10 thoughts after Bears' loss to Panthers

10 thoughts about the Bears-Panthers game.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Ten thoughts after the Chicago Bears squandered a 14-point lead and lost to the Carolina Panthers 31-24 Sunday afternoon at Bank of America Stadium.

1. Like every other opponent, the Panthers were concerned about the big, athletic matchups their defensive backs faced downfield. Carolina benched cornerback Melvin White after a poor game the week before against the Ravens, inserting Josh Norman into the starting lineup.

So, the Bears had Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery to attack Norman and Antoine Cason. The advantage clearly belonged to the Bears. Then, Norman went out with a right shoulder injury that afterward was described as a stinger, and he was also being evaluated for a concussion after a nasty blow in an attempt to tackle running back Matt Forte. That put White right back into action. Nickel cornerback Bene Benwikere also left the game with an undisclosed injury forcing Charles Godfrey in to replace him.

The Bears never really took advantage of the situation, or they didn’t with any consistency. Jeffery smoked Norman in press coverage off the line of scrimmage for a 31-yard gain in the Bears’ second possession. That was when Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott got in a rut using too much man-to-man coverage. In the second quarter, Jeffery scored on a screen pass, maneuvering 25 yards to beat the Panthers, who were caught in a blitz on third-and-11. Godfrey blitzed off the edge and it created plenty of room with Martellus Bennett clearing out Cason and Marshall erasing free safety Thomas DeCoud.

But take away the 31-yard gain and the 25-yard screen pass for a touchdown and Jeffery caught four other passes for 41 yards. Marshall finished with three catches for 44 yards. This wasn’t a top personnel combination limiting Jay Cutler’s passing game with Marshall and Jeffery. This was some journeymen players in a secondary the Panthers have not invested a lot of money in with the bulk of the money being devoted to the front seven.

The Panthers played a lot of Cover Two and they also rolled their coverage based on the offensive formation. When the Bears deployed Marshall and Jeffery to the same side of the field in a stack, the Panthers got a safety over the top with coverage underneath. They counted on weak-side linebacker Thomas Davis or a safety to cover Bennett (three catches, 17 yards), and they often tried to occupy Forte with a blitzer.

The combination of Cover Two and rolled coverages prevented Cutler from making deep connections downfield. The underneath defenders played well and created tight throwing windows. When Cutler tried to force a seam route in to Marshall, he was blanketed by Davis with two overlapping safeties over the top. The ball should not have been thrown.

The Bears have been stacking Marshall and Jeffery for two seasons. It gives Cutler a high/low read with his two best receivers instead of pairing one of them with Josh Morgan or Santonio Holmes. They’ve been running both receivers on the same side with a lot of success. It makes it easy for Cutler to look at his primary reads and either come back or check down.

In this case, the offense couldn’t create chunk plays and that is one reason why the Bears were limited to only three points in the second half.

“They weren’t going to let us stay over the top,” Cutler said. “They had been burned enough on the outside with some of our screens and kicking the ball out vs. some of the blitzes. They were just trying to keep it in front of them and they did.”

The Panthers adjusted and it worked. The Bears lacked a counter move in this instance.

“Throughout the course of the week we stressed as safeties to stay on top and break downhill on all throws because Jay has a strong arm,” said DeCoud, who picked off Cutler in the fourth quarter when he sailed a pass for Holmes on a slant. “Granted, he has those big targets but we knew to stay deep and be ready for tips and overthrows. He’s going to throw the ball high to his guys because they are so tall. Jay has a big arm and he is going to throw it because he trusts his arm.”

Jeffery has the only 100-yard game of a wide receiver this season. He gained 105 yards in Week 3 at the Jets. Yes, Marshall has been hampered by an ankle sprain that has improved. The point is last season the receivers combined for 11 100-yard games (six for Marshall, five for Jeffery) and they have one through five games. That is a sign other defenses have done a decent job limiting the explosive passing game, or a better job than they did a year ago. What was a little surprising too is that with the extra attention paid to Marshall and Jeffery that Bennett could not be a little more productive, especially after his big game last week.

2. The question special teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis ought to ask his players at the next meeting is how Philly Brown, the undrafted rookie free agent from Ohio State, had the common sense to pick up the punt and the Bears around the ball as it sat on the turf did not.

That is just bad football and it was reminiscent of the touchdown Jarrett Boykin scored in the season-ending loss to the Packers last December at Soldier Field after the ball sat there on the Soldier Field turf following an Aaron Rodgers’ fumble. Fundamental stuff.

The problem started when cornerback Teddy Williams, signed this past week, drilled Brown before the ball arrived. The ball actually landed on the back of the outstretched Williams, resulting in a 15-yard penalty for interfering with the catch of a kick. That was one of three penalties on the special teams unit in the first quarter.

“It is one of those bang-bang plays,” Williams said. “I’ve got to be more aware of where the ball is. Sometimes you will be just perfect. Sometimes you will be too late. Sometimes you are too early. That’s what happens. Just out there playing football.”

