The Chicago Bears defense is normally a unit that instills fear into the opponent. They're the "Monsters of the Midway" after all.
However, this season that hasn't been the case. Instead of urinating when they see the Bears on their schedules, opposing offenses now salivate. Unfortunately for the Bears, their problem on defense is multifaceted: They aren't very good now, and in the offseason, they may lose several starters.
First of all, the defense has been plagued by injury all season long. Defenders used to getting a free run at the quarterback have been getting a free run to the training room. It started with franchise defensive tackle Henry Melton when he tore his ACL on Sunday night against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Then his backup Nate Collins left their October 6 game against the New Orleans Saints with a torn ACL as well.
The list goes on. Starting middle linebacker D.J. Williams was lost for the season with a ruptured pectoral. Nickel corner Kelvin Hayden never even got onto the field this year, tearing his left hamstring in training camp.
Pro Bowlers Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman have both missed time due to injury; Briggs is still recovering from a slightly fractured shoulder, which will sideline him for a couple more weeks at least, and Tillman was recently placed on IR after he tore his right triceps muscle.
Injuries can help explain some of the Bears' defensive woes this season, but some of the numbers they've given up this season are astounding. The defense is allowing 129.4 yards per game on the ground, which is 30th in the NFL. Additionally, the team is giving up an average of 249.8 yards per game through the air, ranking them 22nd in the league in that category, according to CBSSports.com.
Clearly, the lack of depth in the middle of the defensive line is somewhat to blame for the lack of run defense this year. The club hopes that the addition of former Pro Bowl defensive tackle Jay Ratliff will help shore up this problem.
Inexperience at the linebacker position has also contributed to the club's inability to stop opposing halfbacks. With losing Briggs and Williams, both veterans who are solid in pass coverage, the Bears have been forced to go with rookies Jonathan Bostic and Khaseem Greene at middle and outside linebacker, respectively.
Both rookies show promise, but they lack experience especially in the passing game. On numerous occasions over the past couple weeks, the rookies would turn their backs to the quarterback as they chased down a pass into the middle of the field.
In the past, retired Bear Brian Urlacher and Briggs could easily shuffle their feet and get to a spot and force a turnover. At the least, they would knock the ball down. Without forcing turnovers, the defense has difficulty getting off the field, which only harms them exponentially as the game goes on.
What defensive player do the Bears most need to re-sign this offseason?
Worse than the injuries on the defensive side moving forward is the fact that seven defensive starters will hit the free-agent market this coming offseason, according to Rotoworld.
Those players include outside linebacker James Anderson, nickel corner back Kelvin Hayden, cornerback Tim Jennings, cornerback Charles Tillman, middle linebacker D.J. Williams, defensive tackle/end Corey Wootton and safety Major Wright.
With the team's current cap situation, re-signing most of those players is going to be a problem.
According to overthecap.com, the Bears currently have a salary cap number sitting at $117,758,803. With players hitting free agency in 2014, the money tied up in the 2014 season is $78,553,830. That means that if the team keeps the same cap number in 2014, they have about $39,204,973 to spend in the offseason.
Should the team decide to sign franchise quarterback Jay Cutler to a multi-year deal following this season, that would eat up well over a third of that money. With several players, Jennings, Wootton and Wright especially, set to get pay raises, the chances that the team is able to hold on to most of these players is slim. At cornerback, it may have to turn to the draft.
Should the Bears elect to take a cornerback early in the draft, it could be Jason Verrett of Texas Christian, Justin Gilbert of Oklahoma State or Aaron Colvin of Oklahoma.
Overall, the Bears defense is facing more problems than in recent memory, and those problems don't necessarily end this season. Should GM Phil Emery not draft well on the defensive side of the ball and spend wisely the next couple of years, it could be a long time before the term "Monsters of the Midway" works its way back into circulation.