Each week we reach out to our friends at the other blogs under the SB Nation umbrella to gain some insight on the Bears upcoming opponent. This weekend, the Bears host the Panthers, and it was our pleasure to host Bradley Smith of Cat Scratch Reader to learn about the 4-2 NFC South leaders.
Windy City Gridiron: Carolina sits a 1/2 game up in the division at 4-2 with impressive wins on the road in New England and Detroit. In the wake of the Aaron Rodgers injury, the NFC is as wide open as it's ever been and this team is only 1 year removed from the Super Bowl. So, 6 games in - what are the expectations for this Panthers unit?
Cat Scratch Reader: Our expectations for the Panthers are to win the NFC South and make a Super Bowl run. We're currently 4-2 and in a good spot despite losing last week to the Eagles. At the very least we expect this team to win a Wild Card spot because we truly believe we're one of the better teams in the NFC. Rodgers going down theoretically opens up one more playoff spot by knocking the Packers out of the picture, so as Panthers fans we don't believe we can settle for less than the 6th seed at the bare minimum.
WCG:. The Bears have some connections with the Panthers (Greg Olsen, Charles Tillman, Julius Peppers). Ron Rivera, once a reserve linebacker on the famous '85 Bears squad and Defensive Coordinator under Lovie Smith, leads the Panthers as the Head Coach. What do Panthers fans think of Rivera, what are his strengths and weaknesses as a coach, and would you guys consider swapping Fox for Rivera? Pretty please? We'll throw in a few deep dish pizzas!
CSR: Opinions on Ron Rivera are skewed (as with most head coaches). Some think he's too conservative and plays not to lose, while others think he's one of the best coaches we've ever had in Carolina. Personally, I feel that he's a good man and his players love playing for him, but he makes some really weird decisions at times. Like a few weeks ago against the Saints when he punted from the New Orleans 35 yard line while down 18 points. Things like that drive us nuts and make us wish we had a coach who is willing to take risks.
As far as your proposed trade, I'll tell you what - you send us over some pizzas and we'll think about it while we eat them. We'll get back to you when we're desperate enough to say yes.
WCG: Speaking of Julius Peppers, he's back in Carolina this year. I would imagine the prodigal son returning to the homeland is a great story, but what impact has he had on that defense? How has the defense played overall and who are one or two relatively unknown players Bears fans should keep an eye on this Sunday?
CSR: Julius Peppers has been on fire since coming back home. It's still hard to believe that he's 37 years old because he's playing like he's 25 again. He currently has 6.5 sacks and a forced fumble. It's truly unbelievable. As far as unknown players, you should watch out for David Mayo. With Luke Kuechly potentially missing this game while in the concussion protocol you'll probably see a lot of Mayo this Sunday. While no one is Luke Kuechly, Mayo is a pretty good substitute and we're glad we have him on the roster.
WCG: First round pick Christian McCaffrey has quickly become a focal point of this offense. Through 6 games, McCaffrey has 50 targets (37 catches) but only 38 carries. What's his outlook the rest of the season and beyond and are Panthers fans happy with what they've seen so far?
CSR: Panthers fans are mixed on Christian McCaffrey. Some of us love that he's a weapon we can use in so many ways, while others are disappointed that he's not getting the carries one would expect from the No.8 overall pick in the draft. I think the Panthers are going to continue to use him the way they have all year - they'll line him up in the slot, motion him out wide, give him a few carries, toss some screens his way, and generally try to get the ball in his hands in space. Going forward, I believe they'll transition him to more of a traditional running back role to eventually take over for Jonathan Stewart, who I personally believe is on the decline.
WCG: On the outside, the Panthers have Kelvin Benjamin, a gigantic 6'5" jump ball specialist and Devin Funchess...a gigantic 6'5" jump ball specialist. What was the thinking behind this set up? Is Cam Newton the type of QB who likes to throw these types of receivers open?
CSR: Former GM Dave Gettleman liked to say that 'you can't teach 6'5", 240 lbs.' and he's right to an extent. Benjamin and Funchess are giant targets for Cam Newton, which helps because he has a tendency to overthrow guys when he's hurried. Having two really big WRs helps some of those overthrows become completions down field. While having two big targets for Newton is great, it would also be nice to have a speedy guy who can stretch the field like Ted Ginn, Jr. has done in the past. The Panthers had hoped Curtis Samuel could be that guy, but so far in his brief career he hasn't been able to provide that much-needed deep threat. However, we're hopeful he can do so going forward.
WCG - Bonus: As a team who recovered nicely from the John Fox era, what are your recommendations for the Chicago Bears once they move on and try to find their next Head Coach?
CSR: Find someone who is not a carbon copy of John Fox in a different package. We have a guy you might be interested in. His name is Mike Shula, and I think he'd make a damn fine head coach. I can set you up an interview if you'd like.
Thank you to Bradley and Cat Scratch Reader!