For a team that has lost two of its best players to injury, linebacker Jon Beason and cornerback Chris Gamble, it would be expected to struggle defensively.
Through their first six games of the season, the Carolina Panthers‘ defense is allowing over 360 total yards and giving up 24 points per game. While not the best numbers in the league, it is an improvement over last year where they gave up over 370 yards and 27 points per game.
The Panthers took a step at upgrading their defense in this past years’ draft, selecting middle linebacker Luke Kuechly out of Boston College with the ninth overall pick. Kuechly has lived up to expectations this season, holding down the middle linebacker position and leading the team with 51 tackles.
He started the season on the weak-side before the injury to Beason moved him to his natural position inside. His anticipation and knowledge of the game is more similar to a seasoned veteran than a rookie and he has an uncanny nose for the football.
Veteran Thomas Davis returned this season after knee injuries that have plagued him in recent seasons and holds down the weak-side linebacker position. At the strong-side position, James Anderson has done a great job at getting to the ball-carrier, amassing 49 tackles, second only to Kuechly.
Despite their big tackle totals, the Panthers have been average at best stopping the run, giving up nearly 120 yards rushing a game.
With quarterback Jay Cutler suffering from sore ribs following an injury Monday night against Detroit, expect the Bears to try and exploit the Panthers’ linebackers by pounding the football with Matt Forte and Michael Bush as well as implement more running backs screens, something the offense has struggled to get going this season.
Defensive end Charles Johnson was the heir apparent to Julius Peppers when he left in free agency three years ago. Johnson had a stellar 2010 season where he finished with 11.5 sacks. He has 3.5 sacks this season, but all came against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 4.
He is one of very few bright spots along the defensive line and can still pose problems for left tackle J’Marcus Webb. Johnson will battle all game long and will try and wear Webb down, but given his solid outings as of late, Webb may actually hold an advantage.
Greg Hardy lines up opposite of Johnson and although he only has two sacks this season, right tackle Gabe Carimi has been struggling and Hardy is likely licking his chops for the opportunity to face him.
Carimi will need to rely on his mauling abilities and be physical with Hardy; he tends to disappear when facing stiffer competition. Dwan Edwards has been effective up the middle with 3.5 sacks and 24 tackles. The Bears will likely double-team Edwards with a combination of center Roberto Garza and right guard Lance Louis.
Captain Munnerlyn and rookie Josh Norman hold down the cornerback spots with the injury to Chris Gamble. Norman played an okay game last week against Dallas, but eventually gave up a long touchdown to Miles Austin. The Bears will look to find a mismatch with Brandon Marshall against Josh Norman, but do not be surprised to see the more experienced Munnerlyn shadow him for much of the day.
Safety Charles Godfrey is a solid but unspectacular strong safety who is good against the run but can be susceptible in the passing game. Kellen Davis should have an opportunity to go against him deep down the field, but with the Bears inability to get Davis involved in previous games, Sunday likely will not be a time for them to start.
Matt Eurich is a contributor to Bearsbacker.com. Follow Bears Backer on Facebook and Twitter for up to the minute news about the Bears. Also, check out Matt’s work on BleacherReport.com and follow him on Twitter @MattEurich.