Rapid Reaction: Bears 23, Panthers 6

CHARLOTTE -- Missing injured quarterback Jay Cutler, the Chicago Bears leaned on a combination of the ground game led by Matt Forte and electric outings on special teams from Danieal Manning and Devin Hester to topple the Carolina Panthers 23-6.

The contest answered major questions about whether the Bears could finally get the ground game going, but several issues remained unresolved. We’ll take a look at some of them here.

What it means: The Bears maintained their division lead, and captured a much-needed road victory with Jay Cutler out of action. Most importantly though, Chicago seizes momentum for two consecutive home games against the Seattle Seahawks and Washington Redskins leading into its bye. The Bears have a perfect opportunity to build their record to 6-1 headed into the bye.

Peppers disruptive in return: Playing in his home state against the team that originally drafted him, Julius Peppers put on a show in his homecoming to make one of the most exciting plays of the day.

Coming off the left end, Peppers batted a Jimmy Clausen pass and patiently watched from his knees as the ball floated into his arms for an interception. Peppers contributed four tackles through the first three quarters while pressuring Clausen on several occasions.

All the attention given to Peppers by Carolina’s offensive line also allowed Israel Idonije to post three sacks for the first time in his career.

Re-thinking Collins: Perhaps Todd Collins shouldn’t remain the Bears’ primary backup behind starter Jay Cutler. It appears time has passed Collins by.

Collins, 38, tossed four interceptions in producing a largely ineffective performance that included a 6.3 passer rating passer, and an average of just 2 yards per completion. Offensive coordinator Mike Martz indicated last week that he felt more comfortable with Collins because of the veteran’s experience and background in the scheme.

But the intangibles couldn’t make up for the quarterback’s physical shortcomings. So the club pulled Collins with 2:06 left in the third quarter to bring in inexperienced reserve Caleb Hanie.

Although the staff expects Cutler to return next week, it can’t ignore Collins’ struggles and might need to consider elevating Hanie to the No. 2 spot permanently. Hanie performed well during brief action in the preseason, and is clearly a more mobile option for Chicago, which is important considering the shaky state of the team’s offensive line.

Line changes: The Bears made a couple of moves along the offensive line prior to Sunday’s contest, forcing two starters from last week’s game against the Giants (Lance Louis and Kevin Shaffer) to the sidelines. The club started Edwin Williams at right guard in place of Louis and rookie J’Marcus Webb replaced Shaffer at right tackle.

Williams filled in last week for Louis, who suffered a knee injury, while Webb shared snaps with Shaffer during the Giants game. The Bears announced just before Sunday’s outing they would start Webb and Williams, and the duo took all the snaps without any real shuffling along the line.

Although the offensive line didn’t give a repeat performance of the 10 sacks it gave up against the Giants, it’s difficult to say whether the most recent moves up front made much of a difference. The Panthers sacked Collins twice and Hanie once, in addition to recording three official quarterback hits.

Goal-line blues: Bears running back Matt Forte rushed for 166 yards and a pair of touchdowns in helping the club run for the most yards in one half (168) since Dec. 20, 1998 (James Allen ran for 135 yards against the Baltimore Ravens) but the club continues to struggle at punching it in from the goal line.

After failing to punch it in from the Carolina 1-yard line on two attempts Sunday, the Bears are now 0 for 9 on the season from an opponent’s 1.

That’s got to be a major concern moving forward for this team.

What’s next: Bears host a well-rested, yet up and down Seattle (2-2) team coming off its bye.