A week after harassing Nick Foles and the Philadelphia Eagles offense in the preseason opener, the rebuilt Chicago Bears defense showed Thursday night against the Jacksonville Jaguars that there is still plenty of work to be done for the overhauled unit.
Without defensive end Willie Young (knee) and rookie cornerback Kyle Fuller (ankle), the Bears struggled to create pressure up front and looked lost at times in coverage. The result was a productive first half for the Jaguars offense, and, in particular, the Jacksonville quarterbacks.
By halftime, Chad Henne and Blake Bortles had combined to complete 19 of 27 passes for 244 yards and one score, and the Jaguars led, 16-7.
The Bears eventually went on to win, 20-19, thanks to two late rushing scores. But the story from Chicago—besides another strong showing from quarterback Jay Cutler, who continued his hot preseason—was the regression of the starting defense.
There was much to like about the way the Bears played Philadelphia in the preseason opener. Pressure from the front four put the Eagles behind the sticks and forced turnovers, two trademarks of good defense. But the second showing from Chicago Thursday night has to be considered a disappointment.
For an outfit featuring plenty of new faces, the preseason represents an opportunity to work out the kinks and jell as a unit. And while defensive coordinator Mel Tucker hasn't shown his full hand yet, and all the key pieces have yet to play together for much more than a series, issues clearly remain for the 30th-ranked defense in points and yards allowed last season.
“I think we’re a humbled group," linebacker Lance Briggs said, via Hub Arkush of Chicago Football. "We’re working real hard. We’ll keep taking steps in the right direction. You’re never going to know [in the preseason]. It’s good to get tested against an opponent but you’re never really going to know until Week 1.”
Henne played 3 series, Bortles 2 (first half only)
Henne and his career 75.3 passer rating led the Jaguars on three straight scoring drives, all lasting five plays or more.
He marched Jacksonville 41 yards on nine plays to open the game, converting on one early third down before the drive halted at Chicago's 31-yard line. Linebacker Jon Bostic blew up Toby Gerhart's rush on 3rd-and-1, but Josh Scobee knocked through a 49-yard field goal for a 3-0 lead.
After Cutler and the Bears offense went three-and-out, Henne embarked on a 12-play, 75-yard drive that took almost five minutes off the first-quarter clock.
Gerhart rumbled 18 yards on a burst up the middle, which conjured up hellish memories of a Bears run defense that finished 2013 ranked dead last in the NFL. Four plays later, Henne converted a 3rd-and-12 situation with a 20-yard completion to Mike Brown. Tight end Marcedes Lewis caught two passes on the drive for 26 yards and also drew a defensive holding penalty on new safety Ryan Mundy.
To the Bears' credit, Jacksonville had a 1st-and-goal opportunity from the Chicago 7-yard line but was forced to settle for another field goal.
The Bears finally got to Henne on the next series, sacking him for a seven-yard loss on the drive's first play. But an illegal contact penalty from Kelvin Hayden on 3rd-and-long gave the Jaguars a new set of downs, and the short field—which was provided via Eric Weems' fumble on the ensuing kickoff—was converted into seven points through Henne's six-yard touchdown pass to rookie Marqise Lee.
By the end of the first quarter, the game's numbers were ugly. The Bears had run just five offensive plays and gained eight yards, while the Jaguars were on the field for 26 plays, which produced 139 yards and 13 points.
The Jags just spent the first quarter making the new Bears defense look and feel a lot like the old Bears defense.— David Haugh (@DavidHaugh) August 15, 2014
Chicago played mostly its second-team defense in the second quarter. After surviving back-to-back penalties to force a punt on the quarter's first drive, the Bears defense allowed Bortles to have his way.
The rookie quarterback went 50 yards over nine plays—including completions of 24 and 16 yards—to set up another Scobee field goal. He then nearly led the Jaguars to points after taking off the final drive of the half with 48 seconds remaining. Bortles found Allen Hurns for 45 yards, but he ended up short of the end zone as time expired.
Overall, the majority of players whom the Bears will play on defense this season allowed Henne to complete 12 of 17 passes for 140 yards and a touchdown and Bortles to complete seven of 10 for 114. The Jaguars scored on four of their six first-half possessions.
On Tuesday, we discussed how important the defensive line play will be to Chicago's rehauled defense. General manager Phil Emery spent many millions on Lamarr Houston, Jared Allen and Young in free agency, while also retaining Jeremiah Ratliff and drafting Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton. The Bears can mask their obvious deficiencies at linebacker and safety when the defensive line is disruptive against the run and pass.
Grade the Bears' defensive performance in the first half vs. Jacksonville.
But when the Bears struggle up front, as was the case for most of Thursday night's first half, offenses will likely have opportunities to move the football, much like the Jaguars accomplished against Chicago's starters.
Even more troubling, the Bears are certain to face quarterbacks more talented than Henne this season and more experienced than Bortles. And the Jaguars offense was operating at close to half-power, as receivers Cecil Shorts and Allen Robinson were sidelined due to injury.
Chalk up Thursday night as a learning experience.
There's really only so much a team can take out of two preseason games. The Bears' starting defense hasn't even played a full half together yet, so bumps and bruises as new faces mesh with old stalwarts are to be expected.
Still, the ease in which Jacksonville moved the football—especially through the air—is indicative of the work ahead of the Bears and Emery's rebuilt defense as the preseason rolls on and the regular season nears.
Zach Kruse covers the NFC North for Bleacher Report.