Chicago Bears Need Massive Defensive Improvements to Stay Alive in Playoff Hunt

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Chicago Bears Need Massive Defensive Improvements to Stay Alive in Playoff Hunt
(Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)

In each of the last two seasons, the Chicago Bears have watched promising starts fall apart following an injury to quarterback Jay Cutler

Thumb surgery in 2011 cost him the final eight games after a 7-3 start. A year later, his concussion began another late-season tailspin.

While Cutler will again miss time for a third injury in as many years, the Bears hopes for staying alive in the playoff hunt will now fall in the lap of a defense that needs to make massive improvements at every level over the final nine games of 2013. 

With Marc Trestman guiding a capable backup in Josh McCown through Cutler's absence, the Bears can likely survive on offense without their big-play quarterback. There's a solid scheme in place along with a number of playmakers to help McCown keep the offense competitive. 

The same can't be said for a defense that will be without Lance Briggs for four to six weeks. 

Can the Chicago Bears stay in the NFC playoff hunt, given the injuries at QB and on defense?

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The shocking numbers through seven games paint the once-proud Bears as one of the NFL's worst defensive units. And if those trends continue while Cutler is missing time, Chicago could quickly find itself in a hole too deep to dig out of late in the season. 

Think of an important stat for describing defensive aptitude, and the Bears are likely at or near the bottom of the league in that category. Chicago currently ranks 29th in points per game (29.4), 27th in yards per game (391.0), 24th in first downs allowed (147), 27th in passing yards per game (273.7), 27th in completion percentage allowed (66.4), 32nd in yards per attempt (8.7), 32nd in sacks (nine), 24th in rushing yards per game (117.3), 27th in rushing touchdowns allowed (eight), 31st in 20-yard plays allowed (34) and 28th in third down percentage (44.3). 

Taken over a smaller sample size, one could dismiss the Bears' rankings as nothing more than a temporary abberation. But Chicago has now played seven games—nearly half a season—and the same problems that were plaguing this defense early on are still readily present now. 

In fact, after season-ending injuries to Henry Melton, D.J. Williams and Nate Collins, as well as nagging ailments for Charles Tillman and Briggs, the issues have only accelerated the defensive regression. 

Over the team's first three games—each ending in a win—Chicago allowed 24.7 points and 383 yards per contest. Those are far from great numbers, but they were good enough for the Bears offense to overcome.

Over the last four contests, however, those numbers have ballooned to 33 and 397, respectively, and the Bears went just 1-3 during that stretch. 

The losses will keep piling up and the season could be lost if these problems don't get fixed. And that's the real worry here, as Chicago simply doesn't have many easy answers for solving what plagues the defense. 

 

Lacking Pass Rush

/Getty Images

A defensive line that features Julius Peppers, Corey Wootton and former first-round pick Shea McClellin has been one of the NFL's worst fronts at creating pressure this season. Through eight weeks, Chicago has the fewest overall sacks (nine) and the fewest sacks from the defensive line (four).  

How does defensive coordinator Mel Tucker fix the pressure problem? G=That's a good question. 

Peppers is now 33 years old, and he's far from the every-down terror that he used to be at right defensive end. He's currently on pace for his least productive season since 2007, when he played in 14 games and registered just 2.5 sacks.

Even worse, offenses are no longer double teaming him on the edge on a high percentage of snaps. Single-blocking Peppers has then led to others along the defensive line facing more and more attention, and those players simply haven't responded. 

Wootton has been Chicago's most dependable rusher, but Tucker has also had to ask him to play inside to compensate for all of the injuries at tackle. As a result, he has just one total sack. McClellin, who Chicago thought could make the transition from 3-4 outside linebacker to 4-3 defensive end, has just a half-sack during a disappointing second season. 

Tucker's best pass-rushers have been linebackers, but Williams (team-leading two sacks) is out for the season and Briggs (two sacks) will miss the next month or more. 

