Give the Chicago Bears credit. Nobody in the league creates turnovers like the Monsters of the Midway. Every year this defense ranks at the top of the league in takeaways. In 2013, this trend has continued, but the Bears have become way too reliant on this facet of their defense.
So far, a little more than a quarter through 2013, the Bears are a below average team against the pass. The numbers don’t lie. Chicago ranks 27th in yards per pass attempt at 8.3 and in the bottom 10 in net yards per game through the air. This is simply not the defense we have grown accustomed to seeing.
The main problem has been the lack of a pass rush, which we previously discussed with the Giants earlier in the week, oddly enough Chicago’s opponent on Thursday night. In the style of defense that Chicago wants to play, getting pressure from the front four is an absolute must. The Bears do not have the personnel to play any other way. So far they have just 7 sacks in 5 games, ranking them 30th in the NFL.
As we’ve discussed before, this Tampa-2 system that the Bears played for years under Lovie Smith works in the following way. With four men rushing the quarterback, the other seven players drop into coverage. The corners on the outside are supposed to be physical with the receivers, redirecting and slowing them down so that the QB has to hold onto the ball for just a second or two longer. These defensive backs keep an eye in the backfield and try to read the quarterback and jump routes when possible, leading to turnovers. Two safeties play deep to protect against the long pass. The middle linebacker drops deep into the middle of the field, opening up to the strong side of the formation and taking away the middle seam ball to which normal cover-2 defenses are vulnerable. The other linebackers play zone as well, again trying to read the quarterback and anticipate throws.
The front four absolutely has to wreak havoc up front and collapse the pocket on the quarterback. The hope is that the QB will rush a throw, or make a predictable play, which the 7 defenders in coverage can then recognize and anticipate. However, if the front four does not get pressure, the receivers have more time to find the openings and holes in the coverage (every zone defense has areas that are open).
So far this season, the Bears have been torched deep down the field too often. Even in games they won against the Bengals, Vikings and Steelers, opposing receivers made plays all game long. The Bears relied on 11 takeaways in those 3 games to steal victories in each matchup. In both losses, the elite passing games of Detroit and New Orleans had their way as well. The difference was the Bears inability to create quite as many turnovers – only 3 in 2 games.
I’m not sure what the Bears can do to fix this problem. At different times, they’ve played straight up man defense and blitzed in order to create pressure. This has worked sporadically, but their personnel is not cut out to play this type of defense consistently. Tim Jennings and Charles Tillman are ball hawks and good physical corners, but they are not the type of players who can chase speedy receivers around all game. They rely more on instincts and smarts, things that serve them well in zone coverage where they can read and jump routes. It doesn’t help that both have been banged up with injuries at times this season.
At linebacker, the Bears are also solid with Lance Briggs, James Anderson and D.J. Williams, but again, with the talent level at wide receiver and tight end in this league, they can only cover so well. This leaves the Bears dependent on the combination of Shea McClellin, Stephen Paea, Corey Wootton, and especially Julius Peppers to get to the quarterback. So far in 2013, they have failed. Losing Henry Melton and Nate Collins hurt, but there is no reason this collection of talent can’t get the job done.
On Thursday night, the Bears will have a chance to re-establish the pass rush against a Giants offensive line that has been one of the worst in football. Now would be as good a time as ever for their defense to improve and get on track. If not, this is just one of a handful of decent teams around the league and not the contender many think they are.