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4 things to watch: Bears-Panthers

Posted Oct 21, 2017

Bears senior writer Larry Mayer identifies four storylines to watch Sunday when the Bears host the Carolina Panthers at Soldier Field.

The Bears will look to record back-to-back wins for the first time this season when they host the Panthers Sunday at Soldier Field. Here are four storylines to watch in the game:

(1) How well will the Bears defense be able to contain quarterback Cam Newton, a true dual threat who excels as a passer and runner?

The Bears haven't faced a quarterback so far this season like Newton, a 6-5, 245-pounder who is dangerous both throwing the ball and running with it. In the Panthers' first six games, he has thrown for 1,476 yards and nine touchdowns and rushed for 161 yards and three TDs.

"He's a very versatile quarterback," said defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. "His running the ball, whether it be through his improvising with scrambling on called pass plays, or the called running plays they do have for him, that's a strength for him. [But] we can't just focus on stopping that. We've got to stop Cam Newton the passer and the runner."

Containing Newton the passer will require a joint effort by the Bears pass rush and secondary. It appears that the latter will have to defend mammoth receiver Kelvin Benjamin, a 6-5, 240-pounder who is expected to play Sunday despite being listed as questionable with a knee injury. Benjamin has caught 26 passes for 371 yards and one touchdown in six games this season.

(2) Will the Bears open up their offense and rely more heavily on rookie quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, who is slated to make his third NFL start Sunday?

The Bears did exactly what they needed to do to beat the Ravens last Sunday in Baltimore, and that involved employing a run-oriented offense that amassed 231 yards on the ground, the most ever by a Ravens opponent in a single game. And while it was an impressive performance, there will be a time that the Bears must lean more heavily on their passing game.

"He's a team-first guy," offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said of Trubisky, the second overall pick in this year's NFL Draft. "He knows that we are going to do whatever it takes to win a game. He is also very aware in his little time in the NFL that there are going to be games—maybe this week, maybe next week, maybe a month from now—that we are going to open it up and throw it 45 times. Whatever it takes to win the game."

Although Trubisky threw just 16 passes against the Ravens—completing eight for 113 yards and a touchdown—he made major strides from his first start a week earlier against the Vikings. Coaches especially liked how he managed the game and made pinpoint throws that resulted in a 27-yard touchdown to tight end Dion Sims and an 18-yard completion to Kendall Wright on third-and-11 in overtime that set up Connor Barth's game-winning field goal.

(3) Will the Bears defense be able to pick up where it left off last Sunday when it generated a season-high three takeaways that led directly to 14 points?

Cam Newton
Panthers quarterback Cam Newton against the Bears defense.

After forcing only two turnovers in the first five games of the season, the Bears defense stepped up and produced three against the Ravens. Two defensive backs recorded their first career interceptions, with Adrian Amos returning his 90 yards for a touchdown and Bryce Callahan bringing his back 52 yards to set up another Bears TD.

"Those were big yards," said defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. "That was 142 yards and those are really the hidden yards. Those 142 yards were instrumental in that game. We had a lot of guys doing some good blocking after we got interceptions and we had guys doing some good running, so those were very nice plays and direly needed in a game that went into overtime."

The Bears should have some opportunities to create turnovers Sunday against Newton, who has thrown eight interceptions in six games this season. "Some of them have been tipped and due to him getting hit as he was throwing it," Fangio said. "I do think he's playing better now than he was the first week or two because he had very little camp work [while recovering from offseason shoulder surgery] and I see more of him back to being himself right now."

(4) Will the Bears special-teams unit rebound after allowing two touchdowns in Baltimore?

It's difficult to fault the Bears for Bobby Rainey's 96-yard kickoff return touchdown last Sunday given the fluke nature of the play. Players on both teams stopped after it appeared that Joshua Bellamy had tripped up Rainey at the Baltimore 23.

Much more disconcerting was Michael Campanaro's 77-yard punt return TD which—followed by a successful two-point conversion—tied a game that the Bears had seemingly already won at 17 with 1:37 to play. The Bears moved their gunners inside when it appeared that Baltimore would try to block the punt and then ultimately lost containment down the sideline.

"The punt's not the issue on that play," said special-teams coordinator Jeff Rodgers. "The issue is we've got multiple players that are unblocked in that situation and a player out of leverage in terms of the coverage part. If we do our part, the other guys on the field, that play doesn't happen."

The punt return TD came after the Bears had lost two of their top special-teams players to hamstring injuries in Sherrick McManis and Benny Cunningham, who tweaked his while chasing Rainey on his kickoff return TD. Both are listed as questionable for Sunday, though Cunningham returned to practice Friday without restrictions while McManis missed practice all week.