured reserve. If Chicago is unable to move the ball and put up points on the Panthers, it will fuel the fire for the critics who believe they don’t have enough offensive firepower to be considered a serious contender.
The primary offensive weapon for Carolina is second-year quarterback Cam Newton. Although he has struggled as a passer so far this year (five touchdowns, six interceptions, 79.3 passer rating), he is still a good runner (273 rushing yards, 5.9 yards per carry) and gifted player who is capable of beating you through the air or on the ground.
If the Bears can contain Newton, they will have basically shut down Carolina’s offense, whose top three running backs are only rushing for 3.6 yards per carry and 59 yards per game. Although they have not faced a quarterback nearly as mobile as Cam yet this year, the Bears have had success against similar quarterbacks in the past, limiting Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick nicely in both 2010 and 2011. Chicago also faced Newton last year, so they should have an idea of what to expect. Bears fans can only hope their defense does a better job against Newton in 2012 than they did in 2011 (374 passing yards, 35 rushing yards, three total touchdowns).
The key for the Bears will be to prevent Newton from getting big gains running the ball. This means that their defensive line will have to maintain gap integrity while rushing the passer. This will be especially challenging for defensive end Shea McClellin, who has struggled with this in his rookie season.
Shut down Steve Smith
Newton’s favorite target is wide receiver Steve Smith, an extremely fast player who has given Chicago fits in the past. He had eight receptions for 181 yards against them last year and has averaged 9.5 catches and 166.25 yards per game in four career contests against Chicago. Smith’s deep speed will be a great test for Chicago safeties Chris Conte and Major Wright, who have done an excellent job so far this year of keeping everything in front of them.
Greg Olsen homecoming
Tight end Greg Olsen, Carolina’s second-leading receiver, is also extremely familiar to the Bears, as he spent the first four years of his career in Chicago before being traded to Carolina prior to the 2011 season. He had one of his better games of 2011 against Chicago (five catches, 50 yards, one touchdown), and should be amply motivated to once again show the Bears they made a mistake getting rid of him. If there is a weakness in Chicago’s pass defense, it is short passes underneath their Cover-2 zone. Olsen will likely get his share of short passes, and preventing him from gaining yards after the catch will go a long way towards shutting Carolina’s offense down.
Sometimes this isn’t rocket science. Chicago is on a four-game winning streak and couples an average offense with one of the best defenses in the league. Carolina is on a four-game losing streak and couples a below-average offense (17.7 points per game, 28th in the NFL) with one of the worst defenses in the league. Look for Chicago to roll easily in this one as they continue to take care of business against the teams they should beat.