By Zach Goins
October 16, 2020
Photo: Brandon Todd / Carolina Panthers
Five games into the NFL season, it’s safe to say the 3-2 Carolina Panthers are one of the league’s biggest surprises. But with three quality wins now under their belt, it’s time to figure out if the Panthers are for real, and that starts with Sunday’s matchup against the 4-1 Chicago Bears.
While the Bears’ record is no doubt impressive, it’s worth noting the four teams they’ve beaten– the Lions, Giants, Falcons and Buccaneers– have just a 4-15 record, and three of those wins are thanks to the Bucs.
Still, the Bears will be a test for the Panthers.
Here’s what to watch out for this week against the Bears:
Panthers enter intensive protocol
Following last Sunday’s game against Atlanta, Falcons defensive tackle Marlon Davidson tested positive for Covid-19. As a result, the Panthers voluntarily entered the NFL’s intensive protocol in order to get ahead of any potential spread of the virus in Carolina.
The procedure calls for added precautions such as no in-person player meetings and mandatory masks or face shields for everyone at practice. Head coach Matt Rhule said the team has no issues adjusting in order to keep everyone safe.
Matt Rhule speaks to the media https://t.co/7GInvqCGGB
— Carolina Panthers (@Panthers) October 15, 2020
“I think it’s such a serious enough topic that I don’t think we have time to get frustrated with it,” Rhule said. “All those things are minor at the expense of safety and making sure that everyone here is safe.”
On Friday the team placed offensive lineman Tyler Larsen on the reserve/Covid-19 list, making him the only positive Panther since the meeting with Atlanta. Larsen is the first Panther placed on the list since defensive back Natrell Jamerson on Sept. 9.
“We’ve put other people on the Covid/reserve list previously, we’ve always followed these protocols,” Rhule said following Larsen’s test. “The biggest thing is we’re just really diligent day-in and day-out about mask wearing and about all those different things.”
For the most part, the team was able to operate as normal throughout the week, but in the NFL where everything typically operates like a well-oiled machine, any small adjustment could cause problems. We’ll see if a disrupted week of preparation has any impact on the Panthers.
Replacing Kawann Short
The defensive line took a number of blows last week, but none greater than the loss of Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kawann Short to a season-ending shoulder injury. This marks the second straight season Short will spend the majority of the year on injured reserve.
“Our hearts break for him. He worked so hard to come back this year,” Rhule said. “He’s such an integral part of this team, and he will continue to be an integral part of this team.”
As if losing a big body up front like Short wasn’t enough, defensive ends Brian Burns and Yetur Gross-Matos are both fighting through injuries, too. Burns left the game against the Falcons with a concussion, but has since practiced while working through the NFL’s concussion protocol. Gross-Matos, on the other hand, was placed on the injured reserve list Friday with a high ankle sprain, meaning it will be at least three weeks before he can return.
For a defense that’s struggled to stop the run, losing three key members of your front line of defense is a problem. Veteran defensive tackle Zach Kerr and rookies Derrick Brown and Bravvion Roy will be expected to step up in the middle, while Rhule said Burns should be available on Sunday.
Keeping Teddy clean
In the last two games, Panthers’ quarterback Teddy Bridgewater has managed to stay upright, thanks to excellent protection from Carolina’s offensive line. After giving up 8.0 sacks in the team’s first three games, the unit has tightened up and kept Bridgewater clean.
That will be a challenge this week when All-Pro pass rusher Khalil Mack comes to town. Mack is known for his vicious ability to get to opposing quarterbacks, and this year is no exception– he’s already tallied 3.5 sacks.
“It’s a sound defense. Those guys, they play well in the red zone, they’re great on third downs, and they’re really sound,” Bridgewater said of the Bears. “You just have to be on point with your gameplan, from a protection standpoint to route running to run schemes.”
Mack isn’t the only threat, though. Bears’ defensive end Akiem Hicks also has 3.5 sacks and five tackles for loss.
If Carolina can keep Bridgewater protected on Sunday, it will be a huge accomplishment.
The second half Bears
The Panthers have played in some exciting games this year, but the Bears have them beat. All five of Chicago’s games have been decided by one score, and the four victories each came by four points or less.
Among those wins are three dramatic fourth-quarter comebacks. In Week 1, quarterback Mitchell Trubisky helped the Bears put up 21 unanswered points in the final quarter to defeat the Lions. Then in Week 3, Trubisky was replaced mid-game by Nick Foles who did the same, scoring 20 points in the game’s final six minutes to beat Atlanta. Last week, the Bears squeaked out a one-point victory over the Bucs.
“Nick, he’s played a lot of winning football,” defensive coordinator Phil Snow said of Foles. “He does a great job of controlling the offense, what they’re in. He’s real smart, he sees stuff, he can RPO you and do some different things. He’s been around a long time and he’s really a good player.”
It doesn’t seem to matter who’s under center for the Bears– just count on a dramatic finish. Carolina’s defense has struggled a bit late in games, so this could spell trouble for the Panthers.
A critical stretch for Carolina
As mentioned earlier, the Panthers 3-2 record is quite a surprise, and Sunday’s game against Chicago marks the start of a daunting few weeks for Carolina.
Over the next five games the Panthers will face four NFC foes as well as the defending Super Bowl champion Chiefs. Of those four NFC games, three of them are divisional clashes against the Bucs, Falcons and Saints, which are even more critical.
Sunday also marks the start of an 11-day stretch in which the Panthers will play three games, facing the Bears and Saints before playing the Falcons on Thursday Night Football.
By mid-November we should know whether this new Carolina team was just experiencing a bit of beginner’s luck, or if they’re the real deal.
The Panthers take on the Chicago Bears on Sunday, October 11 at 1 p.m. on Fox.