After a celebratory week, the Panthers face a tough Bears team in our home opener. Chicago pounded the Colts last weekend in prime time, but it'll be left to be seen whether exploiting an undersized Colts D and getting lucky enough to catch Peyton Manning rusty in a rare bad day was the cause.
Because of the physical nature of play for this week's matchups, I'm starting with the defense. Chicago's offense is built on the ground and their QB problems the past few years have been well documented. Kyle Orton looked like the better player and game manager the last few games, and gets the nod again. Carolina really must load up on the run, and blitz Orton. It's not that Orton isn't smart enough to dump the ball off, it's that Orton does nothing else. It's not that Matt Forte is an unstoppable force, it's that he's going to get a lot of carries. This Chicago team is built on drives, and keeping the defense fresh - last year it wasn't fresh and plummeted down the rankings.
One key reason that Carolina would be able to do so is corner play. Vincent Jackson was held to 3 catches by Chris Gamble; the potent Chris Chambers had one catch (a 44 yard TD) when the Panthers were in a disguised coverage off a blitz and Chambers was one on one against rookie Charles Godfrey.
Playing the blitz is, to a young quarterback, about getting to the QB before he finds the open man, but using man style coverage as the base ideal and blitz as a luxury off that ideal is a good way to take the reaction of Orton out of the equation. Playing man ideals (generally with a free safety floating) keeps, in theory, from there being an open man deeper than 5 yards. Chris Harris is in the box, where he'd also be a run asset. It slows the thought process for Orton (find the guy who's covered the least as opposed to who is open in zone) and puts him in ball-holding mode instead of getting the quick pass out.
One thing Chicago does to counter this tactic is two TE sets - including using Greg Olsen as a split end to counter a defense using base personnel. Olsen can get up the field, so he's a mismatch in either size or speed against almost anyone. Carolina's corners are able to handle him physically, and both have good size, so it'll be something Carolina will prepare for. It will, of course, be something that would keep them from running an 8 man front and/or blitzing, putting Olsen and starter Desmond Clark on linebackers.
Chicago's running game is a feature from the past week, but it finished 32nd in yards per attempt last year. Dead last. Forte changes that, and has had an immediate impact, but despite getting the 3rd most carries in the league last week, they only finished 12th in averages against a traditionally bad rush defense team.
Chicago's OL last year listed as 30th in the footballoutsiders.com rankings, but return all 5 starters. An attempt at improving the line was in the non-physical Chris Williams, taken five spots before Jeff Otah - Williams has now been found to have back problems, and won't play. So, John Tait (moved to RT for Williams) faces our left end tandem of Chrles Johnson and Tyler Brayton; John St. Clair steps in at LT to face Julius Peppers (with help).
Tait is a physical run blocker, but earned his move to the right side with 8.5 sacks given up and 5 penalties. St.Clair is a reserve player who received some starts last year, but before that hadn't played since tough days in Miami and St. Louis. He gave up a sack last week. Inside, their trio is Roberto Garza, Olin Kreutz, and Terrance Metcalf, from right to left. Metcalf was a groomed star on the line when drafted six years ago, but rode the bench for the past few years; he gave up 3.5 sacks in 5 games started. Kreutz is a steady and powerful veteran, and a good run blocker. Garza gives up inside pressure and can get fooled by stunts.
Chicago ran 30% to right tackle or outside last year, and run under 50% inside the tackles.
Carolina will attempt to establish a running game and control over the line of scrimmage; the Bears are solid against the run in theory but dove to 24th last year. Indianapolis barely ran on the Bears at all - the team finished with the fewest rushing attempts on defense in the league last week, but finished 9th in yards per attempt against a smallish OL. Carolina must force the issue and stick to the run.
Along the line, Carolina can force the issue running by sizing up against the smallish Bears' DL in their one-gap Tampa 2 scheme. Carolina puts Jordan Gross on the quick Alex Brown (2 sacks, 1 INT last week), and will face another excellent rusher in Mark Anderson at times. But neither are large, and both can be run on. Carolina may use 2 TEs in passing situations, allowing the TE to block the right end one on one and letting Gross get upfield on linebackers on weakside plays. On the other side, Adewale Ogunleye isn't a slouch run defender; he's active, and holds the point of attack well, and doesn't get fooled inside on counter plays (a staple of the Panthers in preseason). He does, however, give up 90 lbs to Jeff Otah, and there's no doubt Otah will influence where Ogunleye meets the football. On power plays, if Carolina is pulling linemen, Otah should be able to handle taking on creating a pile behind those pullers to negate pursuit.
