Updated: October 1, 2011 9:05PM
WHEN THE BEARS HAVE THE BALL
On the Ground
The Bears’ running game has disintegrated the last two weeks. Against the Saints, they wouldn’t run (12 carries, 60 yards); against the Packers, they couldn’t run (12 carries, 13 yards). Offensive coordinator Mike Martz promises — again — the Bears will run the ball Sunday. ‘‘We have to, and we will,’’ he said. ‘‘That’s one thing we can do: We can run the football. We’ll get that right.’’ The Panthers, missing Pro Bowl LB Jon Beason, have allowed 100 rushing yards or more against the Cardinals (21-100), Packers (16-111) and Jaguars (29-126). Likely return of Marion Barber makes it even more likely the Bears will be run-heavy.
Key Matchup: Bears QB Jay Cutler vs. Panthers CB Darius Butler
The Panthers’ secondary is banged up, with SS Charles Godfrey and CB Chris Gamble recovering from concussions. Darius Butler, a Patriots castoff, is expected to start for Gamble, and Jordan Pugh has been burned several times this season in place of Godfrey.
In the Air
The Bears still are trying to put it all together in the passing game, but they’re close. ‘‘You look at the film last week, and we did so many good things,’’ quarterback Jay Cutler said. ‘‘It’s just little tidbits that stick out. If we would’ve hit those, we would’ve been good.’’ Cutler is 38-for-77 (49.3 percent) since losing Earl Bennett against the Saints. He was 24-for-37 (64.9 percent) before that. You don’t need a No. 1 receiver to beat the Panthers. Early Doucet (70-yard TD), Jeff King (48-yard TD), Jordy Nelson (84-yard TD) and Mike Thomas (36-yard TD) have burned them for big gains. Devin Hester and Dane Sanzenbacher will have chances.
WHEN THE PANTHERS HAVE THE BALL
On the Ground
The Panthers have a productive RB tandem in DeAngelo Williams (27 carries, 61 yards) and Jonathan Stewart (23 carries, 90 yards), but rookie QB Cam Newton is their leading rusher (25 carries, 98 yards, two TDs) and adds a dimension to the running game that might give the Bears problems because he has the quickness to take advantage of their aggressive pursuit. The Bears have had problems stopping the inside run, as the Packers’ Ryan Grant burned them for 92 yards on 17 carries last week. The Bears are tied for 23rd in the NFL with 4.6 yards allowed per carry. They were second last season at 3.7 yards allowed per carry.
Key Matchup: Bears LBs Urlacher/Briggs vs. Panthers QB Cam Newton
Brian Urlacher in pass coverage and Lance Briggs against the run should be an advantage, but it’s no sure thing with Newton. If Bears rely on their athleticism, they might be in for a surprise. If they use their experience, they likely will have better success.
In the Air
Newton passed for 422 yards against the Cardinals and for 432 against the Packers — much of it by using his fine touch to make plays against the blitz and man coverage. The Bears’ cover-2 might be a bigger challenge because its use of disguised coverages can confuse even veteran QBs and usually takes time to figure out. ‘‘There are some things he hasn’t seen because he’s a rookie, but he’s playing well for a guy who’s only played three games,’’ Urlacher said. Steve Smith is No. 3 in the NFL in receiving yards (16-349, two TDs), but RB Jonathan Stewart (13-140) and TEs Jeremy Shockey (9-137) and Greg Olsen (12-169) also have been productive.
Cam Newton has lost both of his prolific passing games because the Cardinals and Packers attacked the Panthers’ defense. The fragile Bears offense, which either clicks on all cylinders or on none of them, can take much of the drama out of this must-win game against a vulnerable defense by just being a standard NFL offense (running the ball, second- or third-and-short situations, yards after the catch). It should be fairly simple.
The Bears are solid in most phases of special teams, but their vaunted kick-return units have been struggling to make a difference. Devin Hester is averaging 20.7 yards (long of 29) on six kickoff returns and 10.3 yards (long of 21) on three punt returns. The Panthers are last in the NFL in punt-return coverage (24 yards per return) after allowing an 89-yard TD to Cardinals rookie Patrick Peterson. Kicker Robbie Gould (6-for-6 on field goals) and punter Adam Podlesh (42.2 yards net) have been excellent.