By Jeff Joniak-
(CBS) The Bears (2-2) face the Panthers (2-2) on the road Sunday at noon in Charlotte. Here are some keys to the game for Chicago.
Moving the ball is one thing, while scoring touchdowns is another. But the Bears are clearly equipped to do both. Not everything has come together simultaneously for 60 minutes, but we’ve seen hints of a sustainable, dangerous attack.
With Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffrey getting healthy on the fly, Martellus Bennett is also emerging as one of the premier tight end threats in the game. Matt Forte and rookie Ka’Deem Carey awakened the running game last Sunday, and the offensive line — while shuffled — is deep with plug-and-play backups Michael Ola and Brian de la Puente doing a solid job. Left guard Matt Slauson is expected to return from an ankle sprain against Carolina, in which case Ola would move out to left tackle for the injured Jermon Bushrod.
Carolina’s Luke Kuechley is a special talent at middle linebacker and the league’s reinging defensive player of the year. Star Lotulelei is a disruptive force at defensive tackle, as he’s quick and strong. The Bears have to account for both players and get them blocked. The Panthers allowed 264 yards rushing to Pittsburgh, but a healthy Thomas Davis makes a difference at weak-side linebacker and brings an emotional edge. The Panthers appear to be vulnerable in the secondary. Cornerback Antoine Cason has permitted pass completions at a 74 percent clip and three touchdowns. The Panthers led the NFL in sacks last season with 60, but Greg Hardy is out. They rotate in waves with a steady group of linemen, but the unit is struggling to stop the run
A revived pass rush by Chicago will be needed to curtail the big arm and mobility of Carolina quarterback Cam Newton. Still battling an ankle injury and sore ribs, Newton can’t be left untouched in the pocket, nor can he be taken down with arm-tackling. He needs to be brought down to the ground with wrap-up tackling.
Newton runs with speed and power, albeit in attempting only eight runs this season. The Carolina backfield is a mess due to injury, and making the Panthers one-dimensional will enhance the Bears’ ability to mute their foe’s attack. Newton’s big targets are the talented ex-Bears tight end Greg Olsen, who has brought his game to a new level by understanding how to use his skills to his advantage, and 6-foot-5 rookie receiver Kelvin Benjamin, who has been targeted 36 times, with 21 catches, three touchdowns and 17 first downs. Interestingly, all three of Benjamin’s touchdowns have come in formations that don’t have Olsen on the field. He had a one-handed catch against Pittsburgh that showed off his unique wingspan and ability to clean up Newton’s wayward throws.
Both kickers are players to watch in this game. Robbie Gould is consistent as ever and a threat beyond 50 yards. Graham Gano of Carolina is also one of the league’s best. He carries a strong leg, wiping out the return game and also connecting on seven straight from 50 yards and beyond. Gano led the NFL in touchback percentage last season. Both teams have failed to get much out of their return games. Chris Williams gets the call on kick returns for the Bears while Santonio Holmes remains the punt returner.
This is a big rebound game for the Bears. They can’t let Aaron Rodgers beat them twice by losing confidence this week. Rodgers did a lot of damage to the Bears defense, but nothing is irreversible. Carolina isn’t a team to be messed with because it plays with emotion, thanks to coach Ron Rivera. The Panthers opened 2-0 but have been riddled with injuries leading to blowout losses to the Steelers and Ravens. Remember, a year ago “Riverboat Ron” guided the Panthers to an 11-1 finish and an NFC South title. They’ve never posted back-to-back winning seasons. The Bears are 2-0 on the road and have proved they can win in the most challenging of environments.
Nothing that happens in Carolina will be tougher than what Chicago managed on both coasts in primetime games in Week 2 and Week 3. Just the same, it will not be easy.
Jeff Joniak is the play-by-play announcer for the Bears broadcasts on WBBM Newsradio 780. Follow him on Twitter @JeffJoniak.