Chicago Bears can take a big step with win over Panthers
Coming off their cathartic victory in Baltimore, do the Bears have a new lease on 2017?
They’ve started to exorcise their road demons. The dominating run game and defensive formula coach John Fox craves is crystalizing. And the Bears’ biggest divisional detriment, Aaron Rodgers’ Packers, are circling the wagons around Brett Hundley after Rodgers just underwent likely season-ending surgery to fix his broken right collarbone.
Now, what the Bears truly need to turn a corner, to show they’re ready to compete in 2017 with their fresh-faced quarterback and complementary style of ball, is to win in their own division and conference.
Sunday, when coach Ron Rivera brings his NFC South-leading Panthers to Soldier Field, marks a chance to help the latter – a 0-4 mark in the NFC.
Victories over the AFC North’s Ravens and Steelers, while critical confidence boosts, don’t signal the Bears as a potential postseason contender the way beating Carolina would if Fox’s club is to enter the race of a suddenly attainable division.
And it seems more within reach today than it did even 24 hours ago, before the Panthers’ leader and former defensive MVP, Luke Kuechly, was ruled out with yet another concussion.
Indeed, both teams will be without their defensive captains at linebacker, but only one of them has the powerful ground attack to take advantage.
The Bears enter Sunday No. 3 in the NFL in rushing, buoyed by what Fox this week called a “will-breaking” 231-yard effort headed by Jordan Howard and their offensive line in Baltimore.
Carolina is ranked fifth defending the run and ninth in scoring defense, but look what happened after Kuechly went out in Thursday night’s home loss to the Eagles: The Panthers, leading 10-3 at the time, were outscored, 25-13. LeGarrette Blount hammered Philly’s longest run of the night – and Carolina’s third-longest rush allowed this season – up the gut where Kuechly normally resides shortly after the linebacker’s departure.
Make no mistake: Fellow linebackers Thomas Davis and Shaq Thompson, and a defensive line with Kawann Short and Julius Peppers, remains not only capable but plenty formidable. The Panthers’ defensive turnaround in the second half of 2016 came without Kuechly. They’ve been here before.
But Davis said this week the Bears have as good of a run game as he’s seen from a team with a rookie quarterback, high praise from a guy whose 2011 Panthers also ranked third in the NFL on the ground and first in rushing yards per play led by then-rookie Cam Newton.
Davis was equally impressed with Trubisky, saying, “He kind of has that Aaron Rodgers effect,” citing the rookie’s pinpoint accuracy on the move.
Trubisky already may be a better passer than Newton, but no NFL quarterback is more dangerous with his legs than Carolina’s. And few are better on the road, where Newton boasts a 122.9 rating and 3-0 record.
Newton’s best rushing performance since his 2015 MVP campaign coincided Thursday night with his first three-interception game in more than a year. Expect Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio to use Leonard Floyd and Danny Trevathan as spies to keep Newton and top pick Christian McCaffrey hemmed in, particularly with McCaffrey and Jonathan Stewart managing 2.8 yards per carry.
Remember, it’d been since even before Newton’s last trio of picks in a game since the Bears’ previous three-takeaway outing – Dec. 2015, to be exact. Suddenly, Kyle Fuller looks like a Pro Bowler in a bolstered secondary – just in time for his rematch with supersized Kelvin Benjamin – and Akiem Hicks, Eddie Goldman and Floyd are wrecking things up front.
Meantime, the Panthers’ defense is even more challenged forcing turnovers this season than the Bears. That means Trubisky will have his downfield opportunities, particularly off play action set up by Howard and Tarik Cohen.
This is Fox’s second reunion with Carolina, where he cut his head-coaching teeth, and first as the Bears’ boss. The Bears matching their 2016 win total Sunday would make it more meaningful.