(670 The Score) After losing star running back Christian McCaffrey to an injury in September, the Panthers turned to veteran Mike Davis in the backfield. He has filled the void of an All-Pro admirably and helped run Carolina to first place in the NFC South, recording 76 touches for 426 yards.
The 27-year-old Davis was released by the Bears last November after getting just 11 carries in seven games. Come Sunday, he'll be staring staring across the sidelines at a Bears team that's still struggling to run the football effectively. Chicago coach Matt Nagy will be looking back at a player in Davis whom he had little use for in his Bears offense but who's now a concern for his defense.
Davis is making the most of his opportunity in running the football, something Nagy and the Bears have neglected once again.
Whether it would be Davis, David Montgomery or Le'Veon Bell rushing out of the Bears' backfield, getting a productive running game going in Chicago -- and, in turn, a balanced offense -- is the responsibility of Nagy more than anybody who could take a handoff.
In the Bears' 4-1 start, Nagy has continued to neglect the run as the team's play-caller. David Montgomery has a combined 20 rushes for 56 yards over the last two games and hasn't topped 16 carries in a single game. The Bears are rushing for 95.4 yards per game, which ranks 27th in the NFL.
"We want to be able to get him to 20 carries," Nagy said of Montgomery on Thursday, reiterating his desire to spark the run game.
Montgomery is the player whom Nagy wanted as his lead running back in spring 2019, when the Bears traded Jordan Howard to the Eagles and moved up in the third round of the draft to select Montgomery. The team has kept faith in Montgomery at every turn since on the transactional front. The Bears released Davis in the middle of the 2019 season, declined to pursue Leonard Fournette after he was cut in September and recently passed on the three-time Pro Bowl running back Bell, who signed with Nagy's mentor Andy Reid in Kansas City.
Nagy has firmly stated his belief in Montgomery but doesn't commit to the ground game consistently. Montgomery has carried 20 or more times -- the threshold that Nagy desires -- just four times in his 21 career games.
After a disappointing 2019 season, the Bears quickly fired offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich, offensive line coach Harry Hiestand and tight ends coach Kevin Gilbride Jr., replacing them with three assistants whom Nagy felt could help reshape the running game. The Bears then designed plans on offense to run more plays under center and in packages with two and three tight ends.
Nagy seems to have already abandoned those plans through five games. The Bears have 115 rushes for 477 yards (4.1 yards per carry) and just one rushing touchdown. By comparison, the Patriots have played only four games and rushed 140 times for 719 yards and seven scores on the ground.
The Bears have thrown 199 passes and rushed 115 times, which represents the third-largest disparity in the NFL. Until Nagy is willing to commit to the run, it won't matter who's carrying the football for the Bears.
And if Nagy continues to neglect the ground game, he needs to hand over play-calling duties to somebody who will run the football.
Open field: Can bend-but-don't-break Bears defense dominate again?
Those who were part of the Bears' defensive dominance two years ago still expect that level of play.
In 2018, the Bears stifled opposing offenses. They were No. 1 in scoring defense, No. 1 in defending the run and No. 1 in takeaways. It looks a bit different these days. The Bears are ninth in total defense, 16th against the run and tied for 17th in takeaways.
The Bears are fourth in the NFL in scoring defense (20.0 points per game) and rank first in the NFL in defensive red-zone efficiency, allowing touchdowns on just 36.8% of opposing drives that go inside the 20-yard line. The Bears bend but don't break, holding their foes to field goals more often than touchdowns.
But it isn't good enough in their minds.
"We've been getting the job done," safety Eddie Jackson said. "But the type of defensive unit we have, we want to dominate. We want to get back to that."
The Bears' defense has struggled against the run, allowing 113.2 yards per game. It's clear Chicago has sorely missed run-stuffing nose tackle Eddie Goldman, who opted out of playing in 2020. By comparison, the 2018 Bears allowed 80 rushing yards per game.
Buccaneers running back Ronald Jones rushed 17 times for 106 yards against a Bears defense that struggled to tackle in Chicago's 20-19 win on Oct. 8, when Tampa Bay averaged 5.3 yards per play. But just like old times, the Bears prevailed in large part thanks to a game-changing play by the defense, this one a big hit by cornerback Kyle Fuller that forced a fumble and set up a key touchdown.
