By Jeff Joniak-

(WBBM) Below are Jeff Joniak’s “Keys to the Game” for the Bears game again the Panthers this weekend.

Offense: Protecting Cutler From Big Hits

Sore ribs will not keep Jay Cutler from facing the Carolina Panthers, but another 300-pound plus defensive lineman falling on top of him could aggravate the condition and complicate his performance. If at all possible, a game plan that protects the Bears quarterback as much as possible would seem to be the way to go. Cutler can help in the plan as well by doing what he can to avoid the big hit.

The Panthers have 14 sacks led by defensive end Charles Johnson and defensive tackle Dawn Edwards each with 3.5 sacks. As a unit, the Panthers are not doing anything particularly well, giving up 366 yards/game, 120 of it on the ground. Getting Matt Forte and Michael Bush cranked up again in the run game should be an avenue for success. The Bears are now ninth in the NFL in rushing the football averaging 131.5 yards/game and getting better every week.  Keep an eye on third down for this game. The Panthers are having trouble getting off the field, allowing a 45% conversation rate that ranks 27th in the league.

Defense: Keep The Foot On The Throat

Cam Newton threw for 374 yards last October at Soldier Field. His biggest issue right now seems to be a lack of anticipation on his throws, which is digging into his accuracy and allowing defenders to make plays on the ball. That fits perfectly for a Bears defense that leads the NFL with 21 takeaways and an NFL best 62.7 quarterback rating.

The Bears are not giving up the big play and are also number one in quarterback rating on pass attempts longer than 21 yards at an astounding 24.1 in a league where the average is 90.8.  The Panthers are a capable running team, led by Newton’s 274 yards and three touchdowns, so tracking him with the ball in his hands will be one of the biggest chores of the day. The other is five-time pro bowl receiver Steve Smith. Enough said. He’s put together three of the biggest games against the Bears in team history.

Special Teams: Find A Return Rhythm

Lovie Smith wants to see more out of the Bears return game. He said it during the bye week and often during the 15-days between the win in Jacksonville and Monday’s win over Detroit.

Dave Toub used a combination of Devin Hester, Eric Weems, and Earl Bennett on punt and kickoff return against the Lions. On kickoff returns the Bears are 21st in the NFL and 25th on punt returns averaging only 7.2 yards.

It is not something the Bears are used to. Hester says he knows he needs to be more aggressive in his decisions on punts, and knows how to fix it. Carolina’s kick coverage unit is number one in the league allowing only 18.5 yards on 11 returns with a long of 45. On punt returns they allow only 7.8 yards with a long of 18.

Intangibles: Don’t Sleep On The Cats

While the record states that Carolina is 1-and-5, the details say they’ve lost four of the five games by six points or less. They’ve been blown out only once, throttled by the New York Giants by 29 points on a short week playing Thursday night football.

Ex-Bear player and head coach Ron Rivera is coming back to town and his Bear pride will no doubt be a big part of getting his team in the proper frame of mind for an upset bid. Where the Bears have a huge advantage on the Panthers is scoring.

The Bears defense has yet to allow a touchdown in the first and third quarters this season, and Carolina’s offense has scored only 90 points in six games. They haven’t even been able to get into field goal position hitting on the only two attempts they’ve had. They do have two defensive touchdowns, but have only 7 takeaways in total and a league-worst seven points off those takeaways.

Jeff Joniak is the play-by-play voice of the Chicago Bears on WBBM Newsradio 780 & 105.9 FM. You can follow Jeff on Twitter @JeffJoniak.

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