In Week 2 of the NFL regular season, the Carolina Panthers will play the Chicago Bears at Bank of America Stadium at 1 PM EST. At first glance, this game would appear to be a fairly easy victory for the Panthers. But let's take a closer look at this matchup anyway.
The Panthers defense shouldn't have any trouble keeping the Bears offense at bay.
Chicago's current quarterback situation isn't as bad as the Panthers' was last season, but it's by no means stable. There is no clear starter, and neither Kyle Orton nor Rex Grossman, last year's starter, have showed much ability in the preseason (in which they have played two teams whose defenses were below the top ten last year.
Orton is only a combined 12-of-29 for 99 yards (and no touchdowns) in Chicago's first two preseason games this year.
Grossman has gone 13-of-23 for 118 yards and a touchdown so far in the 2008 preseason—he's played better than Orton, but not by much. Besides, performing better than Kyle Orton is no large task.
But it doesn't matter how good your quarterbacks may or may not be, they're no good without a great offensive line and receiving corps.
Center Olin Kreutz is the only standout on the offensive line, so the Panthers defensive line should be able to put a lot of pressure on the quarterback (whoever that turns out to be). Julius Peppers in particular ought to overwhelm left tackle Chris Williams.
Marty Booker, who had 50 catches for 556 yards and a touchdown last year, is the Bears' No.1 receiver. On most other teams, he'd be a third receiver at best. That just shows you how bad Chicago's receivers are.
Panthers cornerback Chris Gamble, who had 47 tackles, an interception, and six deflections last season, will be lined up opposite Booker. Look for Gamble to limit Booker to about 55 yards and five catches.
No.2 receiver Brandon Lloyd is entering his sixth NFL season, and he has never received for more than 48 grabs, 733 yards, and five touchdowns. CB Ken Lucas, who accumulated 61 tackles, 12 deflections, and two picks, will be matched up with Lloyd. Expect Lucas to hold him to three receptions for 40 yards.
The running backs are no better.
2007 starter Cedric Benson is gone, and Adrian Peterson—no, not that Adrian Peterson—is listed as the starter. However, second round draft pick Matt Forte could take over the starting job quickly. He ran for 2721 yards and 23 touchdowns on 361 carries in his senior year at Tulane, and he also received for 32 receptions and 282 yards.
The only positive on offense is tight end Desmond Clark, who is coming off the two best years of his career, between which he caught 89 passes for 1171 yards and 10 touchdowns. If Clark can bring his good hands back for 2008, he could be the thorn in the Panthers' side.
If Clark doesn't catch fire (even if he does it will be very hard for him to win the game for the Bears single-handedly), it looks like the Bears will have to hope that Devin Hester returns multiple kickoffs for touchdowns because that's the only chance the Bears have to score more than six or seven points. The Panthers defense, led by second-year middle linebacker Jon Beason, should not have any trouble containing the Bears.
Similar to the Panthers' predicted ability to stop the Bears offense, the Chicago defense will not give much to the Carolina attack either.
In Week 3 of last year in a game against the Falcons, starting quarterback Jake Delhomme went down with an injury that eventually needed surgery. After that the Panthers used three different quarterbacks—bust backup David Carr, supposedly-retired veteran Vinny Testaverde, and undrafted rookie Matt Moore. None of them started more than a few games in a row. The offense never recovered. But now the Panthers have put the chaos of last season's quarterback situation to rest with a healthy, revitalized Delhomme. There's no doubt that he will be the starter.
Running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart will likely start the season in a situation similar to the platoon commonly used in baseball. While Williams will likely get more carries, Stewart will take on short-yardage and goal line duties.
Delhomme and the running backs hopefully will get to operate behind a vastly improved, now-gigantic offensive line geared to stopping the run highlighted by rookie right tackle Jeff Otah and franchise player left tackle Jordan Gross.
The Bears defensive line is good—but it may not be enough to counter the Panthers offensive line.
Left end Adewale Ogunleye made 58 tackles and compiled nine sacks last year. But he will be up against the aformentioned Gross, Carolina's best offensive lineman.
Left tackle Tommie Harris had 36 tackles and eight sacks in 2007. Harris could potentially cause the most unrest in the Panthers backfield, as he will be lined up opposite right guard Keydrick Vincent and center Ryan Kalil, two guys who are inexperienced playing with one another—2008 will be their first season playing beside each other.
While Ogunleye and Harris are talented, how effective will they really be, considering they're better pass rushers than run stoppers, against a Panthers offense that loves to run the ball? Conceivably, all Carolina would have to do is run to the other side of the line.
However, the linebacker position didn't get its name for nothing. Brick wall linebackers Brian Urlacher, who accumulated 123 tackles, 12 deflections, and five interceptions in 2007, and Lance Briggs, who racked up 102 tackles, two sacks, and three deflections last year, play on the opposite side of the field from Ogunleye and Harris. If a Carolina running back gets past the weak right side of the defensive line, Briggs and Urlacher will be there to shut him down.
The Chicago secondary, unlike the defensive line or linebackers, is notably weak. The only standout player is cornerback Charles Tillman, who notched 75 tackles, 13 deflections, and three interceptions last year.
Other than him, the secondary is both inept and inexperienced. No one had more than 68 tackles, three deflections, or two picks last season.
The Panthers should aim to attack the secondary. Granted, star receiver Steve Smith will be serving the second week of a two-game suspension this week, but Carolina acquired receivers Mushin Muhammad and DJ Hackett during the offseason to take pressure off of Smith. That's exactly what they'll have to do the first two weeks—have huge games so the temporary loss of Smith is less apparent.
Hackett, in particular, will need to do well in Smith's absence because Muhammad will be covered by Tillman. However, Muhammad (6'2", 215 lbs) is slightly bigger than Tillman (6'1", 198), so he may be able to use his extra size to his advantage on short routes (especially curls) to get better body position and make catches. That would actually work perfectly, considering Muhammad is a possession receiver. If Muhammad makes enough short catches early, that could open up the rest of the field.
This game will be a hard-fought defensive battle from which I think the Panthers will ultimately emerge as winners, if only because they have the offensive advantage. An old adage says defense wins games. But in the Bears' case, it doesn't matter how good your defense is if your offense is just as inept as your defense is skilled.