With Ron Rivera in charge of their defense in 2006, the Chicago Bears made their first Super Bowl appearance since he played linebacker for them.
Rivera, though, was let go after that season, and he’ll return to Soldier Field for the first time Sunday as the first-year coach of the Carolina Panthers.
A member of the vaunted defense from their 1985 championship team, Rivera spent nine seasons playing for the Bears before returning to the team as defensive coordinator in 2004. His defense yielded a league-low 202 points in 2005 and was dominant again the following season in leading Chicago to the Super Bowl, where it lost to Indianapolis.
After that successful campaign, the Bears made the surprising move not to renew his contract, and coach Lovie Smith handed the defense over to Bob Babich.
Chicago didn’t have the same kind of success defensively in Babich’s two seasons as coordinator, so Smith took over the role in 2009 before giving the job to Rod Marinelli following the franchise’s third straight postseason absence.
“I’m not going to downplay it,” Rivera said. “Some people would say it’s just another game; no it’s not. They’re all big, but this has a little personal meaning for me because it’s Chicago. It’s a great city with a great organization. … It’ll be fun. I look forward to coming up there.”
Rivera heads into this game after his first victory as an NFL coach, 16-10 over Jacksonville last Sunday.
After topping 400 yards in each of his first two games, quarterback Cam Newton(notes) was held to 158 but connected with tight end Greg Olsen(notes) for the winning 16-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter.
It was Olsen’s first TD reception for Carolina (1-2) since being traded from Chicago on July 28 for a third-round draft pick. A first-round pick in 2007, Olsen had 194 catches for 1,981 yards and 20 touchdowns for the Bears, but offensive coordinator Mike Martz wanted a tight end more suited for blocking.
In Martz’s second season with the team, the Bears (1-2) have struggled to maintain offensive balance. Since a season-opening win over Atlanta, Jay Cutler(notes) has attempted 82 passes and handed off just 20 times in back-to-back losses.
Smith said Chicago’s struggles on the ground - 13 yards on 12 attempts - caused the team to go to the air more often during last Sunday’s 27-17 home defeat to Green Bay. Matt Forte(notes) finished with two yards on nine carries during the third-worst rushing performance in franchise history.
“I think we did what we needed to do on a day like that, when the run’s not working, start throwing the football,” Smith said.
The Bears enter this game ranked 31st with 53.7 rushing yards per game and tied for the most sacks allowed with 14. Injuries to tackle Gabe Carimi(notes) (knee), the team’s top pick in this year’s draft, and guard Lance Louis(notes) (ankle) haven’t helped.
Carimi is out indefinitely, but Louis is expected to return Sunday. The Bears also should welcome back safety Major Wright(notes) (head, neck) and see Marion Barber(notes) (calf) make his debut. However, wide receiver Earl Bennett(notes) (chest) will miss a second straight game, and safety Chris Harris (hamstring) is a game-time decision.
The Bears might be looking for a performance similar to the one they had against Carolina last season in a 23-6 home victory. Forte ran for a career-high 166 yards and two touchdowns while Cutler was out with a concussion.
Chicago’s defense had no problem handling Panthers quarterbacks Jimmy Clausen(notes) and Matt Moore(notes) in that game, but Newton could present a bigger challenge. His 1,012 passing yards are good for third in the NFL.
Steve Smith’s 349 receiving yards also rank third. This will be his first game in Chicago since Smith torched the Bears for a career-high 218 yards and two TDs during a 29-21 win in the 2006 playoffs. That victory is the Panthers’ only one in three all-time trips to Soldier Field.