CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) John Fox made several observations while coaching the freakishly athletic Julius Peppers for eight years in Carolina, but one stood out on Sunday.
“Quick screens to his side are not recommended,” he said.
Only that’s what Fox’s rookie quarterback did in the first quarter in Peppers’ first game back in Carolina since leaving in free agency. The 6-foot-7 Peppers batted Jimmy Clausen’s pass and made a diving interception. It set up a field goal and a big first-quarter lead that the Bears wouldn’t cough up no matter how many interceptions backup quarterback Todd Collins threw in Chicago’s 23-6 win.
“He made a great play,” Fox said of Peppers. “That’s what great players do.”
It was one of few impressive plays in a game that seemed to be a competition of which team could have worse quarterback play. With Jay Cutler sidelined with a concussion, Collins threw for just 32 yards and four interceptions. He was finally yanked early in the fourth quarter with a 6.2 passer rating – and a 17-6 lead.
That’s because Clausen, with few viable options to throw to, was just 9 of 22 for 61 yards and a pick before he was benched. Matt Moore then threw two more interceptions and Carolina finished with two field goals and 147 yards.
“You’re not going to go from a rookie quarterback to an all-pro quarterback in one week or a few games or a season,” Clausen said. “It’s just a progression that you’ve got to go through.”
The difference in a game that featured a combined 91 net yards passing was the Bears defense and Matt Forte, who rushed for 166 yards and Chicago’s first two touchdowns rushing of the season behind a revamped offensive line.
The Bears (4-1) bounced back from an ugly loss a week earlier against the New York Giants to do just enough to beat the hapless Panthers (0-5), whose fans were even more surly after Peppers put his index finger to his facemask as if to hush the crowd following his interception that helped make it 17-3.
“The celebration was self-explanatory,” Peppers said.
Carolina’s offseason cost-cutting and youth movement began with the decision to let Peppers leave in free agency after years of failed contract negotiations. The North Carolina native signed a six-year, $91.5 million deal with the Bears.
Peppers had four tackles, while Israel Idonije had three of Chicago’s five sacks against inexperienced Carolina.
The Panthers, who didn’t have top receiver Steve Smith (ankle), became the first NFL team since 1999 to start rookies at QB and both receiver spots.
When the run game dried up after a good first drive, the Panthers were stymied even with the help of Collins’ poor passes.
It allowed Peppers to leave Charlotte triumphant.
“It’s home. I was here for 30 years, of course I’m going to miss it a little bit,” Peppers said. “But as far as the football part of it, I don’t really miss anything. I’m happy where I’m at now.”
Peppers chatted with Smith after the game. The 31-year-old Smith is Carolina’s oldest remaining position player, one of the few links to not only the Panthers’ Super Bowl season in 2003, but the 12-4 season in 2008.
The roster overhaul has left Carolina as one of the NFL’s worst teams. Fox, in the final year of his contract, faces an uncertain future and few options to turn things around with even fewer elite players – and certainly nobody like Peppers.
“Last year we played Arizona and he made a pretty nice play on one of those,” Fox said of his screen pass interception. “He was actually cut on the ground, got back up and still tipped it. He’s really athletic.”
By MIKE CRANSTON, AP Sports Writer
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