Cam Newton and the Panthers will take on the Bears this Sunday in another tough road contest. While opinions on the Bears have ranged up and down on a weekly basis, the Panthers have been steadily gaining respect, and Newton has been largely responsible for that.
Head coach Ron Rivera will be facing his former team, the Bears, and Julius Peppers will get another shot at redemption against the Panthers. These are two fiery guys, so we can expect to see a lot of physicality and no love lost in this one.
While some prefer to focus on the big names of this week's game, football is a team game, so I'll be focusing on how the offensive and defensive groups match up to get a better idea of which team has the edge heading into Sunday.
The Panthers' passing attack sputtered last week when they faced a very good Jacksonville defense. Once the terrible weather conditions rolled in, it was evident that Cam Newton wouldn't become the first player ever to throw for 400 yards in three straight games.
Nonetheless, we have seen what Newton's capable of, and it's become clear what Chicago's secondary is incapable of—that is, covering tight ends. Through three weeks, Atlanta's Tony Gonzalez, New Orleans' Jimmy Graham and Green Bay's Jermichael Finley have all torn apart the Chicago defense.
This is a weakness that Carolina can exploit. They have two great receiving tight ends in Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey. Both have caused problems for defenses and they will be particularly important this week.
The Bears have little depth at cornerback as well, so this could be a break-out week for Brandon LaFell or Legedu Naanee. Naanee has been a disappointment so far, but with the Bears' only solid cornerback, Charles Tillman, lined up on Steve Smith, Naanee will have a chance to turn his luck around.
If Jeff Otah is able to play, which is looking likely, protecting Newton will not be much of a concern. The Jacksonville defense couldn't manage to get any pressure on Newton last week. When this offensive line is at full health, it is one of the league's best. In its first week at full health, it allowed no sacks and only one hit on Newton.
They key will be slowing down Julius Peppers. If you rough him up early, it will often throw his game off and allow Newton to feel more comfortable in the pocket. It won't be easy for him to pick up yardage on scrambles, though. Chicago has a very athletic group of linebackers and Julius Peppers is always tough to beat to the edge.
You would think with two of the NFL's best running backs and a road-grading offensive line, the Panthers would be picking up huge yardage on the ground. That hasn't been the case, though, and through three games, Newton is the team's leading rusher.
Jonathan Stewart has been impressive, though, and when he's given a hole, he's busted through for solid gains. DeAngelo Williams, on the other hand, has looked timid, and that won't work against Chicago's defense. They are a reactionary group who will hit you before you know it if you aren't in the right position.
Williams signed a huge contract in the offseason, and he is very talented, but you have to wonder where the DeAngelo of the past is. He may have a nagging injury that the media isn't aware of. He typically has great balance and can use his vision to pick his way into the defensive secondary. We'll quickly find out if he's going to be a difference maker this week.
Chicago's defense doesn't give up many big runs, but when the offense gets in rhythm, the Bears often have no answer. Green Bay's Ryan Grant and New Orleans' Pierre Thomas were both very efficient in consecutive weeks, and Michael Turner ripped off some big runs in Week 1.
Charles Tillman provides solid run support from the boundary, and safeties Brandon Meriweather and Chris Harris are both hard hitters. However, Harris may not play and Meriweather is stuck behind Major Wright on the depth chart. While Wright is a talented player, it's hard to say that he's ahead of Meriweather at this point.
The big story this week in Carolina's secondary is that Chris Gamble will likely not play due to a concussion suffered last week. Gamble has played well to this point in the season and recently acquired Darius Butler will be expected to step up in his absence.
Butler is a playmaker who was released when New England began their spree of cutting much of the talent in their defensive backfield. Butler has found a new home and will be thrown into the starting lineup for the first time since being signed by Carolina.
Carolina's weakness is tall, physical receivers, and Chicago does not have many of those. They don't have much of a threat at tight end, and Roy Williams is the only big target that Jay Cutler has at his disposal. Johnny Knox and Devin Hester are speedsters, but Butler and fellow cornerback Captain Munnerlyn can keep up with the fastest.
Matt Forte presents a threat as a receiver out of the backfield, but James Anderson has the speed to slow him down. If the Panthers play against the screen the way they did in the second half of the Jaguars game, they will successfully contain Forte.
Cutler has received little in the way of pass protection thus far, and Carolina will look to take advantage of the Bears' weak offensive line. Charles Johnson has been even better than expected ,and Greg Hardy has come into his own. I expect one of those two to wreak havoc all day.
The Panthers cannot afford to blitz much, with linebackers Jon Beason and Thomas Davis out for the season, but they will try to be more effective with their blitzes in key situations. Cutler has struggled under duress, and if the Panthers can catch him off guard, the possibility of a fumble or interception increases—and in a defensive battle like this one is shaping up to be, a turnover could be the difference.
The Bears have not been able to do much on the ground. They've been much worse than the Panthers and are currently rank 31st in the league. Matt Forte hasn't been able to find the creases in the defense that he seemed to find last season, and after an encouraging Week 1 performance, he's been less than impressive since.
Save two long runs, Forte's numbers are awful. Attribute that in part to this offensive line, though. They've been unable to get a consistent push, and even Carolina's inexperienced interior defensive line looks to have the edge in this matchup.
Rookie defensive tackles Sione Fua and Terrell McClain will get the start. Both have been very inconsistent but have showed some positive signs. Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy have done well against the run. Both get good penetration, but can be beat to the edge at times. With a quick runner like Forte, they will have to do a better job of setting the edge; they no longer have Thomas Davis to cover their butts when they get beat.
At middle linebacker, Dan Connor has been playing very well. He is the definition of pure run stuffer, and once this new defensive lineup gets some more experience together, they should only continue to improve. This week will be a good test of how well they can eliminate their proneness to giving up the long run.