Bears

Moon: Bears have gone from hunter to hunted

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Moon: Bears have gone from hunter to hunted

Saturday, Oct. 1, 2011
Posted: 6:56 p.m.

By JohnMullin
CSNChicago.com BearsInsider Follow@CSNMoonMullin
The NFL is about pressure. Pressure to win. Pressure on quarterbacks. Pressure on defenses.

Coming off an 11-5 season and reaching the NFC Championship game, and then throttling the Atlanta Falcons, the Bears were administering the pressure.

Now, after two straight losses with less than 300 total yards of offense, a total of three touchdowns in those two games and quarterback Jay Cutler completing passes at a sub-50-percent rate, and a defense allowing third-down conversions at a 40-percent rate, the Bears have gone from hunter to hunted.

The 2005 team recovered from a 1-3 start to reach the playoffs but that was the only team in franchise history to start 1-3 and reach the postseason. Even the 1965 Bears, with Dick Butkus and Gale Sayers, could finish no better than third place after stumbling that badly early.

If the 2011 Bears cannot get by the Carolina Panthers (1-2), at home, they will find themselves in exactly that canyon. The NFC North will be all be beyond reach if either or both the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions push their records to 4-0, and the climb into a wild-card spot will be almost as steep.

We realize where the others are, but really cant do a lot about them right now, said coach Lovie Smith. But for us, is there urgency? Is this a big game for us? Yes.

We want to finish this first quarter of the season at 2-2. NFC, home game. There are a lot of reasons. But you can start with us needing a win. We havent played well the last couple of weeks, as capable as were playing. Yes, we need to get a win.

As far as the ever-clichd must win, I dont think we need to go that far, Cutler said. We want to win them all. This is an important game for us. Were going to go out there. Were going to do everything possible to win. Theres a lot of football left. Theres a lot of things that can happen. I dont think we need to start panicking quite yet.

Yet could be just 60 minutes away on Sunday.

Pressure mounting?

The question will shift increasingly from a player here or a unit there, and on to offensive coordinator Mike Martz. Simply, if the need is for massive change, its not possible to fire all the players.

Given that the organization invested in a quarterback, No. 2 tailbacks (Chester Taylor, Marion Barber), lead receivers (Roy Williams), tight ends (Brandon Manumaleuna, Matt Spaeth) and offensive linemen (Chris Spencer, Gabe Carimi), expectations exist. Whether or not the particular acquisitions were the best will not be the point, particularly with Martz having had input in decisions.

The natural and inevitable fraying has started in small ways, which is just what happens when teams that know they are good enough to win, dont.

Anytime, I think its across the NFL, whenever youre losing games, theres a little bit of a sense of panic and a sense of doom, Cutler said. Weve just got to get over that.

Matching up

The Panthers have played nothing like the team that bumbled to a 2-14 record in 2010. The reason is simple and obvious: Cam Newton.

The rookie quarterback passed for more than 400 yards in his first two NFL games, losing by seven points to both Arizona and Green Bay. Then he managed a rain-swamped situation for a win over Jacksonville last Sunday.

Cutler is perhaps a little envious, having been sacked 14 times this season and seeing that Newton has gone down just eight times, right about the NFL average of 7.2. And Cutler figures Newton hasnt seen anyone quite like Julius Peppers, either.

Newtons production is pretty impressive, Cutler said. Theyve done a good job protecting him, and hes got some playmakers on the outside. Well see how he does against our guys.

Our guys will have more than just Newton to worry about. When he was a Bear, Greg Olsen was perceived as a coverage matchup problem; too big for safeties, too fast for linebackers. Now he is in Carolina in an offense that also has Jeremy Shockey, making two matchup concerns for a defense that has had three different starting safety tandems in three games.

Rookie safety Chris Conte may be a assigned an expanded role against Olsen-Shockey packages. Conte is a former cornerback who has worked in training camp and beyond in coverage drills with the corners and has brings size (6-2) to the secondary and more speed than strong-side linebacker Nick Roach.

Do not look for the Panthers to follow the approaches of Matt Ryan, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers, however. All three Bears opponents have rushed for more than 100 yards and the Bears are allowing 4.6 yards per rushing attempt.

Some history

The Panthers have lost nine straight road games but Carolina has never been a good playmate for the Bears, particularly in Chicago. The Panthers set a record for wins by an expansion team (7) in 1995 and gave the Bears a 31-27 scare in Soldier Field.
Steve Smith piled up 218 receiving yards in the 2005 divisional round playoff game in Soldier Field. Smith is older and a little slower but still a bad memory for a number of Bears.

When Smith gets the ball, he's kind of like a running back, said linebacker Lance Briggs. He's not an easy guy to bring down. The lesson learned is just don't take any of these games for granted.

We need this game."

