Panthers mull Chicago ties, eager for Ryan Kalil's return

CHICAGO – Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera has a rather unusual request for his players, staff and anyone else associated with the team while in Chicago for Sunday’s game against the Bears.

“This has been an ongoing debate here, ketchup or mustard?" Rivera said. “If you’re in Chicago, please do not put ketchup on the hot dog. Please! Seriously.

“I’m seriously considering extra laps for anybody that does that."

Hot dogs aside, this game is like a homecoming for many of those involved.

Rivera spent 13 years with the Bears, eight (1984-92) as a linebacker and five as a coach, including defensive coordinator from 2004-06. He was on the 1985 team that lost only one game and won the Super Bowl.

Bears coach John Fox was the head coach at Carolina from 2002-2010. His 73 wins are the most in team history, 26 more than second-place Rivera. He helped the Panthers reach the Super Bowl after the 2003 season.

Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers, 37, spent the 2010-2013 seasons in Chicago after spending his first eight at Carolina. Three of his nine Pro Bowl appearances came with the Bears.

Six other Carolina coaches spent time with the Bears, including offensive coordinator Mike Shula and defensive coordinator Steve Wilks.

Several other players passed through there as well.

But as Peppers insisted, this is just another game and his focus is on getting a win, not reliving the past.

Or even hot dogs.

So with that, here are five keys for Carolina in the 1 p.m. game at Soldier Field:

Return of Ryan Kalil: This isn’t a homecoming story. The five-time Pro Bowl selection hasn’t played since suffering a neck injury after the opener. His absence has hurt the running game the most because of the communication he brings up front. The Panthers have rushed for only 108 yards combined the last two games, and 71 of that is from quarterback Cam Newton. Rivera believes the return of Kalil, for as well as Tyler Larsen has played, will shore up communication and prevent many of the negative yards Carolina has allowed in the running game the past two games. Defenders simply can’t be allowed to run free through the line as they have the past two weeks when Jonathan Stewart has had 14 run plays go for negative yards.

Kuechly factor: Statistics show the Panthers play better when their Pro Bowl middle linebacker is on the field. He won’t be after suffering his third concussion in as many years in last Thursday’s 28-23 loss to Philadelphia. Carolina is 16-7 the past two seasons when Kuechly has started, 5-4 in the nine games he has missed. Opponents are averaging 24.2 points when Kuechly is out, 21.4 when he plays. Their success on third-down percentage from 40.6 to 46.7. The good news is Kuechly’s replacement, David Mayo, has had a full week to prepare. He didn’t get a repetition with the first-team defense in preparation for the Eagles.

Fun-Fun time: No. 1 wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin is questionable with a knee injury, but expected to play because there no longer is a probable on the injury report. Regardless, Benjamin’s snap count could be reduced because of the knee that took a shot against Philadelphia. Look for Devin Funchess, referred to as “Fun-Fun’’ by Newton, to play a big role. He already has 27 catches, four more than he had a year ago. Also look for rookie Curtis Samuel to get more opportunities. His speed from the slot could help open up the running game if the Panthers take a shot or two deep to him early to prevent the Bears from stacking eight in the box..

Peppers chasing history: With his next sack Peppers will have 151, passing Chris Doleman (150.5) for fourth place on the NFL’s all-time sack list. There’s no reason to think Peppers won’t get at least one. He has 6.5 in the first six games, the second most he has had at this point in a season and the most by a player his age in NFL history. Pressuring rookie quarterback Mitch Trubisky will be key for Carolina, tied for the league lead with 20 sacks. Seven sacks in the first two games against younger, inexperienced quarterbacks were key.

Chasing picks: The Panthers could use a little mustard in their interception game. They haven’t had one since the opener. The Oakland Raiders are the only team with none, and most have four or more. So while the Panthers rank fourth in total defense, they are tied for 31st in picks. The Jaguars already have 10. Perhaps it’ll help if free safety Kurt Coleman, who has missed the last two games with a knee injury, returns. He has a chance.