LAKE FOREST, IL—If there is one game the Bears can play on their schedule without Jay Cutler, it's this week's contest against the Carolina Panthers.
These aren't the 2005 Panthers, or even the 2008 version. The 0-4 record is no fluke.
"They're very young, very young," said former Panther, former Bear, current Bear safety Chris Harris. "I don't recognize half the guys on the team now. So there's been a lot of turnover over there since I've left. I would say that's how they changed."
"I guess hardships come when you're young, inexperienced. They have some good players, just not experienced. So you know you're going to have those trials."
Without Cutler, the deep passing game takes a huge hit. But the Bears should be able to put up a few scores in this one and win anyway for several reasons.
- The long-time thorn in the Bears' side, and everyone else's side—wide receiver Steve Smith—isn't available due to an ankle injury.
- Muhsin Muhammad retired to do what he has always done best: talk.
- They no longer have wide receiver Dwayne Jarrett, who went on a binge and got his second DUI and then his walking papers.
- They have a rookie quarterback in Jimmy Clausen.
"To me, that spells get ready for some run," Bears linebacker Lance Briggs said.
Certainly running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart have had great seasons in the past, and they possess the cutback style that gave the Bears trouble in New York Sunday night.
"Part of the problem with the cutbacks from last week is that we didn’t make tackles," Briggs said. "We had Ahmad Bradshaw tackled in the backfield a couple times and didn’t finish. We let him out of our grasp and those tackles for losses turned into positive yards."
"The opportunities that we have now, or this week, we just have to finish the plays. That changes their total yardage for 200 and whatever yards they had to 100 or less than 100 yards."
The Giants did rush for 189 yards on the Bears, but until midway through the third quarter they had only 48 yards and most of their yards came after the Bears' defense wore down from being on the field too long during a game in which their own offense produced only six first downs. The Bears defense was No. 1 against the run until that game.
Carolina's running game hasn't been all that impressive even with the one-two running back combo. The Panthers rank 17th in yards (103.2 per game) and average per carry (four). Their offense through much of the year has been much like the Bears offense on Sunday night. They are next to last in possession time at 24:57 per game, a sure sign they're spending more time running to the bench after a failed third down than they are running through the opposing defense.
"We’ve played too good of run defense up to this point, up to this New York game to fall back," Briggs said. "We’re too good of players, too smart, too physical to ever take another step back.
"So we need to take many steps forward this week against the run and this is really a good game to do it."
The Panthers have the backs and offensive line to do something comparable to what the Giants did, but the threat of a passing game that the Giants had from Eli Manning and his receivers is not present to keep the Bears defense off-balance.
Clausen hasn't even completed 50 percent of his passes (49.3).
"He is a rookie and we realize that, but a rookie with a lot of talent," coach Lovie Smith said. "It's not like this is his first game."
It's not like rookie quarterbacks have found it impossible in the past to win on their own field over the Bears. Two years ago, Atlanta's Matt Ryan completed a huge pass to get his team into field goal range at the end of the fourth quarter for a win.
Then again, no one is calling Clausen the new Ryan yet.
Clausen has a passer rating of 59.6 and has thrown two interceptions while coughing up two fumbles. The Bears want to get after him early.
"It’s good to get his feet moving, get a good pass rush when he’s trying to throw the ball," Briggs said. "Make it hard for him, make it very difficult for him, give him a lot of welcome-to-the-NFL type of situations."
If the Panthers find it as difficult to run early against the Bears as the Giants did, it's going to take something worse than a mediocre game by Bears QB Todd Collins for a Carolina upset to occur.