'We have to get better'

CHICAGO -- Julius Peppers smiled, but it was not a happy smile. Rather, it was the sort of sardonic grin that all of his defensive teammates were wearing after Sunday's 34-29 victory over the Carolina Panthers. The one that says, "Ask me one more question about how our defense is performing and I'll do to you what I should have done to Cam Newton."

Which is to say, nothing at all.

There were no "Welcome to the NFL, Cam," moments at Soldier Field, Sunday, unless perhaps someone delivered cupcakes to the Panthers' locker room. There were no sacks. No quarterback hits. No Monsters of the Midway-type intimidation of any kind for a rookie who must be wondering what all the fuss was about concerning fierce NFL defenses.

But then, maybe he just hasn't faced one yet.

Certainly he did not in the Bears, who have yielded 30, 27 and 29 points in the three games and, after the 543 total yards given up to the Panthers, are averaging 425.7 yards in opponents' total yardage per game this season.

The Bears were not any more annoyed about the lack of pressure applied on Newton, Peppers said, than they would be for anyone.

"The quarterback's the quarterback, whether he's a rookie or he's been in the league for 10 years," he said. "It's all the same. We've got to get to him. Whenever we don't get a lot of pressure and get sacks, it's a disappointment."

And the Bears' defense, though they contributed a key touchdown, courtesy of D.J. Moore's first-quarter interception and 20-yard return, have been, well, disappointing in the last three weeks of this 2-2 season.

"It doesn't matter how good we play, we're always going to say we can play better. Or how bad we play, which was the case today," said Brian Urlacher. "We have to get better every [week]. We know that."

Newton, standing in the pocket with all the poise -- and time -- any team could ask for in the first half, guided the Panthers on scoring drives on half of their possessions, 24 first downs in all (to 15 for the Bears). He completed 27-of-46 passes on the day for 374 yards, one touchdown and one interception, and rushed for 35 yards on eight carries.

"We didn't do too much today to stop him," Urlacher said. "We didn't play well on defense."

The Panthers were particularly lethal in the first half, when they converted 6-of-6 third down tries and gained 299 yards in total offense, thanks mainly to the 132 passing yards on six catches by Steve Smith, and 47 rushing yards on six carries by DeAngelo Williams.

Smith, who torched the Bears for 218 yards on 12 catches and two touchdowns in Carolina's 2005 first-round playoff win, continued his comeback campaign Sunday. In becoming the Panthers' all-time leading receiver with 181 yards on eight catches, he continued his league-leading pace of 530 yards in four games, which is 24 yards less than he had all of last season combined.

Smith did not merely sit inside the Cover 1 and Cover 2 soft spots as Bears coach Lovie Smith expects, the bend-but-don't break philosophy that allows yardage but ideally not points. Nope, he and Williams and Jonathan Stewart gashed the Bears defense, Smith averaging 22.6 yards per catch, including a long of 53 yards, to help set up nearly every scoring drive.

If Panthers' coach Ron Rivera was expecting the same dominating defense he led as Bears coordinator in '05 and '06, when they were ranked 2nd and 5th in the NFL respectively, he didn't see it.

The Bears had problems tackling; Major Wright returning after sitting out last week's game with a concussion and missing open-field tackles on long gains by Williams and Smith. Wright was also victimized by former Bear Greg Olsen on a 23-yard catch in the fourth quarter.

"With me, I've got to focus on some of the things I messed up on in the game and just better," Wright said.

The Bears caught a break when Jeremy Shockey was called for a questionable offensive interference on a play that nullified a touchdown with the Bears leading 24-20 in the third quarter. Shockey was furious after the game, saying he received no explanation from the official.

"It definitely hurt our team's momentum," he said.

Aside from the Moore interception, the only Bears' defensive highlight was a blocked field goal by Peppers on the same drive in which Shockey's touchdown was called back.

The Panthers had still another chance to score on that drive if not for a low pass to Smith from Newton.

But the Bears feel the margin of victory should have been much greater if not for their own missed opportunities, both up front and in the secondary, where Tim Jennings had two shots at interceptions.

"We're a much better defense than that," Jennings said. "I don't think we should've given up as many points as we did. We came back in the second half and did better but we have to start from the beginning."

Peppers, who was credited with two tackles, had a combined three in three games coming in Sunday, including a zero-tackle game against New Orleans two weeks ago. He recovered a fumble against Green Bay last week, and forced and recovered a fumble in the season opener against Atlanta. But judging from Carolina tackle Jordan Gross' comments, Peppers has lost a bit of his intimidation factor.

"I mean, he's a great player. He definitely gives you fits," Gross said. "You've got to account for him all the time. He's a classy guy. He was shaking hands with everybody after the game. I'm happy that we didn't give him anything but he was definitely working hard for it."

Bears safety Chris Harris could be out at least two more weeks with a sore hamstring, which could continue to hurt the Bears next Monday night against the red-hot Lions connection of Matt Stafford and Calvin Johnson, who teamed up on four fourth-quarter passes, including a touchdown, in Detroit's comeback victory in Dallas on Sunday.

"That's no excuse," said Wright said of Harris' absence. "It's the NFL. We have a lot of guys who can play."

They just have to show it.

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.