The Carolina Panthers and Chicago Bears are both 2-2 as they head into Sunday's 1 p.m. game at Bank of America Stadium.
With seven of 16 NFC teams sitting at 2-2, this could be one of those games that propels the winner in the right direction to the playoffs.
The Panthers were 1-3 heading into Week 5 a year ago and rolled off eight straight wins and 11 of 12 to win the NFC South. The Bears were 3-1 a year ago, and then finished 5-7 to miss the playoffs for the third straight year.
What's in store on Sunday? ESPN Panthers reporter David Newton and ESPN Bears reporter Michael C. Wright are here to break it down.
Newton: Michael, why have the Bears seemingly played so much better on the road (2-0) than at home?
Wright: I don't think the sample size is large enough to definitively say whether Chicago is playing better on the road than at home, and I think you also have to take into account the talent of the opponents. The Bears opened at home against Buffalo and its bruising ground attack, then on Sunday faced Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers offense. In both losses, the Bears made easily correctable mistakes. In the opener, the Bears got out of their gaps too much against the run. Against the Packers, the Bears opted to play vanilla football on defense -- pressure only with the front four, with seven in coverage on the back end -- and Rodgers took advantage of the lack of pressure and coverage busts.
David, DeAngelo Williams was the latest running back to go down with an injury, and it appears the Panthers have just two running backs available to face the Bears. What will Carolina do at the position this week, and how much does the situation change the way the Panthers will try to attack Chicago?
Newton: Starting running back Darrin Reaves was signed off the practice squad two Saturdays ago as insurance. The backup would be Chris Ogbonnaya, who was signed off the street on Monday. Ogbonnaya has the most experience after rushing 49 times for 240 yards last season at Cleveland. But there’s a reason he was available, and it's probably not good.
The good news for Carolina is Fozzy Whittaker, who led the team in rushing during the preseason, is set to return after missing the past two games with a quad injury. But the issue isn't running back as much as it is the offensive line, which has been dreadful in run blocking as well as pass protection. I'm not sure Emmitt Smith could have been effective behind this group. That quarterback Cam Newton has contributed only one percent to the run game after accounting for 31.3 percent the past three seasons is an issue, as well. This could be the week he's turned loose after undergoing offseason ankle surgery and fracturing his ribs in August. Then again, it might not be.
I see the Bears rushed for 235 yards on 41 attempts in their loss to Green Bay this past week. Is this an area they can exploit against a Carolina team that has allowed just under 400 yards rushing over the past two weeks against Pittsburgh and Baltimore?
Wright: I think that's exactly what the Bears will try to do, which is interesting because this matchup reminds me a little of the last time these teams played at Carolina back in 2010. In that game, Matt Forte -- after rushing for a combined 81 yards in the previous three outings -- broke out with a season-high 166 yards on 22 attempts for two touchdowns. Getting Forte going also takes pressure off receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, who have both been hobbled in recent weeks with nagging injuries.
The Bears rolled up 496 yards on offense against the Packers and came out of that game confident about what the group can do, provided it eliminates the turnovers. Seeing Carolina’s struggles the past two weeks, the Bears will definitely try to establish Forte and the rushing attack so Jay Cutler can operate effectively off play-action.
Newton seems to be getting healthier, to the point where Ron Rivera said the team can "start to expand" the offense. What exactly does that mean, especially given the situation in the backfield?
Newton: It means offensive coordinator Mike Shula could call some plays for Newton to run out of the read-option. Newton hasn't hinted at being a threat in the read-option the past three weeks. It has allowed teams to gang up on the backs, another reason the run game hasn't been effective. Newton has rushed only eight times for 33 yards. This from a quarterback who averaged 7.5 carries and 42.3 yards a game in his first three seasons. Because the staff is being cautious as Newton continues to recover from injuries -- the ankle is less of a worry -- they've taken away one of his greatest assets. I understand being cautious, but if they're going to make him a dropback passer they might as well go with Derek Anderson, who is more accurate.
While we're on the quarterback, how has Cutler performed thus far?
Wright: It has definitely been a mixed bag for Cutler, which for the Chicago fan base is unacceptable, given the seven-year commitment and big bucks invested by the franchise. After throwing two picks that led to points in the opener, Cutler performed well in the next two games (passer ratings of 119.2 and 94.7 to go with six touchdowns and no interceptions) before tossing another two interceptions Sunday in the loss to Green Bay.
