The schedule makers have done plenty of favors for the Chicago Bears in the 2012 season, and this week they serve up another with a visit from the 1-5 Carolina Panthers. Cam Newton and company have been held below 20 points in four of their six games, and they don’t figure to turn things around against the turnover-happy Bears defense.
Whether the game turns out to be a blowout (as appears likely) or not, these three storylines will be worth watching on Sunday:
1. Will Cam Newton’s rushing ability open up the Bears’ defense?
Carolina’s only hope for a competitive game is for the Bears to struggle defending Cam Newton, the first dual-threat QB they’ve faced on the season. Newton is having a better year rushing than either of his struggling running backs, leading the team with 273 yards and three scores on the ground.
That said, the Bear defense is playing at such a high level that it’s hard to see them being thrown by this one extra wrinkle in the game plan. Brian Urlacher has been very effective in the past playing a spy role to shut down scramblers, and he and Lance Briggs are a good bet to keep Newton bottled up.
2. Which version of the Carolina defense will show up?
Despite the Panthers’ ugly record, they’ve played several strong games on the defensive side of the ball. Last week’s 19-14 loss to Dallas was the third time in six tries that they’d held the opposition under 20 points.
Of course, when the Panther defense goes bad, it goes very, very bad, giving up 36 points in a rout by the Giants and 30 in a heartbreaking two-point defeat in Atlanta. Chicago is a tough team to defend right now, with Matt Forte’s ground game and Brandon Marshall’s aerial attack both ringing up yardage, and Carolina (in the bottom half of the league defending either the pass or the run) is likely to be in for a long afternoon.
3. Can Jonathan Stewart find any holes in the Chicago run defense?
With Carolina’s ground game stagnating, coach Ron Rivera has put an end to his backfield-by-committee approach. Instead, he’s handing Jonathan Stewart the keys to the rushing attack, hoping that some continuity will help the powerful back improve on his dismal 35.5 yards per game.
The catch, of course, is that few teams are likely to see their ballcarriers' stats get healthy against a Chicago defense that ranks No. 1 in the league against the run. Stewart will get some extra carries this week, but translating them into meaningful yardage is going to be a daunting task.
Prediction: Bears 31, Panthers 6
There hasn’t been anything wrong with Chicago’s killer instinct in the first half of the season, as the Bears have blown out Indianapolis, St. Louis and Jacksonville by 17 points or more. They’ll add Carolina to that list of victims with little difficulty, running their home record to 4-0 in the process.