(Sports Network) – Carolina Panthers head coach John Fox has been on the hot seat before and may have found his way back.
Off to their worst start since opening the 1998 season 0-7, the winless Panthers hope a visit from former defensive star Julius Peppers and the Chicago Bears Sunday at Bank of America Stadium will feature better results.
The Panthers are one of four winless teams in the league at 0-4, joining Detroit, San Francisco and Buffalo, and have one of the youngest rosters as well. They have struggled in all facets of the game, with the offense near the bottom in all major categories. Averaging 11.5 points per game through the first four weeks usually doesn’t get much going in the win department.
Carolina almost upset defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans last week in the Superdome before eventually taking a 16-14 loss back to Charlotte. Rookie quarterback Jimmy Clausen, who is expected to make his third start Sunday, threw the first touchdown pass of his career against the NFC South-rival Saints and finished with a 90.6 passer rating. Rookie wide receiver David Gettis had the most receiving yards, gaining 37 on two catches.
“We played hard against the defending champs, but that doesn’t put a ‘W’ in the win column,” Gettis said after the game. “We’ve got to combine the effort with making plays. That’s how we’ll get our win.”
Getting a win against the Bears and their suspect pass defense may be even tougher with All-Pro wideout Steve Smith hampered with a sprained ankle. Smith suffered the injury in the third quarter of last week’s game and has been wearing a protective boot. He said jokingly how Reebok may be able to figure out a way to get cleats on the bottom of the boot, but that’s obviously not going to happen. But what will really go down is rookie receivers Gettis and Brandon LaFell seeing more of the field if Carolina’s main target is out. Maybe even rookie and two-time Walter Payton Award winner Armanti Edwards will see time.
Carolina, which has scored only five touchdowns and committed 13 turnovers so far this season, played well on defense against the Saints’ high-powered offense, which produced its longest play of the game on a pass interference call on cornerback Chris Gamble.
Chicago has a few intriguing storylines heading into this southern showdown with the Panthers. It’s not as big as Donovan McNabb’s return to Philadelphia, but Peppers’ return to Carolina will surely strike up a few conversations. Peppers left the team and signed with the Bears this offseason after a bitter dispute and said this week his departure was “a little sour”. Either way, the new Bears defensive end established himself as one of the top pass rushers of this decade with 81 sacks, six interceptions, 30 forced fumbles and two touchdowns in 122 regular season games over an eight-year stint in Carolina.
Peppers, the second overall pick of the 2002 NFL Draft, has just two sacks in his first campaign with the Bears, who got him some help by signing free-agent end Charles Grant this week. Mark Anderson was cut to make room for Grant, a former staple on the Saints’ defensive line a few years ago. He was with the Omaha Nighthawks of the United Football League and is grateful to have another shot in the NFL.
“Coming from the UFL to here is different,” Grant said. “I’d like to tell young guys to take advantage of the National Football League because it’s truly a blessing to play at this level of football and you don’t know it until you’re out of it. When you know you can still play, don’t give up on it.”
The Bears will not have starting quarterback Jay Cutler for this week due to a concussion suffered in last Sunday’s 17-3 loss to the New York Giants. Cutler was sacked nine times before giving way to backup Todd Collins, who was named starting quarterback on Thursday. It was Chicago’s first loss of the season after beginning the year 3-0 and easily Cutler’s worst performance in a Bears uniform.
Cutler has made steady progress and will continue to work out on a limited basis through the end of the week. Collins was also injured against the Giants and third-stringer Caleb Hanie saw action.
Chicago allowed a franchise-record 10 sacks last week and played the second half without Cutler. Trouble on the line has been part of the problem, while tight coverage and missed blocks have also been to blame. Bears left tackle Chris Williams has been sidelined with a pulled hamstring and right guard Lance Louis left Sunday’s game with a knee injury. Edwin Williams took over for Louis and Frank Omiyale has started the past two games at left tackle.
Louis was back at practice in a limited basis this week.
The all-time regular season series between Chicago and Carolina is knotted at 2-2, with the Panthers evening the series by virtue of a 20-17 home victory when the teams last met, in Week 2 of the 2008 season. The Bears won the previous meeting, taking a 13-3 decision at Soldier Field in 2005. The Bears are 0-2 in Carolina all-time, and the home team has won all four meetings in the regular season series.
In addition to the regular season series, the teams have also met once in the postseason, as the Panthers were 29-21 winners in a 2005 NFC Divisional Playoff from Soldier Field.
Fox is 3-1 all-time against Chicago, and the Bears’ Lovie Smith is 1-2 against both Fox and the Panthers as a head coach.