What I've noticed lately is Cutler is taking more accountability for the role he played in the two losses, and seems to be working harder than before to make the corrections. Cutler seems to care more deeply about his position as leader of the offense than in years past. That has manifested itself into more consistency, despite his maddening penchant to make one or two bad decisions in a game that can result in turnovers. Working under Marc Trestman, Cutler hasn't produced back-to-back stinkers, and I don't anticipate that happening Sunday at Carolina.
Coming into the season, I expected Carolina's defense to be one of the best in the league, but the group has struggled recently against both the run and the pass. What problems have this defense experienced over the past two games, and what chances do you give the Panthers of finally rebounding this game on that side of the ball?
Newton: The staff will tell you it's a lack of discipline, that players are trying too much and losing gap control. What they won't admit is they miss defensive end Greg Hardy, who is on the commissioner's exempt list until his domestic violence case is resolved. Hardy could do it all. He led the team in sacks last season with 15. He was big in stopping the run. He could play end and tackle. He could drop back into coverage. He drew double-teams that made it easier for right end Charles Johnson, who is sackless through four games.
Carolina has tried to replace Hardy with three players, none of whom is as good at Hardy at any of his specialties. That's why players are trying to do too much, because they feel they have to in order to replace Hardy. The return of Frank Alexander from a four-game suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy could have helped, but he was suspended Wednesday for 10 more games for a second violation.
Do I think the Panthers can turn this around? Yes. They played well without Hardy in the second game against Detroit. They overcame undisciplined play after four games last season to win eight straight. But they had Hardy. Stay tuned.
"I'm still in that mode of trying to realize I'm still trying to recover from major ankle surgery that was displayed to me originally as a little cleanup," Newton said. "But I'm glad that it happened. My ankle is getting back and is feeling stronger than ever and hopefully I will be able to display my running talents here soon.
"If that means my running makes a big impact on the game, who knows."
The two-time Pro Bowler has run only 8 times for 33 yards in three games, accounting for about one percent of the rush offense. He accounted for 33.1 percent of the rush offense during his first three seasons in which he ran for more yards than any other NFL quarterback.
He called out his two most high-profile players.
He called out quarterback Cam Newton and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly.
“We know who our guys are, and these guys have to know we’re counting on them. It’s important. It’s about being held accountable."
Rivera said he also took responsibility for Carolina (2-2) losing its last two games to Pittsburgh and Baltimore by a combined 75-29 after beginning the season with victories over Tampa Bay and Detroit.
But Rivera, a former Chicago Bears linebacker, understands winning begins with players. And he wanted his best to know they have to raise their performance, beginning with Sunday’s 1 p.m. game against the Bears.
Not that either Newton nor Kuechly has played poorly. Newton is ahead of his career completion percentage at 63.8 and hasn’t thrown an interception despite being limited as a runner while recovering from offseason ankle surgery and fractured ribs suffered in August.
Kuechly, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, leads the team with 43 tackles.
But Rivera wants more.
“When we’re in certain situations, circumstances, make a play, come through, do something extraordinary," Rivera said. “And they’re capable of that. We know that. We can’t make mistakes. They’re the guys that have to be perfect. I did that to let them know I believe in them."
As an example, Rivera cited the interception Kuechly didn’t make late in the first half with the Panthers trailing 21-7. Had Kuechly come down with the ball, he could have scored and given Carolina momentum going into halftime.
“It’s an opportunity that he had," Rivera said. “He could have made the play."
Rivera didn’t say so, but he likely pointed to the sack Newton took on the game’s first series that took Carolina out of field goal position. Or the snap Newton missed with the Panthers in scoring position early in the third quarter.
“We have to be ready at the right time to make those plays," Rivera said.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers defensive end Frank Alexander, scheduled to return Wednesday from a four-game suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy, has been suspended for 10 more games for a second violation.
Alexander won't be eligible to return to the active roster until the Monday after Carolina's Dec. 14 game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
"I'm very sorry to the Panthers organization, my teammates, and Panthers fans that my mistakes from many months ago will prevent me from contributing for several more weeks," Alexander said in a statement. "This discipline arose from a violation that occurred many months ago. Since that violation, I have continued to grow, and I will continue to work hard, as I have been doing, to stay in shape and be a major contributor upon my return."
Alexander was expected to help fill the void left two weeks ago by left defensive end Greg Hardy, who was placed on the commissioner's exempt list until his domestic violence case is resolved.
Hardy's appeal of a July 15 guilty verdict by a Mecklenburg County judge is scheduled for Nov. 17, although that case could get pushed into 2015 due to a heavy backload of cases.
