By Jeff Joniak–
(CBS) The Bears (2-4) host the Panthers (4-2) at Soldier Field on Sunday at noon. Here are my keys to the game.
Offense: Keep grinding on the ground
Running it 50-plus times every game isn’t my suggestion for the Bears, but it wouldn’t bother me at the same time. If it helps the Bears beat the Carolina Panthers, so be it. Is it going to be difficult to run the ball? Yes. The Panthers haven’t permitted a running back to reach 100 yards rushing this season, nor for that matter a 100-yard receiver. Carolina owns a talented defensive up front but is missing leading tackler Luke Kuechly. The Bears have to get movement on the Panthers’ outstanding defensive tackles, Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short, to open some holes for Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen. When rookie quarterback Mitchell Trubisky needs to throw, they have to block Julius Peppers, both inside and outside.
Defense: Quieting Cam
After making life miserable for Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco last week in Baltimore, the Bears have to be careful Panthers quartebrack Cam Newton doesn’t make life miserable for them. Limiting the damage Newton does in the run game is critical. Designed runs or scrambles against defenses sprouting leaks and leading to big plays are his specialty. Newton’s accuracy is sometimes off in the passing game, but with size at receiver to clean up his passes, the Bears will have plenty to handle. The improving Bears secondary has a big job dealing with Kelvin Benjamin, Christian McCaffrey and emerging weapon Ed Dickson at tight end.
Special teams: Clean it up
Giving up two return touchdowns in one game, as the Bears did last week, leaves a mark. The Bears are likely going to be without special teams captain and coverage star Sherrick McManis, so someone must pick up the baton on kick and punt coverage. Breakdowns and decision-making led to trouble last week, and the Bears can’t afford that kind of problem again given their thin margin for error.
Intangibles: Winning streak?
Forming a winning streak has proved to be difficult for the Bears over the years for a variety of reasons. It’s often repeated in the NFL that winning and losing are learned behaviors. That’s why last week’s win in Baltimore was huge for this team with young players like Howard, Cohen, Trubiksy, Bryce Callahan and Adrian Amos and veterans like Kyle Fuller, Akiem Hicks and others making big plays. That can become habit forming when it matters most. Right now, the Bears are in the learning stage.
Numbers: Howard tough after contact
Howard carried the offense in Baltimore, and he’s more than content with that responsibility. He wants it, and he embraces it. For the time being, the Bears have to keep using him to get first downs and rush them out of trouble. He already has 17 stuffed runs this season after 24 all of last season, but he’s also starting to build up yards after contact that wear down a defense. Howard trails only Kansas City rookie running back Kareem Hunt with 245 yards after contact. He’s getting 2.1 yards per carry after he makes contact with a defender. That’s crucial.
Jeff Joniak is the play-by-play announcer for the Bears broadcasts on WBBM Newsradio 780 & 105.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter @JeffJoniak.