CHICAGO — Chicago Bears coach John Fox knows exactly how tough it is for offensive linemen to block Carolina Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers.
After all, Fox coached Peppers as a superstar rookie out of North Carolina.
“You don’t get very many athletes like that who come along,” Fox said to reporters this week as he prepared to face his former player. “We got criticized quite heavily by the talking heads for not taking a quarterback. I know Joey Harrington was available (and) David Carr went a pick before us.
“You could tell (Peppers) was going to be special. The fact that he’s still playing is pretty special.”
On Sunday, Peppers will return to Soldier Field as the Carolina Panthers (4-2) visit the Chicago Bears (2-4). Peppers spent four seasons with the Bears from 2010 to 2013 after playing eight years with the Panthers.
Now, the 37-year-old is back home in Carolina as his career winds down. He has 150 career sacks and needs one more to move past former Minnesota Vikings great Chris Doleman for No. 4 on the all-time list.
Peppers’ target this week will be Bears quarterback Mitch Trubisky, who will make his third career start. Trubisky earned his first victory last week as the Bears outlasted the Baltimore Ravens for a 27-24 overtime win.
Trubisky has passed for 241 yards, two touchdowns and an interception in his first two appearances. He has averaged 20.5 passes per game but has shown an ability to move outside the pocket and pass with accuracy.
“As a quarterback, you want to be throwing the ball,” Trubisky told reporters this week. “But as a competitor and a leader of this team, you’re going to do whatever it takes to win. If it’s running the ball, if it’s passing the ball, whatever it is, that’s what we’re going to do.”
The Bears continue to rely heavily on the ground game, where running back Jordan Howard has amassed 495 rushing yards and four touchdowns in his first six games. Chicago is No. 1 in the NFC and No. 3 in the NFL with an average of 136.0 rushing yards per game.
Howard’s fast start will be tested by the Panthers’ stingy defense, which ranks fourth in the NFL this season with only 280 yards allowed per game. Carolina has yet to allow a 100-yard rusher this season but will be without star middle linebacker Luke Kuechly due to a concussion..
“They’re really smart, they’re fast, they run to the ball,” Trubisky said. “They know how to mix it up. They get after it with the front seven, and they’re really solid on the back end. They don’t make many mistakes.”
On the opposite side of the ball, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton will look to beat the Bears with his arm as well as his feet. Newton has passed for 1,476 yards, nine touchdowns and eight interceptions so far this season. He has rushed for 161 yards and three touchdowns, which ranks second in the NFL among quarterbacks to Houston Texans rookie Deshaun Watson (202 rushing yards, 2 TDs).
Carolina coach Ron Rivera would like to see more production from runners other than Newton this week. Running back Jonathan Stewart has rushed for 247 yards and has yet to find the end zone.
“You want to be able to run the ball successfully because it takes the pressure off your quarterback, and it also makes your play-action a lot more effective,” said Rivera, who played for the Bears and is 1-2 against his former team as a coach. “It’s two-fold. We’ve got to be able to get things back on track.”
Rookie running back Christian McCaffrey has provided a spark out of the backfield, but mostly for his hands. He leads the team with 37 receptions and has scored touchdowns in back-to-back games.
Neither team has performed well in turnover margin, but something has to give this weekend. The Bears rank second-to-last in the league with a minus-8 turnover margin, and Carolina is fourth-to-last at minus-6.
The Panthers will play on 10 days’ rest after losing 28-23 to the Philadelphia Eagles last Thursday night. They are 3-0 on the road this season, which makes them one of five teams that are unbeaten away from home.
This marks the 10th all-time meeting between the teams. Chicago holds a 5-4 edge but lost the most recent matchup in 2014 as the Panthers held on for a 31-24 victory.