A 3-1 start and league-leading turnover and defensive touchdown totals have clouded just how poorly the Chicago Bears have otherwise been on defense in 2013.
Any chance of improvement might have to wait another week.
Heading to Chicago this Sunday are the New Orleans Saints, who are 4-0 on the young season and absolutely rolling on offense. Led by quarterback Drew Brees, the Saints have averaged 27 points (seventh in the NFL) and nearly 420 yards (fourth) per game in 2013.
While Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos have blown the doors off NFL defenses this season, Brees' surgical dissection of the Miami Dolphins to cap off Week 4 was equally impressive. He threw just nine incompletions over 39 attempts and finished with 413 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions, as the Saints rather effortlessly tallied 38 points.
The 2013 Bears appear ill-equipped to handle an offense that is running so smoothly, despite some of the familiar bright spots.
Winning remains the NFL's most effective deodorant, and there's real value in both forcing turnovers and scoring on defense. The Bears are tied for the division lead through four games, and no other defense in the league has more takeaways (14) or defensive touchdowns (three, tied with two other teams). Those numbers still serve as subtle reminders of Lovie Smith, who possessed defenses that were always among the NFL's best in takeaways and scoring off those takeaways.
But in 2013, with an offensive-minded Marc Trestman taking over for Smith and personnel that is aging rapidly, the Bears have been giving up yards and points at a pace not typically seen in Chicago.
The Bears have allowed 340 or more yards in each of the first four games. And large opponent totals have come from those yards, as Chicago hasn't kept a team under 20 points yet this season. Overall, Mel Tucker's defense is 20th in yards allowed (384.0) and a sobering 26th in points per game (28.5).
The cracks of frustration are starting to show.
Lance Briggs, a veteran linebacker who remains one of the defensive stalwarts in Chicago, called the 40 points allowed by the Bears in Detroit last week "disgusting," according to Dan Wiederer of The Chicago Tribune.
Lions running back Reggie Bush darted his way through the heart of the Bears proud defense, time and time again. Missed tackles and missed assignments helped turn Bush's day into his best of the 2013 season, as he rushed for 139 yards and tacked on another 34 receiving.
Pro Football Focus (subscription required) put the Bears down for 11 missed tackles on the afternoon, including four from safety Major Wright and two each from Lance Briggs, Chris Conte and Charles Tillman. Per Rich Campbell of the Tribune, those missed tackles led to 159 extra yards for the Lions.
Big plays also came in bunches. In the first half alone, Detroit put together 11 different plays of 10 or more yards.
Tucker, Chicago's first-year defensive coordinator, explained to Campbell why those big plays might have happened:
Typically, when you see something like that, it is a mis-fit or a missed tackle, or something like that, because pretty much everything we do is sound and solid, and every run is accounted for, every gap is accounted for. Typically, those are things you can fix. Because there’s no mystery to it, you know? This is where we need to be. This is how we execute it. And then you learn from it and move on.
By the time the dust settled, the Lions had scored 40 points on a Chicago defense for the first time in 59 games—snapping the longest active streak in the NFL.
Bouncing back against the high-flying Saints will be a difficult task.
A craftsman of the highest degree, the 34-year-old Brees is completing nearly 67 percent of his passes and has the fourth highest yards per attempt (8.64) in the NFL. Only Manning is averaging more passing yards per game than Brees' 352, and his passer rating of 103.8 is fourth best among starting quarterbacks.
Brees will enter Sunday's game on a streak of nine consecutive games over 300 yards passing. Also, seven of his 10 touchdown passes this season have come in the last two games, which demonstrates just how hot the Saints have been lately.
Scolding might be the best way to describe Monday night's performance, as New Orleans relentlessly attacked a Dolphins defense that came into the contest in the upper half of the NFL in most defensive categories.
Running back Darren Sproles, who could play a Bush-like role on Sunday, ran four times for 28 yards but also caught seven passes for a game-high 114 yards receiving against the Dolphins. The Saints lined him up all over the formation and found mismatches, while Miami focused its attention on All-World tight end Jimmy Graham.
Once the Dolphins finally made the adjustment on Sproles, Graham and receiver Marques Colston made their presence felt. Miami again had no answer, as the two latter players finished with 11 catches for 196 yards and two scores over the final 38 minutes.
Even youngsters Kenny Stills and Nick Toon got into the action, catching five combined passes (three of which went for first downs) for 56 yards.
The performance was nothing less than an ensemble of talented parts coming together to create one point-scoring machine.
One glimmer of hope for Chicago might be the Saints' inability to run the football so far this season. New Orleans is 25th in rushing yards per game (81.3) and 27th in rushing yards per attempt (3.4). Also, former Saints offensive line coach Aaron Kromer is now with the Bears.
Still, the Saints are leading the NFL in time of possession, so the lack of a running game hasn't been a huge detriment to the results on offense.
With five starters over 29 years old and a pass rush that has just six sacks in four games, the Bears defense might not have enough juice left to cool off an offense as red-hot as the one coming to Soldier Field Sunday. Injuries to Henry Melton (ACL, out for the season) and Charles Tillman (groin, knee) will only complicate that task.
The Bears have long been known for the way they play defense, and remnants of that past still remain. But this is a defense that is so clearly struggling to find its way, and Sunday's matchup with New Orleans will present arguably its most difficult task.
When two units trending in opposite directions meet, the outcome is usually a predictable one.