By Ted Fleming
Ron Rivera nearly had a triumphant return to the Windy City where he had two separate stints with the Bears, including that of defensive coordinator. But his time as head coach of the Panthers could be growing short, even though his team played a somewhat schizophrenic, but quite possibly their best game of the year.
Entering the fourth quarter, the Panthers held a 19-7 lead, but it evaporated because the Bears scored 16 points over the final seven minutes. The 23-22 loss in Chicago dropped Carolina to 1-6, even though they racked up some rather gaudy numbers against the league’s top defense and turned what many thought would be a one-sided affair into a real battle that came right down to the final play.
Rivera said he would formulate a plan that would take some of the pressure off his second year quarterback and he kept his word. The offense was balanced – 36 rushes, 39 passes – and Cam Newton seemed comfortable spreading the ball around as they outdistanced the Bears 416-210 in total offense.
However, in trying to keep the ball out of return specialist supreme Devin Hester’s hands, the constant squib kicking kept giving Chicago great field position time after time. In fact, the average starting point for the Bears was the 37-yard line, four drives beginning at the 41 or closer (one other started at the 45 due to an interception). It was an odd strategy. Grade C-
Another questionable approach was the running game. While it is all fine and well that Rivera chose to go with Jonathan Stewart as his number one back, it relegated DeAngelo Williams to near irrelevance. Williams didn’t touch the ball until 30-second were left in the first quarter, had just three carries for seven yards in the half and if you take away a 17-yard jaunt in the third, he was just 16 yards total.
Cam Newton must have thought he was playing in the World Series because many of his incomplete passes came off what appeared like adrenalin pumped fastballs but at other times he had the perfect touch on checkdowns and to his receivers.
Other than the clearly uncatchable tosses, Newton seemed much more in control, even though he was picked twice. He was clearly upset that he fumbled a ball on the goal line and probably missed who actually recovered the ball because Louis Murphy pounced on the ball for a touchdown.
What was different about this game was Newton targeting eight different receivers and hitting seven including tight ends Ben Hartsock and Gary Barnidge, for each their first catch of 2012. Newton threw for 314 yards and only took off out of the pocket five times yet averaged over seven yards a carry. He is still a work in progress. Grade C+
The Panthers tried to get a ground game going against the number one rated run defense and while they did manage to get more than 40-yards over the Bears average allotment, the average gain was just 3.3-yards a carry.
What may have excited Panthers’ fans was seeing Steve Smith getting more involved in the offense as 14 balls were thrown his way, seven of them adding up to 118 yards. Also, Brandon LaFell was a factor with three catches, ripping one off for 62. Stewart had 4 for 38 and even fullback Mike Tolbert had one catch for 15. Grade B+
He might have been showing some effects of the monster shot he took from Ndamukong Suh last week, but Jay Cutler was hit early and often by Greg Hardy and the rest of the Panthers’ defense, getting sacked six times in the first half alone, half of them by the defensive end. That helped the Panthers to a stunning 13-7 lead after two quarters.
Chicago could do little on the ground, getting just 79-yards and three first downs the entire game. Cutler avoided any sacks in the second half, but he was more out of sync than not because of the constant pressure although he made good on the final two drives of the game.
Sandwiched between a pick-six (Newton’s interception was caused by Steve Smith slipping on the grass and Tim Jennings getting his fifth touchdown return of the year), Cutler finished off a short 38-yard drove with a 12-yard TD strike then guided Chicago down the field culminating in a Robbie Gould 41-yard game winning field goal. Grade B+
The three sacks for Greg Hardy was a career high. He had two entering the game and never had more than one in a game.
Cornerback Josh Norman recorded the first interception of his career.
Kicker Justin Medlock had just two field goal attempts all year but he more than doubled that in this game hitting all five he tried. He is now 7-for-7.
DT Dwan Edwards suffered an ankle injury and will be evaluated on Monday.
Defensive end Julius Peppers had not recorded a sack against the Panthers–his former team–in three previous meetings, but got to Cam Newton twice.
For more Local Football Bloggers and the latest Panthers news, see CBS Sports Charlotte.
Ted Fleming is a freelance writer covering all things Carolina Panthers. His work can be found on Examiner.com.