The Bears and their Week 5 opponents – the Carolina Panthers – are almost mirror images of one another. Both teams enter the contest 2-2 following tough losses, and both are adjusting to changes in their lineup following some key injuries.
Chicago enters the contest banged up at wide receiver and on the offensive line. For the Panthers, the biggest concern is their depilated depth at running back. On Wednesday, running backs DeAngelo Williams (ankle) and Fozzy Whittaker (thigh) missed practice, while Jonathan Stewart (knee) had just limited availability. Fullback Richie Brockel also missed practice because of an ankle injury, while starter Mike Tolbert is already on Injured Reserve. That means the bulk of the first-team work went to Darrin Reaves, an undrafted rookie with just 12 career rushing attempts.
"That's not my focus. This is the NFL, it's a job and you have to be professional at the end of the day," Panthers quarterback Cam Newton told reporters Wednesday on a conference call. "So no matter who's back there at wide receiver, quarterback, running back, tight end, fullback or whatever position you have, you have to perform at the best of your ability. I have all the confidence in the world that (whoever) they put in will be ready to go."
In the past, Newton's legs could have been used in place of the injured runners. In each of his first three professional seasons, the quarterback has gained more than 5.0 yards per carry, scoring 28 total touchdowns during that span.
This year, as he has battled a sore ankle and bruised ribs, Newton is running far less. He has just eight attempts in his three starts, averaging 4.1 yards per carry and has failed to reach the end zone on the season. Carolina's rushing attack as a whole has taken a dip, running for 71.0 yards per game compared to 126.6 in 2013.
Newton said his dip in rushing attempts has nothing to do with his health, but instead a change in offensive philosophy that the Panthers have instituted that asks of him more time in the pocket and fewer scrambles outside.
"I'm feeling great. Every day, get some good treatment, get closer to 100 percent," Newton said. "It hasn't been anything adjusting on my behalf, just trying to stay focused on executing the game plan and stay focused on executing what coach is asking me to do."
Carolina coach Ron Rivera – a former Bears linebacker and assistant coach – sees the similarities between the teams as well. Along with the identical records and battles with injuries, both teams are in divisions where there is very little difference between the team in first place and the one in last. The NFC South champions a year ago, the Panthers are hopeful they can fix their current issues and return to the playoffs again this season.
"The (Bears) play some really good games, really consistent in every phase of the game and then they have their down periods. Well we are the same way," Rivera said. "We are really good in certain situations and then we have our downs. So it's not just one unit or one side trying to be firing on all cylinders. It's the whole team. That's what we are trying to do. We are trying to be a complete football team. "
In order to win Sunday, Rivera knows his team must handle a potent Chicago offense. In Week 4, the Panthers' secondary was carved up by Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco, who threw for 327 yards and three touchdowns.
The team's run defense has struggled as well, as the Panthers rank last in the league in rushing yards per play, allowing 5.69 yards per carry.
Facing the Bears and their large, diverse group of offensive skill players, the Carolina coach knows his defense is in for another great challenge.
"It's not about protecting (our secondary). It's about matching up with who (the Bears) have. They've got some tremendous athletes," Rivers said. (Alshon) Jeffery, (Brandon) Marshall and (Martellus) Bennett are as good as a three-way tandem as there are in the league. Two quality wide receivers, an explosive tight end, you got a quarterback with an arm who can get it to 'em. Kyle Long I still think is one of the better all-around, every down backs in the league. I have a tremendous amount of respect for who Matt Forte has been for the bears for a number of years. And they've got a scrappy, young offensive line that fights and claws and tries to protect the quarterback.
It's a good offensive team and we have to be prepared. Defensively, we have to be on our game against these guys."