Carolina vs. Chicago Preview: 5 Keys to the Game for the Panthers
Ron Rivera played and coached in Chicago, tight end Greg Olsen played for the team last season, and former Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers and safety Chris Harris now play for the Bears.
This game is huge for Cam Newton's development. He has shown the ability to put up huge stats and last week finally pulled together a win. If he can manage to pull off a win against a team with as much respectability as the Bears, the Panthers will clearly be headed in the right direction.
Here are five situations to keep an eye on as the Panthers try to knock off the Bears and begin their first win streak of the Cam Newton era.
1. Put the Pressure on Jay Cutler
The Bears have struggled mightily to protect their quarterback, Jay Cutler. Their offensive line is simply lacking in talent and leadership after the departure of longtime center Olin Kreutz. Cutler has been sacked 14 times through three games, good for first in the NFL.
The question then becomes, 'How will the Panthers go about pressuring Cutler?' The easy answer would be to blitz the living hell out of him, but that may not be necessary. The Falcons and Packers were successful at getting pressure on Cutler without blitzing very often.
That's not to say defensive coordinator won't utilize a variety of blitzes though. It simply means that the Panthers don't need to leave their secondary vulnerable with six and seven man blitzes like the Saints did in Week 2.
The Panthers have two great rushing ends in Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy. Hardy has loads of potential and is beginning to scratch the surface of what this staff expects from him, and Johnson is living up to his huge contract signed in the offseason.
Rookie defensive tackle Terrell McClain is an effective pass-rusher as well. He can get caught out of position at times, but he is a strong kid who can cause some disruption when his instincts put him in the right spot.
Look for Charles Godfrey to get some safety blitzes. The Bears struggled to handle the Saints' Roman Harper in Week 2 on blitzes from the strong safety position and they may not have learned their lesson yet. Godfrey is a hard hitter who could end Cutler's day if he gets the clear lanes that Harper got.
2. Contain Matt Forte
The Bears' leading receiver is running back Matt Forte and if they can slow him down, Chicago's offense will sputter once again in Week 4.
Green Bay didn't allow him any room on the ground last week, but he still managed to make seven receptions and total 80 yards receiving. He is clearly Jay Cutler's safety blanket and the Panthers can really key in on him due to the Bears' lack of an attractive receiving tight end.
Chicago's leading receiver from the tight end spot is Kellen Davis, who has three total receptions through the first three weeks of the season.
The Panthers weren't very successful at slowing down Maurice Jones-Drew as a receiver when they took on the Jaguars. He picked up some key first downs that can be attributed to poor tackling by the Panthers' inexperienced group of linebackers. James Anderson will have to step up and stop Forte from getting this offense in a groove.
3. Adjust to Cam Newton's Play
Newton came out on the Panthers' first drive last week and was inaccurate from the get-go. He was unable to establish the connection with Steve Smith that he had in prior weeks, and the offensive play calling did not give him time to cool down and get in a rhythm.
It's fair to say that offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski has done a good job of managing Newton to this point in the season, but he made some questionable calls in the first half of the Jacksonville game and the second half of the Green Bay game.
His offense is based on attacking the defense vertically, but the tight ends were consistently open for eight and 10 yard gains whenever the offense went to them to make a play. If Newton comes out of the gate with some incomplete passes, the play-calling will need to adjust quickly.
4. Go Back to the Running Game
Jonathan Stewart looked revitalized last week against a very good Jacksonville rush defense. Many don't realize just how good Jacksonville's defense is. This is a team that ranks fifth against the run, despite being constantly put back on the field due to bad quarterback play on the other side of the ball.
Stewart's talent alone will result in some big runs, but the key will be for the Panthers to avoid holding penalties, which have killed two big runs in the team's last two games.
DeAngelo Williams has been unable to get going this season, but that will come with time. The Panthers are finally finding their identity and once they settle in, I expect this offense to be running on all cylinders. That means they will rely heavily on Stewart and Williams to take the pressure off of Newton and make some explosive plays and pick up some key first downs.
5. Capitalize in Opponents Territory
If the Panthers want to pull off the win in Chicago, they're going to have to change their habit of slowing down once they move into striking distance. In the past two games, kicker Olindo Mare has kicked five field goals from a range of 35 and under. That's awful, and if the Panthers were able to convert a few of those field goals into touchdowns, they could be 2-1 right now.
This can be blamed on the lack of stability in the rushing game, but I will go back to the play-calling again. You don't have to be within the opponent's 5-yard line to run a quarterback draw. Newton has been successful with it, so why not run it on 2nd-and-10 from the 30-yard line? The Panthers need to put themselves in more 3rd-and-manageable's. Their red-zone efficiency may be the most telling statistic after this game ends.