1ST QUARTER 1:03: Cam Newton hits Steve Smith for a 53-yard pass play down the Bears' 1. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times
RICK MORRISSEY: 31-17 Bears
RICK TELANDER: 24-10 Bears
DAN McGRATH: 31-13 Bears
SEAN JENSEN: 27-10 Bears
MARK POTASH: 23-20 Bears
ADAM L. JAHNS: 31-17 Bears
Updated: October 27, 2012 1:30AM
PANTHERS AT BEARS
Time: Noon Sunday at Soldier Field.
TV: Fox-32 (Kenny Albert, Daryl Johnston, Tony Siragusa).
Radio: 780-AM, 105.9-FM.
Line: Bears by 71/2.
WHEN THE BEARS HAVE THE BALL
On the ground
The Bears usually are at their best when they are forced to run the ball, and they might be in that situation against the Panthers. If Jay Cutler still is feeling the effects of bruised ribs, Matt Forte and Michael Bush might have to carry a bigger share of the load. The Bears’ ground game has been picking up steam of late (214 yards against the Jaguars, 171 against the Lions). Forte has rushed for 203 yards on 44 carries in his last two games and had a career-high 205 rushing yards against the Panthers last season. The Panthers are ranked 19th against the run and are without linebacker Jon Beason.
In the air
Cutler said he will start and doesn’t expect to be affected by the bruised ribs he suffered against the Lions. It remains to be seen just how effective he’ll be, but anything is possible for him with Brandon Marshall. Marshall is averaging eight catches for 121 yards in his last three games. Still, Marshall’s 81 yards on six carches left the Bears missing injured rookie Alshon Jeffery last week. They’ll be looking for Devin Hester (3-38 against the Lions) or Earl Bennett (3-27) to play a bigger role. The Panthers, who rank 19th in pass defense, should provide chances for the Bears to do some damage.
Luke Kuechly, the Panthers’ first-round draft pick, has been compared to Brian Urlacher and already is following his path with solid play in the middle after starting on the outside. Still, Cutler’s experience should give the Bears an edge.
WHEN THE PANTHERS HAVE THE BALL
On the ground
The Panthers’ backfield duo of DeAngelo Williams (eight carries, 10 yards in the last two games) and Jonathan Stewart (14-51) has slowed to such a crawl that quarterback Cam Newton (46-273, three TDs) is their leading rusher. Coach Ron Rivera has ditched the two-back concept and will start Stewart in an effort to get one back to emerge. The Bears are second in the NFL in rushing defense (71.3 yards per game) and have allowed one rushing TD this season. Newton had two rushing TDs against the Bears last season. He already has had runs of 40, 32 and 24 yards this season.
In the air
Newton threw for 374 yards against the Bears last season, but D.J. Moore returned an interception 20 yards for a touchdown in the Bears’ 34-29 victory. Newton, who threw for 4,051 yards and 21 TDs (84.5 rating) as a rookie, hasn’t been as productive this season. He’s 23rd in passer rating (5 TDs, 6 INTs, 79.3). Smith, who is averaging 167 receiving yards in four career games against the Bears and had eight catches for 181 yards against them last season, doesn’t have a TD catch in 2012. Ex-Bears tight end Greg Olsen (26 catches, 324 yards, TD) is the Panthers’ No. 2 receiver.
Charles Tillman held 6-5 Calvin Johnson to three catches for 34 yards on Monday night, but the 5-9 Smith might be a tougher matchup for whoever covers him because of his leaping ability, toughness and knack for getting any ball in the air.
Devin Hester has yet to break a long return, but he’s always due, and this is a good spot for a breakout. Hester had a 69-yard punt return for a touchdown and a 73-yard kickoff return against the Panthers last season and a 50-yard punt return against them in 2010. The Bears’ coverage units rank second on punts (4.6 yards) and seventh on kickoffs (21.2). The Panthers are 27th on punt coverage and 20th on kickoff coverage.
The Bears are on a roll and playing at home, but they’re also playing on a short week with a quarterback recovering from bruised ribs. The Panthers, meanwhile, are on tilt. They fired general manager Marty Hurney this week, their running game is in tatters, their best defensive player (Jon Beason) is out for the season and Cam Newton can’t carry the team on his shoulders. Are the Bears good enough to kick a struggling team when it’s down?