Alexander, a 2012 fourth-round draft pick out of Oklahoma, had 3 1/2 sacks in his first two seasons. He played in 24 games with six starts.
Williams suffered the injury in the second quarter of Sunday’s 38-10 loss at Baltimore. He was wearing a walking boot on Monday and a pink cast on Wednesday.
Coach Ron Rivera said the cast will be removed late in the week and Williams’ availability for beyond Sunday will be made after that.
Rivera said fullback Richie Brockel, who also suffered a high-ankle sprain, will be out at least two weeks “and he didn’t have a cast.’’
Depending on the availability of Jonathan Stewart (knee sprain), who was in full pads on Wednesday but limited, the Panthers could be without their top three running backs and top two fullbacks.
Fozzy Whittaker (quad) did not practice after Rivera said on Monday he would. Fullback Mike Tolbert is on short-term injured reserve after suffering a fractured leg in Week 3 against Pittsburgh.
Carolina’s starting running back for Chicago will be undrafted rookie Darrin Reaves. He’ll be backed up by Chris Ogbonnaya, a former Cleveland player who was signed on Monday.
It wasn’t all bad news on the injury front. Weakside linebacker Thomas Davis, who missed Sunday’s game with a hamstring injury, practiced on Wednesday and declared he will play against Chicago.
Defensive end Charles Johnson sat out of practice to undergo treatment for a hip flexor, but Rivera expect the team’s third all-time sack leader to be ready by Sunday. Defensive end Frank Alexander was expected to be back on Wednesday after a four-game suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy. But the league announced that Alexander had been suspended another 10 games for a second violation of the policy.
Rivera didn't rule out Alexander playing on Sunday.
The news on Williams wasn’t surprising after he tweeted a picture of his right ankle in the pink cast.
Love this girl (notice her bow has the 2 best colors) pic.twitter.com/9gUOku6YCq— DeAngelo Williams (@DeAngeloRB) October 1, 2014
That Williams had a pink cast also wasn’t surprising. He played a big part of the NFL’s initial pink movement for breast cancer awareness in October. He dyed his hair pink to start this season in memory of his mother, Sandra Hill, who died earlier this year after a long battle with breast cancer.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Wide receiver Steve Smith blasted Carolina general manager David Gettleman during a radio interview Wednesday, criticizing the manner in which he was released by the Panthers earlier this year.
"Yes, it was personal with me and Dave Gettleman," Smith said Wednesday on Charlotte radio station WFNZ. "Obviously, I did something that got under his skin."
Smith, now a member of the Baltimore Ravens, caught seven passes for 139 yards and two touchdowns in Sunday's 38-10 victory over his former team.
Smith had called into the station Wednesday to refute an NFL Network report aired last week saying he had refused a pay cut and instead asked for a release from the Panthers.
"You wake up in the morning after a good win, and you just read reports about [how] you demand this and demand that," Smith said. "Man, I just find it interesting."
Before being released, Smith said Gettleman told him that he was a shell of the player he once was, a distraction to the team and jealous of quarterback Cam Newton.
"I say, 'Well, is this about a pay cut?'" Smith said of a conversation with Gettleman. "He laughs and says, 'No, this is not about a pay cut, but thanks for asking.' And then says, 'We're going to trade you.'
"... I pick up myself, walk out, shower and I call my wife and say, 'We're done here. I will either be traded or released.' I knew from the jump I was going to be released or traded."
Coach Ron Rivera said on Monday that the team’s all-time leading rusher was doubtful for Sunday’s game against Chicago. The pink cast promoting Williams’ breast cancer awareness campaign likely takes him to out.
Love this girl (notice her bow has the 2 best colors) pic.twitter.com/9gUOku6YCq— DeAngelo Williams (@DeAngeloRB) October 1, 2014
Williams played a big part of the NFL’s initial pink movement for breast cancer awareness. He dyed his hair pink to start this season in memory of his mother, Sandra Hill, who died earlier this year after a long battle with breast cancer.
Williams suffered what has been described as a foot injury early in the second quarter against Baltimore trying to break a tackle to the outside. He already had missed two games with a hamstring injury.
Rivera said undrafted rookie Darrin Reaves is the starter by default with Jonathan Stewart nursing a knee injury and Mike Tolbert on short-term injured reserve with a fractured leg.
Fozzy Whittaker, who led the team in rushing during the preseason, is expected to return for Wednesday’s practice after missing the past few weeks with a quad injury.
The Panthers signed former Cleveland running back Chris Ogbonnaya on Monday.
