Moon: Bears have gone from hunter to hunted

Moon: Bears have gone from hunter to hunted
October 2, 2011, 12:40 am
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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.