Brown signaled with his arm for a penalty (the flag had already been thrown) and then had the wherewithal to look down and realize the ball was still alive. The Bears were not so fortunate. Williams was sitting on the ground and looking at the official. Senorise Perry was piled up on the ground. Khaseem Greene, Trevor Scott, Christian Jones and long snapper Jeremy Cain all pulled up near the play. None of them made a move for the ball -- or Brown.

“Everything was going on in front of me and I looked down and the ball was right there,” Brown said.

For a team with not a lot of room for error on defense, this was a terrible way to surrender seven points. Next time, the Bears will know to cover a live ball. There really shouldn’t have to be a next time.

The Bears have been undisciplined on special teams and you can probably attribute a lot of that to the inexperience on the unit. They have been called for 13 penalties on special teams in the last four games – there were none in the opener vs. the Bills. There was the punt at San Francisco in Week 2 when they had three penalties on that play alone.

3. It’s got to be concerning for the Bears that safety Chris Conte, who didn’t finish two games earlier this season with a shoulder injury, was knocked out of the game with a concussion. It is the second concussion in less than seven weeks for Conte, who suffered one in the Aug. 22 preseason game at Seattle.

Conte was injured in the first quarter when he tried to put a hit on 6-foot-5, 240-pound Panthers wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin leading to a forced fumble on the play by nickel cornerback Isaiah Frey. Conte wobbled getting up but was on the field when Carolina’s next possession began. He came out after that one play and was taken to the locker room at that point. It was a little surprising the initial wobbling didn’t get him sent to the locker room from the get-go. The team later announced Conte had a concussion.

These two concussions are not the only ones for him. Conte suffered a concussion in the preseason finale in 2011 during his rookie season against the Browns. Before that, Cal defensive coordinator Bob Gregory told the San Francisco Chronicle and Contra Costa Times in April 2009 that Conte was missing time in spring ball following a concussion sustained in a scrimmage. That is a total of four concussions there. Then, there is the Week 16 game at Philadelphia last season. Conte hit his head on the turf at Lincoln Financial Field in the first quarter of that game and was taken to the locker room. He passed a concussion test on that occasion.

Head injuries are scary for players and clubs and you have to wonder what this means for the immediate future. The 25-year-old, who is in the final year of his rookie contract earning $1.431 million this season, is struggling to stay healthy and the concussions are more concerning than the shoulder injuries. Recurring concussions are serious business.

4. It will be interesting to see what happens with Conte sidelined, assuming he does miss time beginning this week with the concussion. Danny McCray has gotten plenty of playing time in Conte’s absence. McCray failed on the game-winning 6-yard touchdown pass to Panthers tight end Greg Olsen. He was looking in the backfield and Olsen crossed his face easily to get wide open for an uncontested catch.

The Bears have said the right things when asked about McCray playing defense, but he was signed to bolster special teams as he is a guy that is familiar with Joe DeCamillis from their time together in Dallas. If rookie fourth-round draft pick Brock Vereen isn’t ready, I suppose McCray is the only option right now. But if Vereen isn’t ready to challenge for playing time, then that tells you he is a long way off. Ahmad Dixon is sidelined with a hamstring injury and he is a rookie that is probably still getting a feel for everything on defense. It’s a tough position for defensive backs coach Jon Hoke.

5. Look for the Bears to involve Sherrick McManis with the defense when he returns from a quad injury. McManis missed his third straight game and the good news is he did get on the practice field last week to do some limited work.

How it plays out right now is unknown and the Bears might not get it worked out until they experiment a little. But nickel cornerback Isaiah Frey hasn’t played well since taking over following the season-ending injury to Charles Tillman. It’s believed the Bears are looking for options and McManis could be involved in two scenarios. He could play on the outside with Tim Jennings sliding inside to cover the slot or McManis could be used as the nickel back, something he said he’s been studying recently.

While the loss of McManis in the Week 2 win at San Francisco didn’t get a lot of coverage, the double loss at the position (with Tillman) created a jam for the Bears at cornerback. McManis had one interception in preseason and was regularly around the ball in training camp. Marc Trestman said last week that McManis could figure in the defense and it wasn’t just coach-speak.

6. Willie Young continued to look like one of the finest values in free agency this year with a sack/strip of Cam Newton in the first quarter that set up the Bears’ second touchdown. It was his fifth of the season and ties him with Marcell Dareus of Buffalo and Ryan Kerrigan of Washington, one behind the ChiefsJustin Houston (six). Kerrigan and the Redskins play Monday night at FedEx Field against the Seahawks.

The turnover almost didn’t happen when Young tried to pick the ball up. Eventually, teammate Lamarr Houston covered the ball at the Panthers’ 13-yard line.

“I tried to scoop and score but the little receiver came and thugged me up,” said Young, who signed a $9 million, three-year contract.

Would he fall on the ball if he had it to do over again?

“No. No. No,” Young said. “First guy? You are inside the 20? You’ve got to scoop and score with that. You’ve got to go for that and shoot the gun. We need all we can get when we can get it. That being said, Lamarr was able to pick it up.”

7. Left guard Matt Slauson gutted it out in a return from the high ankle sprain he suffered in the season opener. Slauson wasn’t perfect but as he sat at his locker after the game with his right foot still heavily taped, he didn’t make any excuses.