Inside, Tommie Harris will be a focus of blocking schemes, and Keydrick Vincent may get a lot of help when possible. As the under tackle, Harris shoots gaps and attempts to get penetration. He has a lot of power behind his drive, and won't be overpowered by the larger Vincent.
Nosetackle Anthony Adams is a solid runstopper, but not exceptional - Ryan Kalil and Geoff Hangartner will take on Adams at times, neither of which is an exceptional matchup. A good alignment to block the NT, generally lined up in the A gap between the two players, will be exploited by Carolina's angle blocking scheme, however.
Stretching the Bears out for the run is an effective tactic at times, but the team only pulls Hunter Hillenmeyer, who isn't an asset, at SLB. Bunching this team up with 2 TE is effective, putting balance on the quick edges and forcing Lance Briggs to play the run unprotected.
It's uncertain whether the team will attempt another Deangelo Williams direct snap, but if the team can do it without Delhomme on the field, it's more blockers on the field, which is never a bad thing against Chicago. Their safeties are just average in run support, so stacking the line against 2 TE, against Jumbo 3 TE sets, against ten men on the line and Williams under center, won't help them.
Muhsin Muhammad was targeted 15 times last week, 2nd most in the NFL, and only came down with 6. Muhammad was targeted short to deep, all over the field, but got the most attention (for what it's worth, he didn't have any drops, despite criticism of him dropping passes, per STATS, inc). He and Hackett had the lions' share of the targets, and then Dante Rosario was 3rd on the team. The backs were hardly targeted at all, so the team intended to have the running game take the load and the passing game was a way of attacking.
However, the Chargers lacked pass rush, and without the focus on the outside rush, the inside blitz wasn't effective. The Bears were 5th in the league last year in sacks, and 11 of those 46 were from blitzes, but the bulk of the pressure is from the front four. Harris had 8 sacks last year, and pushes the pocket; Ogunleye (9), Anderson (5), and Brown (4.5) took advantage and each do well with outside moves. Blitzing, the Bears bring anyone and everyone, but Brian Urlacher was the most productive with 5 sacks.
So, Carolina's probably more likely to dump the ball off this week, and will probably take advantage of screens to take advantage of the Bears' rush. Chicago was 31st covering the RB last year, and struggled to cover the non-1st WR (2nd v/s #1; 21st covering #2, 16 against other receivers and 15 against the TE). The Bears are also susceptible up top against the safety when other teams have time, if you can look away the floating Urlacher on deep drops. This isn't a team you run a lot of WCO type crossing routes and middle screens on, however, and that linebacking corps is solid.
Muhammad faces old practice foe Charles Tillman, the team's best corner; Nathan Vasher will take on DJ Hackett. Muhammad will probably get some defensive focus, and the team knows him well, another reason to drop the ball to secondary targets. However, despite some struggles offensively, the Colts still had success completing passes with Reggie Wayne and Marvin Harrison (10 catches, 8 catches respectively); Carolina likes combo routes, and got a good deep play on Hackett on a slant underneath Muhammad last week; Indianapolis ran a combo of using Wayne running an out, with Harrison crossing behind for a slant, many times on third down last week.
Carolina will also do well to spread the Bears out to 4 and 5 wide, shotgun type looks. Chicago isn't as big a mismatch outside with linebackers in space as most teams, but it eliminates blitz looks. Backup CBs Trumaine McBride (a contributor last year as a rookie) and Corey Graham (2nd year, didn't play in 2007) are green, and the team lacks the depth it did in 2007. McBride is 5'9, and will face 6'4 Dwayne Jarrett in the slot in 3 WR sets, and getting a TE against 6'1 Briggs is a good matchup if the TE can get position.
Chicago has the best special teams group in the league. Carolina did well against San Diego's powerful unit last week, but will face a tougher challenge this week. Rhys Lloyd will be looking forward to booting deep against Devin Hester - and with Lloyd's leg strength being as it is, may also look to directionally kick away from Hester if he does try to bring it out of the endzone. Lloyd's kick through the uprights on a would-be return was a thing of beauty.
Jason Baker may have a tougher time - Hester is a better punt returner than kick returner, and Baker can't line drive at any point this week. Directional punting isn't his forte, but it may work well to push some high balls toward one side of the field to allow pursuit.
Muhammad isn't the only Panther that can give insight into this Bears team - Harris was with the team through training camp 2007 before being traded, and Darwin Walker was with the team last year as well. Dante Wesley was a Bear through 2006.
Overall, Carolina looks to have the more physical team, if it can force the one-gap Bears into running situations and pound the football. Their fast defense can't pursue if it's picking itself off the ground, and the Chicago offense isn't a big play offense so sticking with the run won't cost Carolina ground on the scoreboard. This isn't a team that you make mistakes on, however, and it needs to be a conservative game.