Although it’s a mismatch on paper, the red-hot Bears don’t intend to take the struggling Carolina Panthers lightly Sunday at Soldier Field, especially after what transpired last season.
The Bears edged the Panthers 34-29 last Oct. 2 in Chicago, but not before they had allowed 543 total yards, the most in a game since Mike Ditka’s first season as coach in 1982.
“Last year Carolina gave us all we wanted,” said coach Lovie Smith. “It was a tough game. I think they had an onside kick at the end of the game, so that tells you what type of football game it was.
“Our defense has been playing good football throughout the year. But Carolina put over 500 yards on us last year, so it will be a big test. I know what their record is, 1-5, and they haven’t played as well as they would like. But they are definitely capable.”
That’s certainly true of quarterback Cam Newton, who has struggled in his second season after excelling as a rookie in 2011. In last year’s game against the Bears, Newton passed for 374 yards and one touchdown and rushed for 35 yards and two TDs without being sacked.
“[He presents] all types of problems,” Smith said. “First off, just raw ability. He’s fast. He’s big. He’s got a strong arm. He’s mobile in the pocket. He can make all the throws.
“And then they do a good job of letting him display all of those talents. They’ll have some option plays that normally are reserved for quarterbacks that can run. When things break down, just him taking off in the pocket. That gives defenses as much of a problem as anything.”
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The bruised ribs he suffered in Monday night’s win over the Lions are still sore, but Bears quarterback Jay Cutler is confident that he won’t be limited Sunday against the Panthers.
“I’m not concerned at all,” said Cutler, who will continue to use the same rib pads he wears in every game. “I think by Sunday it’ll all be cleared up. I’ll be fine.”
Because they played Monday night, the Bears won’t practice for the first time this week until Thursday. Had they worked out Wednesday, Cutler would have been limited.
The Bears quarterback was injured midway through the second quarter on a vicious but legal sack by defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. After being evaluated in the locker room, Cutler returned to the game and played the entire second half.
“I’m very proud of our quarterback, Jay Cutler, a tough SOB,” said offensive coordinator Mike Tice. “He takes the bad hit. In football, they finish the plays and they take you to the ground. That’s part of the game. For him to come back and suck it up, he probably was a little sore but I’m very proud of him. I feel he played well.”
While he had to alter his play-calling in the second half against the Lions because Cutler was hindered by the injury, Tice doesn’t anticipate any restrictions on Sunday.
“He’s sore, but we’re going to go,” Tice said. “I was a little cautious once he got hurt and didn’t want to expose him and really throw down the field except for when we were getting pressed. But he’s ready to go. I’m very, very pleased with Jay.”
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The offense’s performance in Monday night’s 13-7 win over the Lions wasn’t a thing of beauty, but coordinator Mike Tice was pleased with the unit’s aggressive approach and physical play.
“It’s not always pretty,” Tice said Wednesday. “We’re right now not the prettiest offense in the world, but the way the guys got after the opponent and finished … that’s the way we want to play.
“I feel like the last two weeks, the last three years I’ve been here is the most physical that the offense has been. I didn’t say it was the best, but the most physical.”
After rushing for 114, 94, 103 and 93 yards in their first four games of the season, the Bears have generated 214 and 171 yards in their last two contests against the Jaguars and Lions.
“We identified a couple weeks ago that we were getting in too big a rush to get the guards up to the linebackers and not taking care of the down linemen well enough,” Tice said. “I think the last couple weeks we’ve done a better job of that.”
As the Bears prepare to host the Carolina Panthers Sunday, Tice has targeted two areas to improve: red-zone efficiency and production on first down.
While the Bears are one of only two NFL teams to score on all of their red-zone possessions this season, they rank 25th in the league in touchdown percentage (43.8) with 7 TDs on 16 drives. They’re dead last in the NFL in average gain on first down at 4.11 yards.
“We’re excited that the run game is getting going, but I’d like to see us be a little more efficient,” Tice said. “We have got to do better on first downs and finish drives in the red zone. And we’ll continue to work diligently on that.”
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