Before Chicago’s Week 7 matchup with the Washington Redskins, I wanted to write about how the Bears defense isn’t that bad. More specifically, I wanted to write that, while it’s bad compared to what Bears fans are used to, it’s actually no worse than many of the other three- and four-win NFC teams.
This was the basis of my argument:
|Team||YPG Allowed||PPG Allowed||Turnovers Forced|
|Green Bay Packers||372||22.8||6|
The Bears were subpar, sure. But they weren’t terrible. In fact, their turnover numbers kept them in the “average” discussion.
And then Week 7 happened. The Bears gave up 499 yards and 45 points to the Washington Redskins.
And now the defense no longer looks like it’s capable of treading water.
It looks like a sinking ship.
At one point on the Redskins’ game-winning drive, Lance Briggs, Charles Tillman and James Anderson were all watching from the sidelines due to injuries. Major Wright, having just been pulled, became a spectator as well. Already without three starters coming into the game, Fox commentator Daryl Johnston said it was like the Bears’ entire starting defense was sidelined.
Yeah, that seemed about right.
A bye week couldn’t come at a better time.
Unfortunately, rest isn’t going to fix all of the Bears’ defensive problems.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), the Bears have now fallen to dead last against the run. They aren’t giving up long runs, though—only five of 20 yards or more. They’re giving up something worse: consistent yardage.
Without stops against the run, the Bears aren’t forcing 3rd-and-longs as frequently as they need to. The result of this is twofold.
First, the Bears’ pass rush, already anemic, becomes seemingly nonexistent on anything less than 3rd-and-7.
Second, without a strong pass rush, opposing quarterbacks are less likely to make mistakes.
For a team so reliant on turnovers, that’s not a winning formula.
The decline of Julius Peppers is a huge cause of this problem. But the loss of Henry Melton may be bigger.
The truth is that coming into this season, Peppers was already trending downward. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), he ranked third among 4-3 defensive ends in 2010. His ranking fell to seventh in 2011 and 18th in 2012.
Melton, however, was on the upswing. Ranked 16th in 2011 and seventh in 2012 among all defensive tackles, the disruption he brought at the point of attack was invaluable to the defense. Since losing him in Week 3, that production has proven to be irreplaceable.
As Bleacher Report’s Zach Kruse aptly pointed out, replacing a quality player midseason is virtually impossible. There’s no one the Bears can simply pick up off the waiver wire.
The only real option is completing a trade. But midseason trades are rare, and with Cutler out at least four weeks, it’s unlikely management will give up a pick in next year’s draft.
Without a real presence on the defensive front, the Bears are going to continue to struggle. The safeties are going to continue to look like one of the worst tandems in the league. The tackling woes will continue.
The Bears' defensive ranking won’t hang around the middle of the pack, as I once thought it would.
But I’m not ready to call the season lost just yet. One thing that is still applicable from the chart above is the fact that the Bears are not the only team with problems. The Lions are flawed. The Packers are beatable. The NFC East is no juggernaut.
Looking at the Bears’ remaining schedule, every single game is winnable. Teams have proven again and again—if you’ve got an offense, you can win games.
Of course, with Cutler’s injury, whether the Bears still have an offense is up for debate.
To stay in the playoff picture, the Bears will need backup Josh McCown to win either one of the next three or two of the next four games, depending on the length of Cutler's absence.
Against the Redskins, McCown was able to come in and produce. With teams game-planning against him, however, success likely won’t come as easily.
The fear is that this will be a repeat of 2011, when Chicago lost six in a row following Cutler's Week 11 injury. Under backup Caleb Hanie, the Bears offense sputtered. McCown, the third-stringer then, didn't fare much better.
But the 2011 offense is nothing like the 2013 version. This time around, McCown already looks better, partly because he's got two of the best wide receivers in the league on either side of him. Plus he has a head coach and an offensive coordinator who have proven they can be innovative with their play-calling.
Still, many Bears fans aren't seeing the sunny side of things right now. And truth be told, a positive end to this regular season doesn't seem likely, but it's too soon to write the Bears off entirely. There's still too much football to be played, too many important division games to come.
So let's take a deep breath and thank the football gods that the Bears have a bye week to regroup. And while we're at it, let's pray for the Lions and Packers to lose next week. That always makes things seem a little bit better.