Though the Carolina Panthers have undergone dramatic changes since the last time they battled the Chicago Bears, there will be a couple of names familiar to Windy City fans on the visiting sidelines when the two teams get together at Soldier Field for Sunday's Week 4 matchup.
Ron Rivera brings the new-look Panthers into Chicago in the rookie head coach's first visit to Soldier Field since being displaced as the Bears' defensive coordinator following the club's NFC championship run of 2006. The 49-year-old did not have his contract renewed by the organization following that season, despite Chicago yielding the third-fewest points in the NFL and forcing a league-best 44 turnovers.
Rivera also has long ties with the Bears as a player, having spent his entire nine-year career in Chicago as a linebacker from 1984-92. He's served the last four seasons as a defensive assistant with San Diego and has faced the Bears once since his departure, helping the Chargers to a 14-3 home victory in the 2007 opener.
"Personally, it means a lot because it's Chicago and it's a great city," said Rivera about his return. "I've said before the city has been very good to me, the organization has been outstanding. It's kind of a homecoming. I was there for 17 years and it's been outstanding. I'm really looking forward to coming back and being in Soldier Field."
Rivera earned his first win as a head coach with the Panthers' 16-10 home decision over Jacksonville this past Sunday, with rookie sensation Cam Newton throwing the go-ahead touchdown pass to another ex-Bear -- tight end Greg Olsen -- with 4:20 left to play.
Olsen was Chicago's first-round selection of the 2007 draft and caught 194 passes while scoring 20 touchdowns over four seasons with the Bears before being traded to Carolina just prior to this year's training camp.
The improving Panthers are now just one victory shy of matching their entire two-win total from last season, with one of the team's 14 defeats in 2010 a 23-6 setback to the eventual NFC North champion Bears in Charlotte.
The Panthers finished last year at the bottom of the league in both scoring and total offense, but Newton's quick emergence has led to a stark turnaround in those areas this season. Carolina enters the contest averaging a prolific 321.7 passing yards per game (tied 4th overall) and presently ranks seventh in total offense.
Chicago has yet to solve its most troubling problem from last season, however. After permitting a league-worst 56 sacks in 2010, the Bears have allowed quarterback Jay Cutler to be taken to the turf 14 times through their first three outings.
Cutler received a little better protection in last week's showdown with rival Green Bay, but the erratic triggerman threw a pair of interceptions and the offense failed to establish much of a rhythm in a disappointing 27-17 home loss to the reigning NFC titleholders.
The Bears have now dropped two in a row since a season-opening 30-12 triumph over expected powerhouse Atlanta at Soldier Field, having been dealt a 30-13 defeat at formidable New Orleans the following week.
Chicago took a 3-2 lead in its all-time regular season series with Carolina by virtue of its 23-6 win in Charlotte during Week 5 of the 2010 schedule. The Bears have also emerged victorious in each of the two non-playoff tests between the teams held at Soldier Field, having produced a 31-27 decision in Chicago in 1995 as well as a 13-3 verdict there in 2005. The Panthers' most recent win in the set was a 20-17 result at Bank of America Stadium in 2008.
The Bears and Panthers have also met once in the preseason, when the Panthers were 29-21 winners in a 2005 NFC Divisional Playoff from Soldier Field.
As stated before, Rivera spent nine years as a player with the Bears from 1984-1992 and was Smith's defensive coordinator from 2004-06, and he also served a previous two-year stint (1997-98) with Chicago as a defensive quality control coach. Smith owns a 2-2 lifetime record against the Panthers and will be facing his former assistant for the first time when both have been head coaches.
WHEN THE PANTHERS HAVE THE BALL
Predominantly a run-first operation under former head coach John Fox, the Panthers have changed their stripes with Rivera and new offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski now in command, with the dynamic Newton (1012 passing yards, 4 TD, 4 INT) having averaged 39 pass attempts over his first three pro starts and becoming the first rookie in NFL history to begin his career with back-to-back 400-yard efforts. The 2010 Heisman Trophy recipient directs a suddenly- dangerous aerial attack that features a rejuvenated Steve Smith (16 receptions, 2 TD) as the primary receiver, with the accomplished veteran having amassed the third-most receiving yards (349) in the league over the first three weeks. Though the Jaguars did a good job keeping him in check last Sunday, Olsen (12 receptions, 1 TD) and fellow tight end Jeremy Shockey (9 receptions) each stepped up to record 87 yards and a touchdown on 10 catches between them. Running back Jonathan Stewart (90 rushing yards, 13 receptions) has also been an asset to Newton in the early going, with the former first-round pick amassing career bests of eight catches and 100 receiving yards in a loss to Green Bay two weeks back. Carolina has yet to get its normally strong ground game untracked, however, with Stewart and cohort DeAngelo Williams (61 rushing yards, 7 receptions) having averaged a substandard 50 rushing yards combined so far.