WHEN THE BEARS HAVE THE BALL
With Cutler out for Sunday’s game, the Bears will have to use running back Matt Forte more often against a Panthers defense that is worse against the run than the pass. That’s why it will be tough not to have Cutler in the lineup directing coordinator Mike Martz’s pass-happy scheme. Cutler (912 passing yards, 6 TD, 3 INT) was bombarded by the Giants’ pass rush last week and will have a streak of 57 consecutive starts end. Collins (36 passing yards, 1 INT) has played 15 NFL seasons and nailed down the backup spot during the preseason. The offense remained stagnant when he entered the game in New York and threw for 36 yards and an interception on 4-of-11 passing before leaving with a neck stinger. Hanie is the third quarterback and was 3-for-4 for 36 yards on Chicago’s last possession. Meanwhile, Forte (134 rushing yards) hasn’t been dominant on the ground, but is second on the team with 209 receiving yards and three scores on a team-best 16 receptions.
Carolina is probably happy to see Collins rather than Cutler, since it’s allowing 220.8 passing yards per game this season. It played tough against Drew Brees in New Orleans despite the loss, but allowed the Saints to finish 8-for-14 on third-down conversions. Since the Saints kept the ball for over 38 minutes, the Panthers recorded the third-fewest offensive snaps (47) in franchise history. Carolina must play better up front too, as it is giving up more than 113 yards per game on the ground. Ends Charles Johnson (11 tackles, 2 sacks) and Tyler Brayton (4 tackles) are probably anxious to play this game after the 10 sacks Chicago’s offensive line surrendered last week. Tackles Derek Landri (17 tackles) and Ed Johnson (9 tackles) are big enough to keep the Bears’ anemic ground attack in check with the help of leading tackler and middle linebacker Dan Connor (28 tackles, 1 sack). Strong safety Charles Godfrey (26 tackles, 3 INT) is among the league leaders in interceptions with three.
WHEN THE PANTHERS HAVE THE BALL
Steve Smith’s possible absence will open doors for the younger receivers on the team such as Gettis (7 receptions) and LaFell (4 receptions). Smith (13 receptions, 2 TD) is the only receiver on the roster with a touchdown catch and leads the team in receptions. Running back Mike Goodson and tight end Dante Rosario are tied with nine catches apiece, while Gettis has seven. Carolina is 28th in passing this season but is breaking in rookie Clausen (393 yards, 1 TD, 2 INT), who has been showing improvement as each week goes by and enjoyed his most efficient performance of the year at New Orleans. He was sacked a career-high three times last week, something he hopes to avoid Sunday with Peppers on the prowl. Left tackle Jordan Gross, Clausen’s blind-side protector, said he owes a lot of credit to Peppers for going against him for several years. Gross credited Peppers for all of the moves and tactics other defensive ends try to use and hopes to know what his former teammate will have in store for his homecoming. Running back DeAngelo Williams (266 rushing yards, 1 TD) had his best game of the season against the Saints, running for 86 yards and his first score of the year. He has been used more often than fellow back Jonathan Stewart (89 rushing yards, 1 TD), who had a 55-yard catch in Sunday’s loss.
All eyes will be on Peppers (7 tackles, 2 sacks) this week as he makes his return to Carolina. He was lured by the Bears with a big contract this offseason and is slowly coming along with his new team. The five-time Pro Bowl selection and former University of North Carolina star said he’s looking forward to this week and enjoyed his memories as a Panther. Chicago hopes its memories of last week’s loss to the Giants will produce different results on Sunday. It had trouble stopping the run, as Ahmad Bradshaw ran for 129 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries. The Bears hope the addition of Grant will result in more sacks and inspire some other players to step up. Safety Danieal Manning (25 tackles) finished with a game-high 11 stops last week and is third on the team in tackles. When defensive backs are finishing with more tackles than lineman and linebackers, something’s wrong up front. The Bears are 10th against the pass and sixth in defending the run, but still struggled in their latest game. Linebackers Brian Urlacher (30 tackles, 1 sack) and Lance Briggs (28 tackles, 1 INT) combined for only eight tackles last week.
Cutler’s status leaves most owners in a pickle, and his performance against the Giants may have forced a few to cut the strong-armed quarterback. Even with Cutler out, Collins is not worth a start. Forte has been brutal on the ground this season, but catching passes in Martz’s scheme keeps him relevant in most leagues. He has a solid shot at breaking out against a Panthers defense weak against the run. There aren’t many other choices from Chicago’s offense, but wideout Johnny Knox has potential this week. With Peppers coming back to Carolina, give the Bears defense a look too.
Carolina is also in a world of hurt fantasy-wise with Clausen and a bunch of other rookie wideouts. Steve Smith will most likely be on the sidelines and DeAngelo Williams is always a valuable option at running back. The same holds true for Stewart, who connected with Clausen for the rookie’s first NFL touchdown pass last week.
Sunday’s game between the Bears and Panthers should leave the grass chewed up with all the running that will take place. Cutler is already ruled out and Steve Smith is leaving a few Carolina rookie wideouts on standby due to a severe ankle injury. He said himself this week that he’s day-to-day, but wearing a protective boot is usually not a promising sign. Seeing Peppers on the opposite side of the field may not be good either for both Clausen and the Panthers, as his emotions will surely be running feverishly. There will be no quarterback controversy for the Bears after this one, but it would nice for those in the Windy City to rebound from a horrific trip to the Big Apple.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Bears 20, Panthers 13