The award came two days after Smith caught seven passes for 139 yards and two touchdowns for the Baltimore Ravens in a 38-10 victory over the Carolina team that released him in March.
Smith received the Stewart B. Kinney Award at a ceremony in Washington, D.C. He was accompanied by his wife, Angie, who helped form the Steve Smith Family Foundation to help victims in domestic violence and homelessness while they were in Charlotte.
"To receive this award means a lot to my family and myself," Smith told reporters at the event. "But it also says that work [gets done] in a little town like Charlotte by a little organization and a big city like D.C. notices."
Smith's current and former teams are dealing with domestic violence issues. The Panthers recently placed defensive end Greg Hardy on the commissioner's exempt list until his domestic violence case is resolved. The Ravens released Ray Rice after a videotape of him striking his then-fiancee in an Atlantic City casino elevator was released.
Shortly after the video of Rice was released, Smith wrote on Twitter: "You know its not that hard get!!! Keep your damn hands off women!!! God made women for you to Lean on them Not beat them."
Not just to congratulate the 5-foot-10, 220-pound running back on being named a starter for the Carolina Panthers, even if it was by default. They called to let him know they’d acquired him on their fantasy football team.
The guy was right.
“Megatron,’’ battling injuries, had one point. Reaves had two to three -- depending on how your league is scored -- in a 38-10 loss to the Baltimore Ravens in which he became the No. 1 option after DeAngelo Williams went down with a foot injury in the second quarter.
With Williams doubtful for this Sunday’s game against Chicago and the rest of Carolina’s backfield in a shambles due to injuries, fantasy owners outside of Reaves’ hometown are picking him up. ESPN fantasy analyst listed Reaves a player to keep an eye on.
Reaves isn’t much into fantasy, although in a way this kind of feels like one.
“I’m starting to be able to live the dreams out,’’ Reaves said.
Reaves left Alabama-Birmingham a year early after leading his team in rushing, accumulating 2,343 yards and 27 touchdowns on 496 carries from 2011 to 2013.
When he didn’t get drafted, he signed with the Panthers because of the relationship he’d developed with scout Jeff Morrow, who convinced the back he would be a good fit here.
A knee injury set Reaves back in training camp and opened the door for Fozzy Whittaker, undrafted out of Texas a year earlier, to make the roster. The Panthers eventually signed Reaves to the practice squad after Whittaker led the team in rushing during the preseason.
Then Williams missed Weeks 2 and 3 with a hamstring injury and Jonathan Stewart suffered a sprained knee in Week 3 in the same game that Mike Tolbert fractured his leg to land on short-term injured reserve.
With Whittaker hampered by a quad injury, the Panthers added Reaves to the 53-man roster two Saturdays ago as insurance.
When Williams went down against the Ravens, Reaves became the starter.
“The one nice thing about Reaves is he's terrific with pass protection,’’ Carolina coach Ron Rivera said. “[He] did a nice job. Had only one [mental error] for the number of plays he played. Had two technique errors, but he did a nice job.
“He's a tough little guy, and he works very hard at it and deserves the opportunity to play.’’
Rivera also said the job is “not too big for Reaves.’’
It’s not uncommon for undrafted rookie backs to succeed. Ten have rushed for 100 yards or more in their first start since 2001. Pittsburgh’s Willie Parker tops that list with 161 yards on 22 carries in a 2005 win against Tennessee.
The most recent was Texas’ Arian Foster, who had 119 yards on 20 carries in a 2009 victory over New England.
That the Panthers are down to Reaves really isn’t their biggest issue anyway. That the offensive line hasn’t opened up holes for anyone is the main reason Carolina ranks 29th in the league in rushing.
If offensive coordinator Mike Shula can straighten that out, Reaves has a chance to succeed.
“For a smaller guy, he’s pretty thick and he’s not afraid to hit you,’’ Shula said. “And he’s got a little elusiveness for a guy that’s kind of thick. He shows signs of a lot of good things. His experience will help him play a little faster.’’
Reaves won’t have to shoulder the entire load. Whittaker is expected back at practice on Wednesday and should be ready to play. Carolina also signed Chris Ogbonnaya, who spent the 2011-2013 seasons with Cleveland.
But for now, Reaves is the starter -- and quite popular with his friends that play fantasy football.
“It’s not a good feeling with the circumstances that we have,’’ Reaves said. “We have a few guys dinged up. But it’s still a good feeling.’’
