What to watch: Panthers vs. Bears

In anticipation of Julius Peppers' visit, the Panthers' game against the Chicago Bears sold out within 24 hours of individual tickets going on sale.

Excitement is in the air, and the Panthers know they need to win to keep it afloat.

"It would be a real boost for this team to beat the Bears," rookie defensive end Greg Hardy said. "It would be a big boost for morale, and everybody would be excited about the season again."

The Panthers (0-4) are still seeking their first victory, and they'd love for it to come at the expense of Peppers and the Bears (3-1).

Carolina has the youngest roster in the NFL and has continued to display the exuberance of youth despite the tough start, but losing has to take a toll.

"We need to get this win," cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. "We're a young team, and nobody is really down right now. We feel like we still have a chance, and that's a good thing being 0-4."

For the Panthers to have a chance to beat the Bears, Peppers can't have a happy homecoming. The five-time Pro Bowler is capable of single-handedly wrecking the best-laid offensive plans, but Carolina will try to counter the individual motivation of Peppers with the team-wide motivation to avoid another loss.

"We don't want to go into the bye week 0-5. That would be a nasty bye week and a nasty taste in my mouth," Munnerlyn said. "Hopefully, we can turn it around."

In addition to the challenge of containing Peppers, here are some other keys to Sunday's game at Bank of America Stadium.

COME TO PASS: Even if Peppers is quiet in his return to the place where he played from 2002-09, the Panthers' passing game isn't guaranteed to make the kind of noise it needs to make.

"We've got to get some passing game to open up the run for DeAngelo (Williams) and Jonathan (Stewart)," wide receiver Armanti Edwards said.

Edwards is one of three rookie receivers available to the Panthers this week, along with fourth-year wideout David Clowney, who joined the team Tuesday. Leading receiver Steve Smith is out with an ankle injury.

"I'm actually the old guy in the room with Steve being out," Clowney said.

Add rookie quarterback Jimmy Clausen to the mix, and the Panthers could well become the first NFL team since 1999 to start a rookie quarterback and two rookie receivers.

It's an untested group to be sure, but it needs to test the Bears defense if the Panthers are to prevail. All the responsibility doesn't have to fall on newcomers, however: Running back Mike Goodson and tight end Dante Rosario have combined for 18 receptions for 201 yards.


CORRALING COLLINS: On the other hand, when Bears quarterback Todd Collins has the ball in his hands, the Panthers need to make him get rid of it quickly.

Carolina has to be hopeful along those lines given that Chicago yielded 10 sacks to the New York Giants last week, including nine in the first half that contributed to starting quarterback Jay Cutler's concussion.

"You've got to know they're going to go back and try to fix some of that stuff, but it's definitely exciting getting ready to go against a team that gave up a lot of sacks," Hardy said. "Everybody is hyped up."

The Panthers need some of their pass rushers to live up to the hype. Hardy -- a rookie picked in the sixth round of the 2010 draft with a reputation for sacks – and 2009 second-round pick Everette Brown are among those seeking their first sack of the season.

All told, Carolina has four sacks through four games.


GOING DEEPER: The need for pressure on the quarterback isn't just about backing the opponent up this week; it's also about preventing the opponent from moving forward in big chunks.

"They have guys that can stretch the field, fast wide receivers," Brown said. "A lot of their routes are long, and that means he has to sit in the pocket that extra second to give those guys time to get downfield. So if the rush doesn't get there, it's a long pass."

Devin Hester and Johnny Knox are among the fastest receivers in the NFL. In a game where points could be at a premium – both teams rank in the bottom 10 in the NFL in scoring – one long pass play could make all the difference.


DRAWING THE LINE: Hester is the Bears' punt returner, and Knox is among their kickoff returners. Hester has one of the three punt returns for touchdowns in the NFL this season; Knox has helped Chicago stand as one of eight NFL teams with multiple kick returns of 40 or more yards.

Partially as a result of that, Chicago leads the NFL in average field position, starting its average drive at the 35-yard line. The Panthers, in part because of their turnover troubles, rank 28th in average field position allowed.

Carolina, however, has three kickoff returns of 40-plus yards thanks to Goodson, and the Panthers also have been good covering kickoffs at punts.

Whichever team wins the battle of field position – especially if the battle features big returns or crucial turnovers – should be in good shape to win the game.

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