“It was fine,” he said. “I was able to do everything I had to do. It wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t pretty at times but it was good enough. I just gotta finish a little better.”

There was at least one sack of Cutler that came through Slauson’s side.

“The play at the end it was a miscommunication,” he said. “On that play, it was nothing about the ankle. It was just a missed miscommunication between me and (left tackle Michael) Ola. That had nothing to do with the ankle. I need to do a better job. They ran a game and we had a little bit of a miscommunication there. That is all it was.”

With another week of treatment, hopefully Slauson will be better next Sunday. Look for center Roberto Garza to perhaps finally return as well. He did a little work in practice this past week and is improving from his own high ankle sprain.

8. Productive game at times for rookie defensive tackle Ego Ferguson, who deflected two passes at the line of scrimmage, including one that Lance Briggs picked off for the first interception of the season thrown by Cam Newton. Those are the kind of plays that stand out for Ferguson, who had one sack in each of the last two games.

“I think they were short passes he was trying to make,” Ferguson said. “Our coach always teaches mirror the throwing hand and get our hands up and try to get some deflections, especially for the inside guys.

“Each week I am getting better as a player and being more confident. I feel like being confident is 95 percent of the battle, so each week, learning from guys like (Stephen) Paea and playing with Willie Sutton, I am getting more comfortable and coach is starting to trust me.”

9. Sometime between Friday in the locker room at Halas Hall and Sunday before the game, left tackle Jermon Bushrod shed the walking boot he had been wearing to protect his right ankle. Bushrod suffered knee and ankle injuries in practice last Wednesday when he was rolled up. According to one teammate, a rookie defensive lineman was thrown to the ground in an 11-on-11 period, resulting in the injury. That is why you always hear coaches yelling at players to stay off the ground in practice. When players go to the ground, that is when injuries can happen.

Bushrod called it scary and the injuries, which required MRIs to the knee and ankle, ended a streak of 80 consecutive starts, including the postseason.

“I’m upset at the situation, I am not upset it happened,” he said. “Every day I step on the field there is a risk I take. When you have a bunch of guys flying around, being athletic and trying to make plays, it happens. We’re not trying to finish in practice. Sometimes when guys get tripped up, it happens.

“It could have been a lot worse. At first, I was maybe thinking it was season-ending. But the thing is, I’ve rolled like that the same way. It looks bad and then I shake it off and keep going. That didn’t happen this time. I’m just glad it wasn’t worse.”

We’ll see where he is at later this week with an eye toward Sunday’s game at Atlanta.

10. It was a very meaningful game for former Bears tight end Greg Olsen for reasons far greater than his two touchdown receptions. His son T.J. was able to attend the game, the first he has been at this season after undergoing two heart surgeries since August, including one to install a pacemaker on Sept. 11 for the nearly 2-year-old boy.

Olsen has spent most nights this season staying in the hospital with his son as his wife Kara handles the day shift there and then heads home to take care of the couple’s two other children. Olsen would head straight to work from the hospital each morning. Now, the feeling is T.J., born with a congenital heart defect known as hypoplastic left heart syndrome, is on the right path.

So, when T.J. was there with his No. 88 Olsen jersey on -- along with his twin sister and older brother -- it meant everything to Olsen.

“Incredible,” Olsen said after the game. “Just to be able to give him a hug and see him in my jersey, it was awesome. It has been a long road. Today, was hopefully the finishing touches. It was pretty special for us. We got our Christmas card photo probably.”

10 a. Kyle Fuller only shows up with three tackles in press box statistics but the NFL’s defensive rookie of the month for September definitely outdueled the NFL’s offensive rookie of the month for September in Panthers wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin. He was targeted a team-high 11 times and made only three receptions for 38 yards. Fuller was a big part of that and the pass interference penalty in the end zone on Fuller certainly wasn’t over the top. He had a solid game.

10 b. The mismatch of the game was rookie running back Ka’Deem Carey trying to pick up middle linebacker Luke Kuechly on a blitz. It looked like Kuechly loaded Carey in a slingshot. Kuechly said he wanted to improve his technique as a blitzer entering his third season. He looked good in this instance.

10 c. Jared Allen is without a sack through the first five games of the season for the first time in his 11-year career. Of course, he’s only played in four games as pneumonia knocked him out last week.

10 d. Big payroll was missing for the Panthers. Defensive end Greg Hardy (on the exempt list) and injured running backs DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert were not in uniform. The four of them combine to account for $27.051 million of the team’s salary cap this season. It’s really a little crazy how much the Panthers have over-invested at running back with Williams ($6 million), Stewart ($4.585 million) and Tolbert ($3.35 million). Yes, it makes the Bears’ recent expensive lessons with Chester Taylor, Marion Barber and Michael Bush look like, well, bargains.

10 e. Both cornerback Kelvin Hayden and tight end Matthew Mulligan have claimed termination pay as vested veterans. That means the Bears will pay Hayden $754,412 for this season and Mulligan will earn $644,118. Each counts $502,941 versus the salary cap.

bmbiggs@tribune.com

Twitter @BradBiggs

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