John "Moon" Mullin is CSNChicago.com's Bears Insider and appears regularly on Bears Postgame Live and Chicago Tribune Live. Follow Moon on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bears information.

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Can the Bears pull off an upset at home against Tom Brady and the Patriots?

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Can the Bears pull off an upset at home against Tom Brady and the Patriots?

Chris Emma, Matt Zahn and Gabe Ramirez join David Kaplan on the panel.

0:00- NBC Sports National NBA Insider Tom Haberstroh joins the panel to discuss the Bulls’ terrible defensive performance as well as Zach LaVine’s impressive season debut.

11:35- Khalil Mack is listed as questionable for Sunday’s game against the Patriots. Can the Bears pull off the upset against Tom Brady?

23:50- NBC Sports Boston Patriots insider Tom E. Curran joins Kap to talk about how New England views the Bears and discuss how Matt Nagy’s team can exploit the Patriots’ weaknesses.

Listen to the full episode at this link or in the embedded player below.

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Khalil Mack appears set to play Sunday with Tom Brady, Patriots looming

Khalil Mack appears set to play Sunday with Tom Brady, Patriots looming

Khalil Mack appears in line to play Sunday with Tom Brady, Patriots looming

Khalil Mack participated in the Bears’ final practice of the week on Friday, clearing the way for the edge rusher to play Sunday against the New England Patriots. 

ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported earlier Friday that the Bears expected Mack, who hasn’t missed a game in his career, to play after suffering an ankle injury early in Week 6’s 31-28 loss to the Miami Dolphins. Mack is officially questionable for Sunday’s game at Soldier Field. 

Mack had little interest in discussing his ankle with the media on Friday, passing on answering questions about his readiness for New England. Coach Matt Nagy, though, said he thought Mack “looked pretty good” during practice on Friday. 

Mack didn’t record a sack against Miami and was held to just one pressure, per Pro Football Focus. The Dolphins’ gameplan was to commit plenty of resources to stopping Mack, but he wasn’t effective even when he had one-on-one pass rushing opportunities as the game went on. 

“He was (affected),” defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. “I can't put a percentage on it, but he definitely was.”

Having Mack available — even if he’s not full strength — will be critical for the Bears’ defense to have a chance at keeping Tom Brady from lighting up the scoreboard. The key for the Bears will be to generate pressure on the 41-year-old quarterback without blitzing, which is something Fangio’s defense was successful at prior to Sunday’s wacky loss to the Dolphins. 

Brady’s passer rating is 138.4 when he’s blitzed, per Pro Football Focus, while when under pressure his rating is 87.2. That’s still pretty good, but it’s worth noting that all of the six interceptions he’s thrown this year have come when he hasn’t been blitzed. And only one of the eight sacks he’s taken has come when he’s been blitzed. 

The point being: If the Bears feel like they have to start blitzing to generate pressure, they can expect Brady to pick them apart.  

“You could say all of that but ultimately (Brady’s) a gamer,” Mack said. “He’s going to take those hits, and you gotta be able to deliver them but also have coverage over the top. It’s going to be real important for us.” 

The good news for the Bears, perhaps, is that New England’s tackles have struggled at times this year. Left tackle Trent Brown has allowed 17 pressures in 234 pass blocking snaps, per Pro Football Focus (about one in every 14 snaps). And starting right tackle Marcus Cannon is out with a concussion, giving way for backup La’Adrian Waddle, who’s allowed eight pressures in 78 pass blocking snaps (about one in every 10). 

So the opportunities will be there for Mack, Leonard Floyd, Akiem Hicks and the Bears’ pass rush to affect Brady on Sunday.

A bigger injury concern?

While cornerback Prince Amukamara (hamstring) was a full participant in Friday’s practice and will play Sunday, slot corner Bryce Callahan suffered an ankle injury during Thursday’s practice and did not participate Friday. He’s officially questionable for Sunday. 

Callahan “did his ankle,” Nagy said, toward the end of Thursday’s practice, and he felt worse as the day went on. Nagy characterized Callahan’s absence from Friday’s practice as “precautionary.”

Callahan’s availability may be more of a pressing concern than Mack’s, given how well the Patriots’ offense has played since slot receiver Julian Edelman returned from a four-game suspension to begin the season. While his numbers aren’t eye-popping (11 catches on 16 targets, 111 yards, 1 TD), New England’s offense has scored 38 and 43 points in his two games back. 

“Brady has always had a guy in the slot that he’s comfortable with; whether it be (Wes) Welker, (Danny) Amendola or Edelman,” Fangio said. “It’s a big part of their offense. They haven’t missed a beat, but I really think it’s helped their offense and played a big part in them basically averaging 40 points in the last three weeks. I really appreciate and respect how good of a player he is and has been.”

If Callahan isn’t available, Sherrick McManis could be the next man up at slot corner.