As usual, D the key for Bears

CHICAGO -- On some level the dramatic setup surrounding the Bears' game Sunday against the Carolina Panthers is all about settling scores.

Lovie Smith vs. Ron Rivera. Greg Olsen vs. Team That Traded Him.

If the Panthers win, expect these themes to be flogged into the city's consciousness.

But the real drama in Sunday's matchup is the Bears' defense vs. Cam Newton, and ultimately the Bears' defenders vs. themselves.

The Newton matchup has gotten plenty of press this week. As long as the rookie from Auburn keeps playing above expectations, that will continue before every game. He has played with poise for a rookie, putting up ridiculous numbers, and he said all the right things in the media conference call with Chicago reporters, saying he was afraid of Julius Peppers.

No Bears believe he's really scared of Peppers, but it was a veteran move to try to placate the opponents.

Newton probably won't throw for 400-plus yards against this defense, and I expect a couple turnovers. Newton is a rookie playing against a defense designed to limit big plays and maximize frustration. But Newton is capable of big plays, running and throwing. So are Steve Smith, still infamous for his playoff game performance in 2006, and the running game of Jonathan Stewart, DeAngelo Williams and Newton could help the Panthers keep the Bears' defense on the field longer.

The defense has been burned by big plays in each of the first three games. Michael Turner had a 53-yard run in the opener, Devery Henderson had a 79-yard touchdown catch in New Orleans and the Packers started the game with four straight plays of more than 10 yards, and the sixth play was a 19-yard catch by Greg Jennings. Green Bay scored on that drive and never lost the lead.

The Bears have played three potent offenses so far in three Super Bowl contenders, but the facts remain. They rank 25th in total defense, giving up 386.7 yards per game, and are tied for 19th in scoring, giving up 23 points a game -- 57 in the last two, both losses. They have let teams convert 39.5 percent of third downs and have almost a six-minute disadvantage in time of possession.

"We haven't been playing characteristic type football," Lance Briggs said. "We can't expect to win games giving up that many points. Regardless of the situation, we had some opportunities last week where third down, we didn't get off."

The good news is that the Bears can fix these problems because they are confident in the familiar schemes and plays. The bad news is similar to the good news. With this defense, what you see is what you get.

Certainly the absence of Chris Harris since the season-opening win over Atlanta has played a major role in the defensive lapses. But Harris won't be back for a couple weeks, at least, so the same problems remain this week against Carolina.

Brian Urlacher wasn't long-winded in his prescription to fix what ails the defense.

"Play better," he said. "Not a big secret for us to do our jobs and tackle the guy when we get to him. Not a big secret to our defense."

Briggs knows that it's all about how the Bears play, rather than the opponent.

"I don't see it as a chess game," he said. "Well, football is always a chess game, but everyone pretty much knows how we're going to play. And we know how people are going to try to attack us. Nothing changes going into this week."

But knowing how the Bears will play, or usually play, isn't really the concern, it's how they execute, as Urlacher said. While the Bears like to tamper expectations of this being a "must-win" -- aren't all games in the NFL? -- it should be a litmus test for both the Bears' defense and Newton's so-called veteran poise.

Urlacher refused to take the bait about a rookie getting rattled against the Bears' veteran defense.

"Yes," he said after a pause. "He is a rookie, but he's playing at a high level for a rookie. He's playing better than most quarterbacks who have been in the league for however long. There are some things he hasn't seen in the NFL, but he's playing well for a guy who's played three games."

The 6-foot-5 Newton, whom Smith memorably compared to Peppers this week, has exceeded the hype so far, which is almost unheard of for a No. 1 pick quarterback. He's thrown for 1,012 yards, four touchdowns and four interceptions. His 59.8 completion percentage isn't good, just 21st in the league, but it's ahead of Jay Cutler, who is 27th at 54.4 percent.

In two separate ESPN Chicago features this week, I wrote that I would take Newton over Cutler right now. This resulted in howls of protest, but I'm not backing down. Newton has far more "upside" than Cutler, and he's already showing a precocious grasp of the toughest position in sports.

I don't expect him to light up the Bears' defense, which is designed to frustrate quarterbacks into incremental plays. If he does manage to carve up big chunks of yardage, however, it will be like aceing an NFL midterm.

It's obvious Chicago's offense isn't in sync, and without go-to receiver Earl Bennett for another week, it could be a rough one against Carolina. So the Bears are back to a familiar plane of existence, relying on the defense and special teams to carry the day.

The Bears need to prove their time-tested defense still has what it takes. Newton, the challenger, stands in the way.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.