The Bears know they must be better defensively, especially against a running back in Davis who's averaging 5.6 yards per touch this season.
"There's going to be extra motivation ― like he needs it," defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano said. "He's a damn beast as it is. ... If we tackle like we did last week, he'll have 200 yards on us. We can't do that."
The Bears need their defense to be great if they're to have real Super Bowl aspirations. While defensive lineman Akiem Hicks has played at a Pro Bowl level and star edge rusher Khalil Mack looks healthy, the Bears need more. LInebacker Danny Trevathan has looked like a player on the wrong side of 30, edge rusher Robert Quinn hasn't produced to the billing of his big contract and Jackson doesn't have a takeaway through five games.
The Bears need to be dominant once again on defense. They certainly know it.
"The standard is to be No. 1 across the board," Quinn said.
1.) Mack is back
A day before the Bears took the field against the Buccaneers, the team officially removed Mack from the injury report. He had previously been listed every practice and game as dealing with a knee injury.
That seemed notable after Mack had two sacks and three hurries of Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady. He was a constant presence in the backfield and looked healthy once again.
Mack hasn't made any excuses about his health, and Bears outside linebackers coach Ted Monachino downplayed the knee as being a significant issue in Chicago's first four games. But defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano was a bit more candid.
"He was beat up (head) to toe last year," Pagano said of Mack.
"He’s healthy and he’s playing well. We need him to stay that way."
2.) Who else?
The Bears have targeted top receiver Allen Robinson 57 times in five games, syncing up for 35 receptions off passes thrown by Mitchell Trubisky and Nick Foles.
No Bears player has half as many targets and receptions as Robinson, with tight end Jimmy Graham ranking second with 28 targets and 17 receptions. The Bears need to develop a steady second option behind Robinson, who will continue to draw the attention of opposing defenses.
Bears wide receivers coach Mike Furrey believes that player could be receiver Anthony Miller, whom he hopes finds a more prominent role. It's something Furrey and Nagy both agree on.
"As a fan of his and his coach and playing that position, we all know we'd like to have him involved more," Furrey said.
3.) Lazor's candor
Bears rookie tight end Cole Kmet, the No. 43 overall pick in the NFL Draft in April, has been targeted three times in his first five games and caught only one pass.
What's behind the minimal usage for Kmet thus far? Offensive coordinator Bill Lazor pointed to the offense as a whole being the problem.
"The questions about why is this guy or that guy not doing enough, to me, that's all back page to why we're not good enough on offense right now," Lazor said. "There's nothing wrong with Cole. It's wrong with us."
4.) Managing COVID-19
Last Saturday morning, the Bears learned practice squad offensive lineman Badara Traore tested positive for COVID-19. On Wednesday, offensive line coach Juan Castillo reported contact with an individual outside the organization who tested positive.
Castillo hasn't tested positive but will be away from the Bears through at least Sunday. The 23-year-old Traore was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list and is also away from the team.
Nagy was reminded of the unique challenges and constant worries of leading a team this season. He admitted that nearly every night, he checks the phone to make sure there's no call from head athletic trainer Andre Tucker about a positive test.
"We don't want to be one of those 32 teams that can take this and make this go the other direction because of COVID," Nagy said.
Quote to note
"We want to get to a point where every single play, we're dangerous."
-- Foles on the Bears' offense
S Deon Bush (hamstring) -- The Bears will likely be without their reserve safety Bush. DeAndre Houston-Carson filled in admirably in the win against the Buccaneers on Oct. 8, playing 20% of the defensive snaps and sealing the victory with a fourth-down pass break-up.
DB Sherrick McManis (hamstring) -- The Bears will get a boost Sunday with the return of their special teams ace McManis.
DL Brent Urban (knee) -- Urban was limited in practice Wednesday and Thursday. The Bears' defensive line has already been tested in depth, though nose tackle John Jenkins is eligible to return Sunday.
Prediction (3-2): Bears 24, Panthers 19
The Bears keep finding ways to win, and they'll do it again at Carolina. With Nagy and Foles developing a better play-calling rapport and the 10-day layoff being beneficial, Chicago improves to 5-1.
Chris Emma covers the Bears, Chicago’s sports scene and more for 670TheScore.com. Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670.