Sunday, Oct. 2, 2011Posted: 3:15 p.m. Updated: 9:15 p.m.
By John Mullin
CSNChicago.com Bears Insider Follow @CSNMoonMullin
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So much for Ron Riveras storybook return to Soldier Field.
Pounding on the ground as they havent done all season, the Bears (2-2) withstood another outstanding show by rookie quarterback Cam Newton to put down the Carolina Panthers 34-29 for as close to a must-win as any fourth game of a Bears season can be.
We wanted to be 4-0, said quarterback Jay Cutler, who had one of the lightest passing workloads of his career with 17 passing attempts. We feel like we gave our two Ls away but were happy where were at. Theres a lot of football left to play.
The win halted a two-game slide that suddenly placed the Bears season in some peril, given a road game against the surging Detroit Lions (4-0) next Monday night. The Lions won in Dallas with a comeback against the over-hyped Cowboys and Tony Romo Sunday and the Bears could not afford to fall any further behind the Lions and Green Bay Packers at the end of the first quarter of the 2011 season.
A defeat would have put the Bears in serious jeopardy with the season just one-fourth over. They lost four games all last season in the NFC; a defeat vs. Carolina would have been the third this season and created potential problems with wild-card scenarios unless the Bears managed a reversal, which Sundays win may have been.
The Bears went to the ground early and for most of the game, including 13 of their first 14 plays. Behind an offensive line forced to shuffle personnel, the Bears sprung tailback Matt Forte for repeated big gains and punched in from the 3-yard line with less than two minutes remaining on a Marion Barber burst over left guard. The resulting 34-23 advantage and security they have not felt since the opening week of the season.
The defense provided points with a 20-yard return of an interception by nickel back D.J. Moore. That was supplemented by Devin Hesters history making punt return in the second quarter.
A key to the rushing effectiveness Sunday Forte finished with 205 rushing yards on 25 carries, making him just the third back in franchise history to run for 200 yards in a game was adjustments made virtually every series to answer scheming done by the Carolina front seven.
Coach Mike Tice and coach Mike Martz came up with a great run plan, said guard Chris Williams. They knew what they wanted to do coming in. Every time they countered us, we came right back with something.
It was not a dominating win in all areas, although each of the Bears three phases scored at least once. The Panthers and Newton blew through the Bears for 438 yards in three quarters and trailed just 24-23.
Carolina added a field goal in the fourth quarter and a late touchdown on a pass from Newton to former Bear Greg Olsen with four seconds remaining. The Bears overcame that with the Barber touchdown run with 1:23 remaining after Robbie Gould converted from 24 yards.
Carolina finished with 543 total yards to the Bears 317.
I dont really care because we won, said linebacker Brian Urlacher. Ill be pissed off when we watch the film but right now, we won, so its not a big deal to me.
With scores from all three phases, the Bears got out to a 24-10 lead in the second quarter. Forte scored on a 17-yard run. Moore went 20-yards to score after intercepting a deflected Newton pass. Hester made NFL history with his 69-yard return of a second-quarter punt for a touchdown, the 11th of his career and most by any player in league annals.
The Forte touchdown was also the first Bears rushing TD of this season.
You get lucky if you can win with two phases, or one phase, said coach Lovie Smith. The best way to almost guarantee a win is if all three phases are working. For us, looking at our history, thats normally been the case, especially when we have at least two.
Newton kept the Panthers at least in the discussion with a pair of short touchdown carries in the first half, the second a 2-yard carry that was followed by an Olindo Mare field goal to bring Carolina back to 24-20 at halftime.
But the Bears were not stopping the Carolina offense, which was trampling the Bears defense. The Panthers totaled 299 yards in just the first half; worse, it came on 100 rushing yards and 199 on Newton passing, meaning the Bears were not stopping much of anything.
The Panthers scored on four of six first-half possessions, one ending in an interception and only one in a punt.
Pound it early
As they had not done in any game this season, the Bears brought the hammer. Every play in the opening drive, for a field goal, was a running play, including a highlight trip around the right side by Forte for 45 yards. Barber marked his first appearance as a Bear by giving Forte the next two downs to rest and picking up 12 yards on the two carries.
Cutler even got into the spirit of things with a third-down carry from an empty backfield. He didnt score but the pattern was being established.
We knew as an offense that we can run the ball, Forte said. We just had to establish that first and continue to do that throughout the game.
Moore continued his mastery of the deflected pass, picking off a ball intended for wideout Legedu Naanee but tipped by linebacker Lance Briggs. Moore reacted out of his zone coverage on the short left to gather in the ball and pick his way through Panthers for a 20-yard touchdown, the second by the defense in four games after Urlachers TD return of a fumble in week one.
The Panthers immediately took advantage of a blown coverage by free safety Brandon Meriweather, who failed to provide deep support behind Tim Jennings after Jennings handed off Steve Smith on a deep route. The 53-yard completion was turned into a touchdown when Newton bootlegged around the right side to score from two yards out.
The Bears opened their game with eight consecutive runs, the last a quarterback draw by Cutler from an empty backfield, to go from their 20 to the Carolina 3, from where Gould converted his seventh straight field goal of the year, from 20 yards for a 3-3 mark midway through the first quarter.
Bad D start
For the second week in a row, the initial problem for the Bears was not their offense, but their defense. The Green Bay Packers started their win over the Bears with an 80-yard touchdown drive after the opening kickoff; the Panthers went 65 yards in 10 plays to set up a 29-yard field goal from Mare.
The drive might have netted a touchdown but for two penalties on former Bear Olsen, who started the Panthers possession with a false start and then was flagged for holding inside the Chicago 10 to push Carolina back out of TD range.
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.