Chicago has allowed an average of 277.3 passing yards per game while going up against a formidable trio of quarterbacks (Matt Ryan, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers) to begin the season, and it hasn't helped matters that starting safeties Chris Harris and Major Wright (9 tackles) have missed the majority of the last two weeks with injuries. Both should be available for Sunday's clash, though Wright may give way to veteran Brandon Meriweather (9 tackles) for the time being. Expect the Bears to come after the lightly-seasoned Newton with a heavy rush headed up by ex-Panthers end Julius Peppers (6 tackles, 2 sacks), one of the league's premier disrupters, and up-and-coming tackle Henry Melton (8 tackles), who's amassed a team-best three sacks through the first three games. The decorated linebacker tandem of Lance Briggs (28 tackles) and Brian Urlacher (20 tackles, 1 INT) lead a run defense that hasn't played up to its usual standards as of yet, having surrendered an mediocre 4.6 yards per attempt and enabling Green Bay's Ryan Grant to compile 92 yards on 17 carries a week ago.
WHEN THE BEARS HAVE THE BALL
A Chicago offense that was plagued by inconsistency all throughout last season hasn't gotten off to a particularly good start in 2011, with the team encountering great difficulty in running the football in addition to its continued woes in protection. The Bears are averaging an anemic 53.7 rushing yards per game (31st overall) on the year and were held to a mere 13 yards on the ground on 12 attempts by the Packers in last Sunday's loss. That lack of production has made Chicago predictable and Cutler (858 passing yards, 5 TD, 3 INT) often a sitting duck in the pocket, though the highly-scrutinized quarterback has put up over 300 yards in each of the club's two home games. His most reliable option has been versatile running back Matt Forte (119 rushing yards, 1 TD), who leads all NFL players at his position in catches (22) and receiving yards (287), while speedy wideouts Johnny Knox (9 receptions, 189 yards) and Devin Hester (7 receptions) teamed up for 146 yards on only seven grabs in the Green Bay game. Steady slot receiver Earl Bennett will likely miss a second straight week with a chest injury, though undrafted rookie Dane Sanzenbacher (9 receptions, 2 TD) has filled the void with touchdown catches in each of the past two tests, and well-regarded rookie tackle Gabe Carimi will also sit out a second consecutive game due to a knee injury.
If Cutler is given enough time to survey the field, there should be an opportunity for success against a Carolina secondary that was ripped apart in losses to Arizona and Green Bay to begin the season and could be without top cover man Chris Gamble (5 tackles, 3 PD) due to a concussion he suffered last week. For that to happen, however, the Bears will have to contain the Panthers' quality pass-rushing duo of ends Charles Johnson (11 tackles, 3 sacks) and Greg Hardy (13 tackles, 2 sacks), with the former entering the contest having notched 11 sacks over a 10-game span dating back to last season. Carolina has come up with only interception over the first three weeks, however, and has shown a vulnerability versus the run as well, having given up an average of 117 yards per game on the ground (25th overall). Injuries to the linebacking corps has hurt the team in that area, with both standout middle linebacker Jon Beason (Achilles) and weakside starter Thomas Davis (torn ACL) already out for the season.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Finding offensive balance. Both of these teams have been hurt by a failure to establish a consistent running game over the course of this season. As good as Newton's been at the outset of his career, he's still a relatively raw rookie who's prone to making mistakes if the Panthers are rendered one-dimensional, while Carolina should be able to tee off on a skittish Cutler if Chicago is routinely placed in obvious passing situations. Being able to move the ball effectively on the ground would clearly benefit either quarterback.
Turnovers could very well play a critical role in Sunday's outcome, and each team possesses a defensive star fully capable of single-handedly altering the momentum in Chicago's Peppers and Carolina's Johnson. Whichever participant does a better job of neutralizing these two game-changers stands a better chance of coming out on top on Sunday.
Rise up on the road. The Panthers have a young team that's lost nine consecutive games away from home, a streak that extends all the way back to the start of last season. There's a possibility to steal a win here if they can take advantage of Chicago's trouble spots, but they'll have to play a smart and composed game for that to occur.
The Bears didn't have too difficult a time handling the Panthers last season, but this is a new year and Carolina's a much different team, one far more explosive on the offensive side than the dreadful 2010 edition. Chicago still sports a superior defense as well as a more experienced quarterback, and playing within the friendly surroundings of Soldier Field should work as a plus as well. The Bears' problems aren't likely to go away in just one week, but they're still good enough as presently comprised to make Rivera's homecoming an unhappy one.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Bears 30, Panthers 24