One of the topics on the agenda for the NFL owners meetings next week will be to discuss how teams should be financially responsible for players who are banned while being paid full salaries, sources told ESPN on Wednesday.
Two examples of such cases are Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson and Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy. Both players are receiving their salaries in full -- and counting against their teams' salary caps -- while on the commissioner's exempt list.
Whether the subject is included on the official agenda or becomes discussed in breakout sessions remains undetermined, sources told ESPN.
One model that could be discussed is whether all teams should share the financial burden in such extreme situations. Peterson and Hardy are both receiving the equivalent of their weekly game checks -- amounts in excess of $700,000 -- even though they are not eligible to play while both address off-the-field legal issues.
The solution reached by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, the teams and players involved, as well as the NFL Players Association, was mutually beneficial to all involved, but it also imposed hardship as the league successfully shifted the focus from the misconduct of the two prominent players back to the games being played.
Now there are emerging questions of fairness as the salary-cap impact for those players restricts options available to the Panthers and Vikings as they manage their rosters and confront personnel challenges.
Left tackle Byron Bell and right tackle Nate Chandler have struggled big-time in run blocking and pass protection. In Sunday’s 38-10 loss to Baltimore, they gave up a combined three sacks, five hurries and graded a negative in run blocking, according to Pro Football Focus. The interior line hasn’t performed well either as Carolina ranks 29th in rush offense.
Remember when this was a big concern in March after the Panthers let all-time leading receiver Steve Smith go? It’s the least of their problems. Rookie Kelvin Benjamin has 21 catches for 329 yards and three touchdowns. Veterans Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant have been solid with a combined 23 catches. No worries here.
Greg Olsen has been arguably the team’s most consistent offensive player in terms of run blocking and receiving (21 catches, 254 yards, 2 TDs). But Ed Dickson, signed as a free agent from Baltimore, hasn’t caught a pass after looking like he would be a huge weapon in training camp. Thus, the minus.
This is a hard position to grade because of injuries and poor line play. DeAngelo Williams has looked decent when healthy, rushing for 106 yards on 25 carries. The problem is he’s missed two games completely and played less than two quarters on Sunday before going down with a foot injury that has him doubtful for this week against Chicago. Mike Tolbert (fractured knee) is on short-term injured reserve, and Jonathan Stewart (knee) missed last week’s game. But even before their injuries they did little. Again, the run offense ranks 29th.
Cam Newton has completed 63.3 percent of his passes for three touchdowns with no interceptions. The Panthers will take that all season, although they’d like a few more touchdowns. What keeps this grade from being better is Newton has been non-existent in the run game and has failed to lead the team to a first down in the red zone.
Had I graded this group after the first two games they would have gotten an A. But after collecting only one sack in the last two games and getting very little pressure at all on the quarterback, after being gashed for almost 400 yards rushing the past two weeks, what was a strength has become a concern. Do they miss DE Greg Hardy, on the commissioner’s exempt list until his domestic violence case is resolved? Apparently.
Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly still collects tackles better than almost anybody else in the NFL. But even the reigning Defensive Player of the Year has made mistakes the past two weeks to bring this grade down. Again, injuries make it tough to grade. Weakside linebacker Thomas Davis wasn’t himself in Week 3 with a hip injury and he didn’t play against Baltimore with a hamstring injury.
Opponents have caught eight touchdowns in four games against this group. Right cornerback Melvin White has been benched in favor of Josh Norman after losing containment on former Panthers receiver Steve Smith twice for touchdowns against Baltimore. Like the defensive front, this group might have gotten an A after the first two games. Not now.
Graham Gano is 8 for 9 on field goal attempts and has made all five PATs. Punter Brad Nortman has been arguably the team’s biggest weapon, averaging 47.8 yards. The reason this isn’t an A is because coverage hasn’t been great. Nortman’s net average ranks 10th in the NFC. The return game has been average, as well. Philly Brown’s muffed punt against Pittsburgh ended any chance Carolina had of rallying.
Coach Ron Rivera has been forced to make some tough decisions, from holding out Newton in the opener to give his fractured ribs an extra week to recover to putting Hardy on the inactive list in Game 2 under an avalanche of pressure regarding his domestic violence case, to working to put Hardy on the commissioner’s exempt list. The problem is the Hardy moves appear reactionary to what Minnesota did with Adrian Peterson. The loss of discipline on defense and two 12-men-on-the-field penalties against Baltimore also stand out.
The Panthers may be tied for the NFC South lead with a 2-2 record, but this team has major issues moving forward that have to be corrected immediately.