Friday, December 7, 2012

Who are the Real Bears?

I know it's hard, but try to think back a month. Basketball season had just started, the weather was still relatively nice, and we still had to endure those awful political advertisements every time we turned on the TV. For the Bears, they had just finished off a 51-20 defensive domination of the Tennessee Titans to improve to 7-1, putting themselves in the driver's seat to another playoff appearance and positioning themselves as a favorite to contend for the Super Bowl. That defense, spearheaded by Charles Tillman, Tim Jennings, Brian Urlacher, and the rest of one of the best collective units in the NFL, was drawing comparisons to some of the better team defenses in league history and was putting to rest all of the preseason questions of age, speed, and durability.

Now, a month later, the Bears are reeling. Having dropped 3 of the last 4 games, the Bears sit at 8-4, feeling some pressure to even make the playoffs. Even more than that is the manner in which they've lost. First was the ugly loss to Houston, where the defense held their own but the offense collapsed as Jay Cutler went down with a concussion. The real trouble started the following week as a Bears team led by Jason Campbell went to San Francisco and was absolutely destroyed. The Bears rebounded with a hearty win against Minnesota only to drop a gut wrenching loss to Seattle this past weekend.

How will Urlacher's injury affect the season
So, what's going on? As Minnesota awaits again this weekend for a potential rejuvenation of the Bears' season, fans, and probably even the Bears themselves, are wondering which Bears group is going to show up. Are we going to see the defensively dominant Bears team from earlier this season, or the weak, rudderless ship we've seen the past few weeks? When you figure that the Bears are without Urlacher, potentially for the rest of the season, each direction you turn seems to just raise even more question marks.

For me, I'd start with the defense. For years, especially the recent tenure of Lovie Smith, the Bears have used their defense to guide the team. Even as the Bears struggled to develop an identify on offense, you could always count on the defense to keep the team in games. Coming into this year, the worry was that the key leaders on the defense, like Tillman, Urlacher, and Lance Briggs, were getting old and had lost a step. As the first half of the season unfolded, it seemed like this couldn't be further from the truth. Yet, here we are, 4 games later, and the defense just looks tired and old. Watching the Bears struggle at the end of the game this past week, desperately chasing Russell Wilson around as they barely laid a hand on the kid, was agonizing to watch. So, the question is, did this defense just hit a rough patch, sustain too many injuries, or is it just too old to keep up their torrid pace for an entire season?

I think it's a combination of all of these. Quite frankly, this defense doesn't have the legs to carry the team anymore. With the right offensive support, the unit can still be one of the better in the league. But at this point in time, the Bears' offense is sputtering and leaves the defense on the field the entire game. That's not to say that it is all age. We've watched the pass rush, one of the younger units on the defense with players like Julius Peppers and Henry Melton in their prime, take a giant step back from where they were early in the season. I've discussed over and over again how vital a good pass rush is to this defense, as it frees up the entire back 7 of the defense to make plays in space and, most importantly, help create turnovers. As pressure on the quarterback has gone down, so has the productivity of the defense.

It doesn't help that the Bears have faced some mobile quarterbacks lately, but that shouldn't be the problem. They just aren't getting that push off the line on a consistent basis. When you combine that with the fact that teams are exposing the soft spots in the Bears zone defense, the result are longer drives, with the defense having to stay on the field longer. If I'm Rod Marinelli, I focus a lot of my coaching in practice on adjusting the linebackers and schemes to cover those underneath and crossing routes, and work with the defensive line to try and get more of a push into the pocket. If the Bears do that, it'll go a long way to masking their other deficiencies.

It hurts to lose Urlacher, but he hasn't looked the same in recent weeks. I really think that this hamstring injury is one that he would have played through earlier in his career, but that the Bears feel they can stopgap his absence with Nick Roach enough that it would help to rest Urlacher for now and hope he can be effective in the playoffs. The Bears will miss his leadership on the field, but there should be enough leaders on the field that they can pick up his presence.

Lovie, like his team, must improve
I'll get to the offense in a minute, but I just wanted to mention how much it kills me that Lovie Smith hasn't done more to care for this defense. How many times did the TV crew mention how tired the Bears looked at the end of the 4th and into overtime this past Sunday, while Lovie sat by and didn't call one timeout. Especially in overtime, where timeouts are rare even though teams are given two, the Lovie could have called a timeout to stall the Seahawks' momentum and give his defense a rest, yet he didn't do so. I'm not sure if Lovie thinks this is 2006, and he has his Super Bowl defense, but part of keeping his defense elite is keeping them rested and refreshed. If he doesn't improve in that area, it won't matter if Urlacher comes back or if the offense finally gets into gear.

Ah, the offense. Like the Bears' season as a whole, it has been up and down all season. There have been stretches of brilliance, and times of putrid mediocrity. As every commentator has gone on about, the Cutler to Brandon Marshall combo, as fruitful as it has been, is really the only option the offense has at this point. I actually thought the offensive line played well against Seattle, but no one else stepped up in the receiving game and the running game has been stagnant for weeks. I think the injury bug is playing a big role here, as the Bears miss Alshon Jeffery more than we thought they would. It's good news that he is expected to play this week, as he gives Cutler another reliable, imposing target on the field and forces the defense to accommodate for such as well.

Getting Jeffery back will help
The problem is, who else is going to step up? The Bears simply do not have enough playmakers in the passing game. After Marshall and Jeffery, the rest is an inconsistent mix of injury-prone and underachieving players. It'll help to have Devin Hester back, if only because he'll be the third option with Earl Bennett out hurt (again), meaning he should get some open space to try and make the plays that we've come to expect from him but haven't had all year. It certainly doesn't help that the tight end position has been a complete dud this season, with negative production from Kellen Davis. At this point, its obvious as well how much the Bears have missed Johnny Knox all year. If the team had full healthy years from Knox, Hester, Bennett, and Jeffery, there would have been much more consistency there. Hopefully, with the home stretch of the season upon us, having most of those guys back will help build some positive momentum for the offense going forward. Lord knows they need it.

I think this weekend needs to be a statement game for the Bears, and in particular, their offense. It would do wonders for the collective psyches of Bears fans, players, and executives if the offense came out firing and took a lot of pressure off the defense. A big win over Minnesota would improve the Bears to 9-4, with three games left against Green Bay, Arizona, and Detroit. Win two out of those three, and the Bears are in the playoffs. It's crazy to think of how attainable the post season still is after how bad the last month has been. But I guess that goes to show you how great the Bears from the first half of the season were. If they can come even close to how good they were playing before, all of this talk of the old defense, the injuries, the inconsistent offense, and Lovie Smith's status after the season will disappear. Hopefully, after looking back a month and seeing how awful the Bears have been, we can have the same retrospective look a month from now with much better results.