Bears-Panthers preview Bears ball

925669.png

Bears-Panthers preview Bears ball

The 2012 Bears are scoring 27 points per game, offense and defense combined. Three of their six games have been against defenses ranked in the top 10 (Dallas, Detroit, St. Louis).
But for all that the offense has done well keeping the Bears defense off the field on average more than 33 minutes per game, one lost fumble all year and a total of three turnovers over the last four games something is still missing.
Wanted: next-step offense
The offense ranks 22nd in yards per game, 25th in passing despite the playing teams with a combined 14-17 record in games other than against the Bears to this point.
The offense has scored just one touchdown in three of the Bears six games.
Weve got to do our part on offense, said quarterback Jay Cutler. Defense has been carrying us for a while. Weve got to make some strides offensively this week. We missed a lot of things in the second half against Detroit. Weve got to clean it up.
The Panthers should provide a forum for that cleanup.
Carolina ranks 20th in points allowed (24.0 per game) and doesnt stop anything especially well. The Panthers are 19th against both the run (120.3 yards per game) and pass (245.8), and are a lowly 26th in turnover ratio with a minus-4 (vs. the Bears at plus-13, No. 1 in the NFL).
Panther problems
Of more immediate significance, however, Carolina allowed 16 points to Seattle and 19 to Dallas in their last two defeats. Their problems have not been on defense.
And the Bears have problems of their own coming, in the form of road trips to Tennessee and San Francisco and home against Houston over the next four games.
We need to be 6-1, said offensive coordinator Mike Tice. Have you looked at our schedule coming up? We need to be 6-1, and we need to take care of our business. Thats the key in this business -- dont get ahead of yourselves like we did once, and take each game, you know the clich, one at a time.
The Bears have adhered generally to the balance formula that has served them well in particular over the last two years. With Jay Cutler coming in with bruised ribs from his hit by Ndamukong Suh, his already moderate 2012 accuracy may be in more question, possibly putting a larger load on a Bears run game that has begun to reach its levels of the past couple of seasons at this point.
Thinking on the run
Running backs have averaged 135 yards per game over the last three games and Matt Forte has averaged 4 or more yards per carry in all five games hes played. Expectations are that the Bears will eschew the exotic and simply force Carolina to prove it can deal with the run, which creates big-strike opportunities via play-action.
I think Jayll be fine, Forte said. Regular offense.
Carolina is trying to replace middle linebacker Jon Beason, lost for the season with a knee injury. Rookie and No, 9-overall draft pick Luke Kuechly started the first four games at weakside linebacker, moved to the middle and had 34 total tackles and an interception over the last two games.
But teams are converting 45.1 percent of third downs on the Panthers. The Bears are a very respectable 41.4 percent, up from 32.5 percent for 2011, and if the Bears can keep their offense on the field and their defense resting, the Panthers will be in trouble.
Weve improved in most categories, with the exception of third down 27th, said coach Ron Rivera. Weve been below average as far as third down is concerned. If we have one issue weve got to get shored up, it has been our third-down play. Weve gotten after teams.

Kris Bryant ignites World Series nostalgia with Cubs' epic eighth-inning comeback

Kris Bryant ignites World Series nostalgia with Cubs' epic eighth-inning comeback

“Reminded me a lot of a play in the World Series.”

Kris Bryant wasn’t the only one with World Series nostalgia Saturday afternoon at the Friendly Confines. The tens of thousands of Cubs fans losing their minds over the North Siders’ eighth-inning comeback made that very clear.

Bryant, though, was the one who provided it, first driving in the game-tying run mere moments after the visiting St. Louis Cardinals smashed open a pitchers duel with back-to-back homers off Jon Lester in the top of the eighth. Bryant then got a head starts and came around all the way from first, scoring the game-winning run on a ball Anthony Rizzo dumped into the left-center field gap so perfectly he couldn’t have thrown it there any better.

Bryant slid in — feet first — beating the throw home from ex-teammate Dexter Fowler. Cue the hysteria at Clark and Addison.

“Me, honestly, I was just trying to go up the middle. I think that’s kind of where I’ve been struggling this year is with guys on base I want to do too much. Just seeing through the middle. Bat broke and flew, I don’t know where it went, but it flew somewhere. That was huge,” Bryant explained after the game.

“And then obviously with Rizz having a good at-bat off a tough lefty. I don't know if Dexter or Tommy Pham got a good read or if they were way back at the track, but right when he hit it I didn’t see them anywhere close to it so I thought there was a pretty good chance that I could score.”

