By Dan Durkin-

A weekly glimpse at the Bears’ upcoming opponent. This week: Carolina.

(CBS)  The Week 4 match-up between the Bears and Carolina is personal according to Panthers’ head coach Ron Rivera.  The former Bears player and defensive coordinator leads his upstart Panthers into Soldier Field, hoping to pick up their second win of the season.  Will Lovie have the Bears ready to play?  Or will the Panthers equal last year’s win total? Let’s take a look at the Panthers’ strengths and weaknesses, as well as the key match-ups in what can be categorized as a “must win” game for the Bears.

Remember the Bears-Panthers game from last year?  If so, I’m sorry.  Truly, deeply sorry.  That game defied all logic, and set the forward pass back to the days of Amos Alonzo Stagg.  91 total combined passing yards (less than Tom Brady had on one completion this season), seven combined interceptions, Bears’ starter Todd Collins posted a 6.2 quarterback rating, and both teams averaged less than two yards per completion.  Unfortunately for the Panthers, the forward pass futility was a season long problem, and they ended up dead last in the NFL.

What a difference a year has made for the Panthers’ passing game.  Thanks to the nimble feet and strong arm of top pick Cam Newton, the Panthers’ aerial attack has gone from pathetic to prolific.  There was never a doubt about Newton’s off-the-charts athleticism and abilities, the questions hovered around his ability to pick up the verbiage and nuance presented at the NFL level.  Granted, three games is a small sample size, but Newton has definitely outperformed expectations.

Most envisioned Newton to be more of a caretaker quarterback, who would hand off to running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, and make a limited amount of safe, high-percentage throws.  The reality has been just the opposite.  New offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski never put training wheels on Newton, and has allowed him to operate freely and take several shots down the field.

Credit Newton for being wise enough to feed the ball early and often to mercurial wide receiver Steve Smith, who at 32 still has enough left in the tank to stretch a defense and command a double team.  Complimenting an outside vertical threat like Smith with talented tight ends, Jeremey Shockey and former Bear Greg Olsen, to patrol the middle of the field, makes it easy to see why the Panthers have made such a radical turnaround.

After doling out $21M in guaranteed money to DeAngelo Williams, it’s safe to assume the Panthers didn’t expect Cam Newton to lead the team in rushing after three games with 98 yards.  Teams have game-planned to limit the run game thus far, but if the Panthers continue to have success with the vertical passing game, defenses will have to adjust and running lanes will open.  The offensive line is very talented, anchored by left tackle Jordan Gross, so protection is not an area of concern.  In time, the Panthers will deploy a very balanced offensive attack, but for now, stronger defenses will dictate the tempo.

Rivera tabbed former Eagles defensive coordinator Sean McDermott to coordinate the Panthers defense.  McDermott and Rivera were both shown the ropes by the late Jim Johnson, and mimic Johnson’s blitz-heavy scheme, attacking the offense from several different angles.  Rivera’s defensive diversity – running a 3-4 in San Diego, Tampa-2 in Chicago, and a zone-blitz in Philadelphia – will serve him well.

Early season injuries to superstar Jon Beason, and linebacker Thomas Davis, has depleted an already questionable Panthers defense.  The Panthers do have a legitimate pass rusher and building block in defensive end Charles Johnson, who requires an extra blocker in protection schemes.  However, outside of Johnson, this is an inexperienced group with limited play-makers who can be taken advantage of.

This is the perfect week for the Bears offense to get back-to-basics and build some confidence heading into a crucial Week 5 Monday night match-up against the Detroit Lions.  Rivera will certainly have his team amped up and ready to play, but in the end, the Bears defense will force Newton into a few costly mistakes, and the Bears offense will grind out a win.

What to watch when the Bears have the ball:

Offensive Tackles vs. Panthers’ Defensive End Charles Johnson: It will be interesting to see if Rivera allows Johnson to flip from the right side to the left side to get the best match-up.  Look for the Bears to slide an extra blocker to Johnson’s side, be it an offensive guard, keeping in a tight end, or a chip from a running back.  If the Bears are unable to contain Johnson, it will be another sack-filled afternoon.

What to watch when the Panthers have the ball:

Bears Safeties vs. Steve Smith & Panther Tight Ends: Visions of Steve Smith running wild in the 2005 season still haunt me.  It was indefensible for Lovie Smith to be so stubborn with his scheme, and allow Smith a free release off the line to get into his routes and run circles around the Bears defense.  Chris Harris was a full participant in practice, which is huge for the Bears.  I called it last week that the Packers would pick on Steltz and Merriweather all game with Finley, and that’s exactly what they did.  Look for the Panthers to run several double verticals – a vertical route with the outside receiver (Smith) and the tight end on the same side of the formation (Shockey or Olsen) – to test the discipline of the Bears’ Tampa-2.

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durkinsmall Durkin: Know Your Opponent   Carolina Panthers

Dan Durkin

Dan Durkin joined The Score’s columnist community after finishing runner-up in the 2011 Pepsi Max Score Search. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois where he was a member of the men’s football team (despite his best efforts to join the women’s team). Dan is a longtime Scorehead, known as Dan in Wicker Park – even though he no longer resides in Wicker Park – who will be sharing NFL analysis and opinions. You can follow Dan on Twitter @djdurkin. To read more of Dan’s blogs click here.

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