The run defense of the Chicago Bears will have one more opportunity to salvage a season and ensure that 2013 isn't painted all over the Bears record books. And not in a good way.
The Green Bay Packers will arrive in Chicago for the season finale Sunday, needing a win to clinch the NFC North title and just 87 rushing yards to break the Bears' single-season record for rushing yards allowed. Chicago has already allowed 2,423 rushing yards through 15 games, the most in the NFL by almost 400. Another 87 would break the franchise record of 2,509 yards, which was set back in 1973.
Considering the Packers ran for 199 yards in the first meeting, the '73 record looks almost certain to fall Sunday. But the Bears aren't strangers to breaking cringe-worthy records on defense in 2013.
Just a week ago, the Philadelphia Eagles marched their way to 514 total yards, which set a new franchise record for total yards allowed in a season at 5,840. The Eagles also scored 54 points, the second-most in a single game (55, 1997 vs. Lions) against the Bears, but more than enough to set a new franchise record for points allowed in a season (445).
Anything the Packers gain or score Sunday will only add to the two marks.
Once a proud, respected unit, the Bears defense is now an injured, aging and talent-lacking group that simply hasn't found any answers to their problems this season.
Even defensive coordinator Mel Tucker can't get the most obvious of problems solved.
“Sometimes we’re in the right place, but we’re just not winning the one-on-ones or you missed a tackle," Tucker said, via Hub Arkush of HubArkush.com. "That’s a big part of it.”
The run defense has been at the center of Chicago's problems.
|Heading South: The Bears Run Defense Splits, 2013|
|Rushing Yards||Yards/Carry||Rushing TDs|
|First Six Games||612||3.8||5|
|Last Nine Games||1,811||6.3||16|
|Source: Pro Football Reference|
Through the first six games of 2013, the Bears were allowing just 102.0 rushing yards a game. That mark put Chicago in the top half of the NFL against the run.
Since then, everything has went south in stopping the run.
Over the last nine games, the Bears are allowing an NFL-high 201.2 rushing yards a game. Six times, an opposing offense has rushed for at least 198 yards. And teams are averaging 6.3 yards per carry with 16 total rushing touchdowns during that span, which are both most in the NFL.
No defense in NFL history can match Chicago's most recent eight-game span, which has seen the Bears allow 1,602 rushing yards and 6.5 yards per carry.
The Bears are now giving up 5.4 yards per carry, which would be the highest average allowed in a single season since 1961. Chicago's 2,423 rushing yards allowed is the 87th most since 1970, but allowing 161 yards—the defense's season average—would vault the Bears up to the 38th most.
|Highest Average Rush Allowed Since 1970|
|1. CHI, 2013||449||2,423||5.40||21|
|2. IND, 2006||519||2,768||5.33||20|
|3. KC, 1976||555||2,861||5.15||24|
|4. DET, 2008||535||2,754||5.15||31|
|5. NE, 1973||560||2,850||5.09||16|
|6. TB, 2011||498||2,497||5.01||26|
|7. KAN, 2008||509||2,543||5.00||25|
|Source: Pro Football Reference|
Part of the problem can be blamed on injuries. Henry Melton, Lance Briggs, Charles Tillman and Stephen Paea have all dealt with serious injuries this season. That's a big chunk of talent and production missing from the starting lineup on any given week.
A veteran defense has since been forced to play youngsters such as Jon Bostic and Khaseem Greene at linebacker. Numerous different lineups have been mashed together, most of which the Bears had no plans of using in 2013.
And what's left is a defense lacking the talent and know-how of an NFL defense.
“Like I said the past couple weeks, it’s not so much now knowing where to fit, it’s when you get there, are you able to shed the block?," Tucker said. "Are you able to finish on the ball, are you able to make the tackle, are you able to get there quickly enough?"
The Bears certainly weren't able to tackle or get to the spot quick enough last Sunday night.
