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Bears running game, special teams come out of hiding vs. Panthers

Updated: November 15, 2011 10:04AM

Ron Rivera, the Carolina Panthers coach, knows all about the Bears.

So Rivera — a former Bears player and coach — recognized what transpired Sunday at Soldier Field, where his homecoming was spoiled in a 34-29 loss.

“What they did was, they won this football game the Bear way,” Rivera said. “Special teams, opportunities on defense, and then they ran the ball. They got back to running the ball.”

After just 24 rushing attempts in two consecutive losses, the Bears (2-2) handed the football to Matt Forte and Marion Barber on its first seven offensive plays, until the drive stalled inside the Panthers’ 5-yard line. But in a game they simply couldn’t afford to lose — the Green Bay Packers AND Detroit Lions are 4-0 — the Bears kept on running.

Forte finished with 25 carries for 205 yards, which is second only to Walter Payton’s 275-yard effort against the Minnesota Vikings in ­November 1977.

“It’s real dangerous,” Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy said of the Bears’ offense, “and you knew coming out that we were going to have to come out, grind it out and hit them in the mouth.”

Figuratively, the Panthers landed plenty of punches, most of them from offensive players. Running back DeAngelo Williams needed just 10 carries to gain 82 yards, and Steve Smith outdid the entire Bears passing offense with eight catches for 181 yards. In four games, the four-time Pro Bowl receiver has 530 receiving yards, nearly matching his production from 2010, when he played 14 games.

The difference, of course, is rookie quarterback Cam Newton.

The first overall pick, Newton hasn’t been perfect, but he already has asserted himself as one of the league’s most dangerous quarterbacks, and certainly better than his predecessor, former Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen.

Newton completed 27 of 46 passes for 374 yards, but he escaped at least three or four sacks with his mobility. The Bears, though, did tip one of the passes he forced, and cornerback D.J. Moore intercepted it and returned it 20 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter.

The beleaguered offensive line cleared the way for Forte’s monstrous performance, and the Bears’ dormant special teams dominated on the day they were introduced before kickoff.

In the second quarter, after the Panthers tied the game at 10 on a one-yard Newton touchdown run, Devin Hester returned the kickoff 73 yards, setting up a Forte touchdown.

On the next series, after a three-and-out, Hester charged through an attempted tackle by linebacker Thomas Williams and completed a 69-yard punt-return touchdown, the 11th of his career, an NFL record.

“It feels great. To be labeled the greatest person at a position is a great honor,” Hester said. “I have to give credit to my teammates.”

Now the Bears need to plug some holes, in preparation for the Detroit Lions.

The Panthers racked up 543 net yards, the most allowed by an already oft-criticized Bears defense.

“I can’t put a finger on what’s wrong with the defense,” Bears defensive end Julius Peppers said. “We’re not playing as well as we should be right now. We’re going to get it corrected.

“We got a lot of time to get it corrected.”

Or, less than a week.

The Lions boast one of the league’s most dangerous offenses, and they’ll be hosting a Monday Night Football game for the first time since 2001.

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