As much as we are all excited about Jay Cutler and the offense's mantra changing from "Get off the bus running" to "Get off the bus up 10-0," it's pretty much a consensus that it is the defense that is the key to the Bears success this year.
When attempting to explain what was wrong with the defense, most people respond with answers such as "Urlacher is getting old," or "They got their contracts, now theyre not trying" or "the Cover 2 is obsolete." In reality, none of this can be further from the truth.
Although the past few years the defense has definitley played poorly and made Bears fans everywhere long for the days in 2005 and 2006 when the defense was ruining people. However, there were some bright spots of last years defense performance. Despite getting continually roasted by mediocre quarterbacks, the Bears were near the top in the league in run defense and in turnovers. Were pretty high up there in forcing three and outs too.
The low points of last years defense were their atrocious pass defensive ranking, and their pitiful sack totals. Painful as these rankings are, there is an explanation.
Bears fans witnessed them all last year. Those annoying little slants over the middle that allowed the Dan Orlovsky's, Gus Frerottes, and Brian Griese's of the world to pass all over us like we were wearing Saints uniforms and kill us ten yards at a time. These plays were the result of two changes that have occurred in the Bears defense since Babich took over.
1.) The Bears blitzed last year more than almost any other team in the league. And given their low sack totals they apparently sucked at it, though that isnt surprising since thats not the type of players they have. The blitzers didn't get there, and the opposing QB's found the open man.
2.) They unvieled a new type of formation where the linebackers crowd the line of scrimmage and then drop back in to coverage or blitz (you all know what I'm talking about, you've seen it millions of times). Disguising what the linebackers are doing is all fine and good, but the problem is that the corners would be playing 5 or sometimes 10 yards deep, which though theoretically reduces the threat of a deep ball gives the opposing teams reciever a huge cushion, and leaves you vulnerable to the five yard slants that bled us to death last year.
This formation, when used as frequently as the Bears used it, spells doom for the statistics of a pass rusher. Teams didn't go deep on the Bears all that much last year because they didn't have to. They just three step dropped us to death. When opposing teams are doing that, there isnt a defensive lineman in the game who can get to the quarterback that fast.
I'm not really certain why the Bears used this formation so much. Maybe given all the injuries to their secondary, they didn't trust their young guys to play man coverage and were worried about giving up the big play. Whatever the reason, it is clear that the defensive woes last year were the result of play calling, more than they were that the Bears had bad players.
Luckily, there are several solutions to this problem, some of which have already been implemented, others which should be:
1.) Cleansing the coaching staff. The Bears defensive coaching staff was filled with young inexperienced coaches. Not sure how much of a difference it would have made, but its hard to imagine a guy like Brian Urlacher listening to a rookie coach who has been in the league one year tell him how to play better.
By bringing in guys like Rod Marinelli who have been in the league a long time, we can be sure that the Bears players will not only improve their technique, but they will always know what to do in any situation, which they did not always last year, (ie letting Atlanta's reciever get out of bounds at the last second instead of just giving him the middle of the field)
2.) Lovie takes over play calling. I am quite excited about this. Responsibility for last year's defensive performance is ultimatley on Lovie because he was in charge, but its not like he was calling plays or working hands on with the players. Lovie has had a ton more experience and success than Bob Babich (or Ron Rivera for that matter), and I trust his play calling abilities way more than I do Babich's.
3.) Get back to the Cover 2. The Cover 2 as a system is not obsolete. A lot of people point to the superbowl and how Tony Dungy was able to discover a way around it and Peyton Manning was able to cut it to pieces. The truth is it was mostly going according to plan for the Bears. They were keeping everything underneath and not being stupid enough to blitz Peyton Manning, and as a result, though the Colts dominated time of possession, the Bears defense kept them in the game. The problem was that the offense couldn't move the ball against the Colts defense, who by the way were using the same flippin' system.
The Cover 2 still works, if executed correctly. The trouble the Bears got into last year occured when they got away from it.
4.) VARY THE PLAY CALLING AND MAKE ADJUSTMENTS!!!! If you are a defensive coordinator and your team is playing a zone defense and you see your team is getting dinked and dunked to death, there is a very simple way to get it to stop. Call some man coverage, and have a big physical cornerback like Charles Tillman knock the opposing teams reciever's teeth out of their face. The timing of the play will be disrupted, and the short passes will stop. Granted, this would mean that if the reciever got by the corner it would mean trusting guys like Daniel Manning to be in the right spot and make the stop (gulp), but its a risk you have to run if you want to not get bled to death underneath. And who knows, maybe you will find out that your Rod Marinelli coached d line is not that bad after all and can actually sack the quarterback if they have to hold the ball for more than a second.
5.) Trade for a quarterback who can sustain drives and score. Check and check. Last year the Bears offense was near the bottom of the league in third down conversion and near the tops in three and outs, meaning the Bears defense was on the field for a very long portion of the game. While I dont think it was a matter of the defense getting gassed, it's simple arithmetic. If the opponents don't have the ball, they can't score. Look for Jay Cutler to be the Bears #1 defensive signing this year.
So dont lose faith Bears fans. Our defense will come back. We may even find out it never really left.