Eight games into the Marc Trestman era, it's fairly safe to say that the Chicago Bears have found a consistent recipe for scoring points, regardless of who is playing quarterback.
In the six games started and finished by Jay Cutler, Chicago averaged almost 29 points per game. Backup Josh McCown, while filling in for Cutler early against Washington and starting in Green Bay, has scored 51 points over roughly six quarters of work.
The playoff hopes of the Bears do not ride on an offense that has sputtered at times in previous seasons. At 5-3 and with the NFC North wide open, Chicago's postseason aspirations now lie in the hands of a pass rush that suddenly came back to life against the Packers.
For the first seven games of this season, teams had their way with the Bears defense. Ahead of Monday night's meeting with Green Bay, Chicago had allowed at least 21 points and 340 yards of total offense in each game in 2013, and the Bears were on pace to allow more points and yards than any other defense in team history.
An inactive and mostly dormant pass rush was partly to blame.
The Bears arrived at Lambeau Field with just nine sacks, the lowest total in the NFL. Only four had come from the defensive line, which also ranked dead last. Julius Peppers and Shea McClellin, two defensive ends who were expected to shoulder much of the pass-rushing load, had combined for just 1.5 sacks—a shockingly low number, considering Peppers' history and McClellin's draft status.
|Total Sacks||DL Sacks||Avg Net Pass Yards Allowed|
|Week 9 vs GB||5||5||85|
This was a defense approaching the breaking point in Week 9.
Henry Melton, the team's best interior pass-rusher, has already been declared out for the season with a torn ACL. Lance Briggs, a defensive leader and the best linebacker on the roster, is dealing with a four- to six-week recovery timeline from a shoulder injury. Chris Conte and Major Wright—Chicago's starting safety duo—have struggled mightily.
Chicago couldn't beat the Packers in Green Bay without a drastically improved pass rush. Just in time, defensive coordinator Mel Tucker saw his pressure package rise from the dead.
The Bears tallied five sacks, or over half their season total ahead of Monday night. All five came from the defensive line, including three from the highly criticized McClellin. The former first-round pick's opening sack, which came on Green Bay's first series, changed the game and the entire outlook of the NFC North's remaining season.
Initially blocked by Packers tackle Don Barclay, McClellin stuck with the play as Aaron Rodgers escaped the pocket and scrambled to his right. Eventually, the Bears defensive end caught up with Rodgers, lassoed him to the ground and drove his body's force into the left shoulder of the Packers quarterback.
McClellin's sack wasn't dirty or even overly violent. Watch a Sunday's worth of games, and this play would have more than its share of company. But the outcome of the hit would send shockwaves through the division.
Rodgers, in obvious pain as he rose from the turf, came off the field and later jogged to the locker room. His night was over, and the fractured collarbone discovered by team doctors inside Lambeau Field will now cost Rodgers a handful of games during a critical stretch of the 2013 season.
With Rodgers in the locker room and later on the sidelines in sweats, the Bears pass rush started to really heat up.
On Seneca Wallace's third drive, the Bears attacked up the middle with Peppers and Corey Wootton and forced the veteran quarterback to escape out of bounds. The three-yard loss counted as a sack for Peppers. The Packers punted two plays later.
Chicago's next sack was arguably the most important defensive play of the game for the Bears, and it was delivered by McClellin.
Lined up wide and opposite right tackle Marshall Newhouse, McClellin was allowed initial space to gain momentum and set up his move. And the move he went to—a quick spin off Newhouse's shoulder—worked perfectly.
The following screen shots show how McClellin disengaged from Newhouse and eventually put Wallace on the ground:
The sack also came at an ideal time. Down four points and with roughly 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter, the Packers were driving for a potential go-ahead touchdown. Green Bay called on Wallace and the passing game to convert a 3rd-and-3 play from Chicago's 40-yard line.
McClelin's sack forced the Packers to punt, and Chicago didn't give the ball back to Green Bay for nine full minutes—and only after Robbie Gould pushed the Bears' lead to 27-20. The Packers were unable to mount a comeback drive with under a minute remaining, thanks in large part to two more Chicago sacks.
Wootton beat Barclay clean to the inside on the first sack, and McClellin finished the game by chasing down Wallace on third down. The Bears had officially won at Lambeau Field for the first time since 2007.
To keep winning and pushing for the postseason—especially in a division now void of Rodgers for a few games—the Bears need to continue pressuring opposing quarterbacks.
Keep in mind, the Packers still ran for 199 yards and were competitive on offense without Rodgers, Randall Cobb and Jermichael Finley. The Bears will likely continue to struggle in the back seven, especially with two rookies starting at linebacker (Khaseem Greene, Jon Bostic) and a pair of safeties that still find themselves out of place too often, both on pass and run plays.
Even after a better performance in Green Bay, Chicago ranks 29th in yards allowed and 26th in points. Nothing about this defense looks like Bears teams of old, but a sudden revival from the pass rush can change all that.
What is the most important factor for the Bears to qualify for the postseason?
Tucker, who coordinated from the sideline instead of the coaches' box Monday night, was adamant that no drastic changes were made to stimulate the pass rush.
“I think it was a combination of rush and coverage working together,” Tucker said, via Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune (login required). “That was huge. Guys have worked extremely hard with the coaches in terms of their rush and the technique and the get-off and the pad level.”
Execution, above all else, was the difference. And seemingly every time the Bears defense came off the field Monday night, it was thanks to the pass rush.
On his first drive, Wallace checked out of a run and to a quick slant to Jordy Nelson, but Peppers read the play the entire way and picked off the pass in Wallace's face. Later, McClellin came off the right edge clean and forced Wallace to throw the football away on third down. Peppers again got his hands on a third-down pass in the second half, forcing a punt, and McClellin's two late sacks all but ended the game.
For the Bears defense to survive the final eight games, the front four will need to provide a similar type of disruptive pressure.
Even at age 33, Peppers is more than capable of providing pressure week-in and week-out. McClellin, labeled a draft bust by so many around the club, now has the confidence of a career-best performance to build off. And down the line, newly acquired defensive tackle Jay Ratliff can help take some of the pressure off the two defensive ends by helping to replace Melton's impact inside.
The Bears will score points over the final eight games. The back seven will likely continue to struggle. The difference for Chicago will come via a pass rush that has suddenly sprung to life.