Using Chip Kelly's high-tempo, run-based offense, the Eagles ran up 21 points in both the first and fourth quarter. By the time the dust had cleared, Philadelphia had 54 points, 514 total yards and 289 rushing yards on the stat sheet.
During a season in which the Bears defense set all kinds of records, the three numbers—points, total yards and rushing yards allowed—were all new high-water marks for 2013.
LeSean McCoy, the NFL's rushing leader, had 133 yards and two touchdowns on 15 carries. Backup Bryce Brown ran 115 and one score on just nine attempts. Overall, the Eagles had seven different runs of over 16 yards.
It was a complete breakdown.
"We just weren't in our gaps. They kind of exploited what was going on," defensive end Corey Wootton said, via Rich Campbell of the Chicago Tribune. "It's embarrassing, honestly."
Embarrassing could aptly describe the last five weeks of run defense in Chicago. Last Sunday certainly wasn't an isolated incident.
|Bears Run Defense, Last Five Weeks|
|Week 12||at STL||29||258||8.9*|
|Week 13||at MIN||40*||246||6.2|
|Week 15||at CLE||17||93||5.5|
|Week 16||at PHI||36||289*||8.0|
Facing the St. Louis Rams, who remain in the bottom half for rushing yards this season, in Week 12, the Bears allowed 258 yards during a 42-21 loss.
St. Louis averaged 8.9 yards per carry, despite its starter—rookie Zac Stacy—leaving in the first half with a concussion. No worries, Benny Cunningham—he of just 27 career carries before facing Chicago—took over and ran for 113 yards.
Even when things went so right on offense for the Bears in Week 14, the run defense couldn't hold up. The Dallas Cowboys, who allowed 45 points and didn't force a Chicago punt on defense, still ran for 198 yards on just 28 carries. Running back DeMarco Murray had 100 rushing yards in the first quarter alone, and there's no telling how many he would have finished with had the Bears not played so well on offense.
A bit of reprieve came against the Cleveland Browns a week later, when the Bears allowed just 93 rushing yards, their lowest total since Week 5. However, the Browns are ranked 27th in rushing yards and 29th in yards per carry, and the next week's events destroyed any sense of building confidence in the Bears run defense.
“After two weeks of moving forward, we certainly took a step backwards," coach Marc Trestman said following last Sunday's loss, via Kevin Fishbain of HubArkush.com.
Now, the Bears must find a way to take a step forward against an offense returning its MVP quarterback. And while the return of Aaron Rodgers may not appear to be a big deal in terms of the Bears stopping the run Sunday, Green Bay's 2013 splits tell a different story.
With Rodgers healthy for the first right games, the Packers ranked third in the NFL in rushing at 141.5 yards per game. Over the last seven, all without Rodgers, Green Bay has averaged just 112.4 rushing yards a contest.
Of course, the Packers already gashed the Bears for 199 yards in the first meeting, of which Rodgers played just one series.
Rookie running back Eddie Lacy, who is still dealing with a recurring ankle injury, ran for a career-high 151 yards in that contest. He's the front runner to win Offensive Rookie of the Year, and he is only 88 yards shy of Green Bay's first 1,200-yard rusher since Ryan Grant.
James Starks, Lacy's primary backup, had 40 yards and a touchdown against the Bears in Week 9. He's averaging 5.2 yards per carry this season and once played a vital role on Green Bay's Super Bowl team.
Tucker recognized that facing the Packers will be a major challenge for his slumping defense:
Another hemorrhaging against the run will likely send the Bears out of the postseason. Chicago is just 3-6 this season when allowing 140 or more rushing yards.
There's obviously not enough time for Tucker, Trestman and the Bears to fix all the problems currently plaguing the Bears run defense. It's a unit that needs to get healthy, get younger and find more talent, and those are fixes that just aren't coming in a week's time.
The Bears can only hope to be competitive enough against the run to outlast the Packers, while also potentially keeping another ignominious defensive record out of this season's hands.