The Bears' 4-3 scheme has always been dependent on the front four creating pressure. With no additions coming in this season, it's difficult to envision the defensive line suddenly turning it on after seven games of dormancy. What you see now might be all the Bears can provide over the final nine games.

 

Underwhelming Linebacker Play

Not only does Chicago need more from the defensive line in terms of a pass rush, but gap control has suddenly become a much bigger factor considering the players who are now in line to play at linebacker.

Without Williams or Briggs, the Bears will start Jon Bostic and Khaseem Greene—two 2013 draft picks—at middle and weakside linebacker, respectively. The rookies are both athletic and promising, but there's going to be some growing pains while a defense that requires so much from the linebacker position works in two first-year players. 

The Bears can only hope that the play at the second level doesn't drop off considerably, especially considering how average it was with Briggs and Williams healthy. 

While Briggs was having another strong season, Chicago's three original starters—including James Anderson—combined to miss 25 tackles over the first seven games, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required). The result has been a run defense that continually allows opposing rushing attempts to rupture into big plays. 

Over the four games before Chicago's bye, three different teams rushed for 120 or more yards, including a 159-yard effort from the Detroit Lions and 209-yard performance from the Washington Redskins. In fact, Washington had two rushes over 20 yards and six in total that went for over 10 in Week 7.

Only Briggs has proven capable of stopping the run from the linebacker position, and Bostic has certainly had his fair share of problems since taking over at middle linebacker. The rookie's struggles against the run, which I discussed back on Sept. 6, go back to the preseason, when his overaggressiveness and lack of awareness hurt him in filling the right gaps on a consistent basis.  

Greene, a fourth-round pick and former collegiate safety, has played only one defensive snap in 2013. He'll now replace Chicago's leading tackler, both in volume (64) and for loss (nine), while also playing alongside a fellow first-year player. 

Has the Bears front seven finally hit its breaking point? Taking away two respected veterans and subbing in two raw and inexperienced rookies wouldn't seem to project that an improvement at linebacker is coming for Chicago. 

 

Struggling Safeties

There are some poor safety combinations currently in the NFL, including Josh Evans and John Cyprien in Jacksonville and Brandon Meriweather and Baccari Rambo in Washington. However, Chicago's duo of Major Wright and Chris Conte belong in that conversation as well. 

According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), only the Jaguars' tandem has graded out worse in 2013 than Wright and Conte. Combined, the two have missed 15 tackles and have allowed a completion percentage of over 70 when they have been targeted. Opposing quarterbacks also have a passer rating of nearly 130.0 when targeting the safety duo this season. 

Despite the obvious struggles, Trestman confirmed this week that the two would remain his starters. 

“I would say we are going with the guys we have at the present time (as the starters), and that would be obviously Major and Chris,” Trestman said, via Michael C. Wright of ESPN.com

Certainly, the front seven's inability to rush the passer and stop the run has hurt Chicago's safety play. Teams that can't pressure quarterbacks must cover longer, and those that struggle to contain the run must commit more resources near the line of scrimmage. 

Still, the Bears run a Cover 2 look that requires strong safety play. Instead, Wright has given up a 20-yard pass play in six of his seven games this season, and Conte has allowed an opposing passer rating of over 100.0 in three of his last four games. 

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In recent years, the Bears have blown up big starts and failed to make the postseason, largely due to injuries at the quarterback position. Chicago will again be without Cutler for a stretch in 2013, but any failure to stay in the playoff hunt this season is likely to be the fault of a defense that has regressed into one of the NFL's worst. 

The Bears now have a scheme and supporting cast that is capable of staying afloat without Cutler at the helm. However, any subtle drop-off on offense will be difficult to overcome considering how poorly the defense has played in 2013.

Given Chicago's consistent struggles and never-ending injuries, it's probably not practical to think that the Bears defense will be able to stage a comeback tour over the final nine games. But if noticeable improvements can't be found soon, the Bears might find themselves in a hole that Cutler might not be able to dig out of down the stretch. 

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