- Michael C. Wright, ESPN Staff Writer
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CHICAGO -- Jay Cutler basically handed the Carolina Panthers a touchdown with a fumble in the second quarter, while the defense gave up a 62-yard gain that set up one of two Justin Medlock field goals as the Chicago Bears fell behind 13-7 in the first half Sunday.
Cutler suffered six sacks in the first half, including an 8-yard sack with 43 seconds left in the first quarter that set up Carolina’s touchdown. Stripped while sacked by Charles Johnson, Cutler fumbled at the Chicago 16 with Frank Alexander recovering.
Three plays later, Cam Newton scrambled up the middle for an 8-yard run before Major Wright poked the ball loose at the 1. Louis Murphy pounced on the fumble in the end zone for the TD just three seconds into the second quarter. Medlock’s extra point gave the Panthers a 10-7 lead.
After Dwan Edwards sacked Cutler for a 4-yard loss on the ensuing possession, Carolina marched 58 yards on 17 plays to score on Medlock’s second field goal of the first half, a 31-yarder that put the Panthers up 13-7. The drive took 8:19 off the clock.
Chicago’s normally stingy defense allowed a 62-yard completion from Newton to Brandon LaFell to set up Carolina’s first score, a 34-yard field goal by Medlock.
The kick came after Matt Forte put the first points of the game on the board with his 13-yard burst.
Forte ran for 44 yards on his first four attempts. But instead of feeding Forte the ball, the Bears resorted to a pass-heavy attack that led to sacks and the Cutler turnover that allowed Carolina’s TD.
So while it seems we say it over and over again, the Bears definitely need to re-establish the running game in the second half and stay committed to it so they can keep the ball away from a Carolina offense capable of hitting the big play at any time.
Here’s a look at some adjustments the Bears might make:
Eliminate big plays. It’s clear the Panthers plan to attack the middle of the field when the Bears play Cover 2 on the back end. So the Bears need to be prepared to make timely tackles at the spot of any completion. In the first quarter, Newton hit LaFell for a 62-yard gain on a slant route with Chris Conte handling coverage down the middle. The play led to a 34-yard field goal by Medlock. Without any help over the top -- aside from the safety in coverage -- on inside routes when the Bears run Cover 2, it’s important to make the stop as soon as the receiver catches the ball. Besides that, allowing big plays basically negates all the work done by Chicago’s offense with the rushing attack to take time off the clock, which keeps Carolina’s quick-strike offense off the field.
Shorten the game. Forte’s stat line read like this at the end of the first quarter: five attempts, 44 yards and one touchdown. So it’s safe to say he’s off to a strong start. The Bears need to maintain that by continuing to feed Forte the ball. By doing that, the Bears can run time off the clock, which limits Carolina’s time of possession and opportunities to put together scoring drives. The Panthers have already shown the ability to hit the big play, which means they can score quickly. So why not play keep away by pounding the Panthers with the rushing attack? Then, when needed, the Bears can incorporate the pass off play action.
Eliminate mistakes: Cutler can’t just drop back and pat the ball when the Bears operate out of empty formations because the offensive line is overmatched, which means there’s not a ton of time to throw the ball. Knowing that, Cutler needs to make quick decisions when the Bears execute out of empty formations. That was the reason Cutler absorbed the first of back-to-back sacks, with the last one resulting in the quarterback fumbling with Alexander recovering on the Chicago 16. That turnover allowed Carolina to take a 10-7 lead when Murphy scooped up a Newton fumble in the end zone for a TD to start the second quarter.
Cutler turned the ball over on Chicago’s first possession when he threw to into triple coverage looking to hit Brandon Marshall, resulting in an interception by Panthers cornerback Josh Norman. Throwing into triple coverage wasn’t the problem though. Cutler made the correct decision, but didn’t put enough on the throw to get the ball to Marshall, who -- despite the extra coverage -- was wide open for what should have been a TD.
Cutler's two fumbles in the first half were totally avoidable. He's got to exercise more care with the ball.
Halftime adjustments: The Bears need to keep Carolina's offense off the field.