Bryant’s very presence in the Cubs’ starting lineup was the headline before the game, the “freak of nature” returning from a jammed finger after missing only one game. So of course it was the reigning National League MVP who played the biggest role, flipping the script from his sick day by being right in the middle of the Cubs’ eighth-inning explosion. It was the eighth inning where the Cardinals staged their game-defining rally Friday.

[CUBS TICKETS: Get your seats right here]

Manager Joe Maddon went as far as saying that perhaps only Bryant could have made the play he did, scoring from first base on what went down as a Rizzo double.

“KB being able to play was the difference in today’s game,” Maddon said. “A combination of the hit and his speed. I don’t think anybody else scores on that. Maybe Jason (Heyward), possibly. (Ian) Happ, possibly. But KB is such a good base runner. He had it in his head the moment the ball was hit, and all (third base coach Gary) Jones had to do was wave his arm. You can’t underestimate the importance of one person in the lineup.

“He’s a very bright base runner. He’s shown that from the beginning. … He demonstrated that early on, and for me when a young player demonstrates awareness on the bases, man, that’s a good baseball player.”

All that talent made Bryant last season’s Most Valuable Player and one of the most important figures in the curse-breaking World Series championship.

Bryant mentioned he thought Saturday’s game-winning trip from first to home conjured memories of a similar play in Game 7 of last fall’s World Series, when Bryant went first to home on Rizzo’s base hit off Andrew Miller in the fifth inning.

“Reminded me a lot of a play in the World Series off of Andrew Miller. It was a full count there, started early,” Bryant said. “Rizz hit it, you’ve got to give him a ton of credit, worked a great at-bat. But the head start really does help. It's something that I take pride in is my base running, surprising people. Hopefully I did that today.”

With Bryant back in the lineup Saturday, Kyle Hendricks’ return to the rotation coming Monday, a now 7-1 record since the All-Star break and a bunched-up NL Central that had four teams within three and a half games of each other entering Saturday’s action, it’s no wonder the World Series feeling is making its way back to the North Side.

All season long, fans and observers have been waiting for that switch to flip, and maybe it finally has.

The bats were thunderous on that six-game road trip out of the All-Star break, with 16 home runs helping the Cubs to back-to-back sweeps of the Baltimore Orioles and Atlanta Braves. Friday’s loss to the Cardinals provided plenty of evidence that the rest of the season might feature a knock-down, drag-out slugfest between the four NL Central contenders. All that was missing was a game that got Wrigleyville rocking.

“Probably one of our better wins of the year,” Bryant said.

That’s all without even mentioning the efforts of Lester, who was perfect until Adam Wainwright’s single in the top of the sixth. It was another stellar effort from a Cubs starting pitcher, and what was the team’s biggest problem during that sub-.500 first half — inconsistent starting pitching — certainly seems to be ironed out.

While the standings say it’s still going to be a brawl to the end with the Cardinals, Milwaukee Brewers and Pittsburgh Pirates, the Cubs could be in a first-place tie by the end of Saturday night.

In other words, the race is on. And Bryant and the Cubs are clicking at the right time.

“It’s already Jaugust,” Maddon joked, inventing a new month out of thin air. “There’s no waiting around right now. Everybody feels the same way. We took advantage of the break, I believe. We came back with renewed energy. You don’t want to give up anything right now.”

After losing uncle, emotional Jon Lester pays tribute with Notre Dame rallying cry

After losing uncle, emotional Jon Lester pays tribute with Notre Dame rallying cry

Jon Lester wore PLACT on his hat Saturday and he made good on the Notre Dame rallying cry — Play Like a Champion Today — against the Cardinals.

Lester didn't attend college and doesn't cheer for Notre Dame, but in his postgame session, he fought through tears to tell reporters why he decided to put the Notre Dame nod on his hat:

"My family — I lost my uncle yesterday," Lester said. "For the Notre Dame fans, he went to Notre Dame, so it's Play Like a Champion Today. Just to let him know that I was thinking of him."

Lester worked through the grief and carried a perfect game into the sixth inning, retiring the first 17 Cardinals hitters in the game.

Lester wound up surrendering two homers in the eighth inning, but the Cubs offense rallied behind him with three runs in the bottom of the inning, giving their ace his seventh win of the season.

But Lester's teammates didn't even know the struggle he was going through.

"I didn't even know that, man," said Kris Bryant, who scored the winning run. "That's tough. Jonny, he won't ever show you any emotion. Something like that, to hear that, obviously it's terrible, but he's probably one of the best teammates I've ever been able to play with in my short time.

"You know what you're going to get with him every day. You know he's gonna be the same guy, the same competitor and I love that about him."