Marion Barber to play vs. Panthers

Updated: September 30, 2011, 4:21 PM ET
By Jeff Dickerson | ESPNChicago.com

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Chicago Bears running back Marion Barber is set to make his regular-season debut on Sunday after being sidelined with a calf injury since Aug. 27.

Barber hurt the calf in the team's third preseason game against the Tennessee Titans, which resulted in the veteran being inactive for the first three weeks of the regular season. Barber suffered a setback two weeks ago prior to the New Orleans Saints game when the calf did not respond properly following a Wednesday practice, but he was able to have full participation this week in advance of the Bears' game against the Carolina Panthers.

"Just a good running back added to the mix," Bears coach Lovie Smith said Friday. "We're of course trying to get the running game going a little bit better, having a guy like that should help in spot duty. I know he's excited. He hasn't played a game that counts yet for the Chicago Bears. Hopefully we get some production out of him.'

A boost in the running game would be helpful since the Bears are averaging a mere 3.2 yards per carry over the first three weeks. However, much of that can be pinned on offensive coordinator Mike Martz's play-calling or the lack of running lanes being opened up by the offensive line. Tailbacks Matt Forte and Kahlil Bell have carried the ball a combined 46 times so far this season, compared to 114 passing attempts by Bears quarterback Jay Cutler.

Barber, who spent the previous six years as a member of the Dallas Cowboys, ran the ball effectively in training camp and the preseason before he injured the calf in Tennessee.

His return might help the Bears do a better job on third down, where they have converted only 27.5 percent of the time. Much of that, however, can be attributed to the Bears' struggles on first and second down, which put the team in numerous third-and-long situations. A solid running game should help on both accounts.

"He's a different player, we know what his strength will be ... talking about some of the tough yardage inside the tackles," Smith said.

Barber, Bell (back), Major Wright (head/neck) and Patrick Mannelly (hip) are all listed as probable.

Jeff Dickerson covers the Bears for ESPNChicago.com and ESPN 1000.

Jeff Dickerson | email

Chicago Bears beat reporter
Dickerson has been the Bears beat reporter for ESPN Chicago since 2004. He also hosts weeknight radio shows on ESPN 1000.