Sunday, December 1, 2013

Bears' Playoff Hopes Dwindling with Loss to Woeful Vikings

Forget the tiebreakers, the remaining teams on the schedule, the players returning from injury in the coming weeks, and the way the offense has played - this Bears team isn't making the playoffs, and doesn't deserve it either. After today's embarrassing, crippling, and reaching-rock-bottom-status loss to the Minnesota Vikings, not only is the fact that the Bears have even overachieved to this point obvious, but it's clear that the Bears just aren't a good football team.

The defense is such a farcical, joke of a unit that it's difficult to even watch it series after series. Poorly coached from the top on down, poorly executed by literally every single player on the defense, and run roughshod over by even the slightest of running backs, this defense is the worst I've ever seen the Bears have.

It isn't just injuries. Those don't help, but they weren't playing well before Lance Briggs, Charles Tillman, DJ Williams, Nate Collins, Henry Melton, and today, Major Wright, went down. I personally feel that the scheme and coaching by Mel Tucker and the rest of the guys on defense has been abhorrent, but the execution has been just as bad. Today, they got a decent pass rush on both Christian Ponder and Matt Cassel, but in the second half both the linebacking corps and secondary were gashed on the ground and in the passing game.

With the defense the Bears run, the run defense all starts with gap responsibility and tackling. The defense places a lot of responsibility on individual effort to support the overall scheme, so missed tackles and poor gap discipline gouge this team. We see it every time the running back explodes through the hole, makes one move, and gets an extra 15 before being run down from the late arriving safety or linebacker from behind. That's the vicious combination of poor adjustments and coaching, and flat out bad football.

Julius Peppers is a shell of himself, and will likely be cut in the offseason. But in all reality, he shows up in spurts with pressure on the QB even if he's a liability the rest of the game. As for the rest of his mates on the defensive line, there's nothing. Poor block shedding, overpursuit, loss of contain; all of these are reasons why the Bears have the worst run defense in the NFL. You saw it this week as Adrian Peterson went for over 200 on the Bears (and somehow, it felt like we did better than we thought we did), but most notably last week against St. Louis. If you watch that Tavon Austin touchdown again, you see Shea McClellin blow his gap assignment, lose contain off the backside, and then James Anderson and Chris Conte take bad angles and whiff on tackles. That's bad execution, to be sure, but players who I don't feel should start in the NFL. But the coaching has simply not accounted for nor adjusted to it.

Defense wasted an incredible effort from Jeffery
The problem is, the Bears tried adjusting this on the fly. Defensive coordinator Mel Tucker's grand plan was to come down from the booth and coach from the field. Clearly, that hasn't made any difference at all as the Bears continue to get gashed. The Bears still run Cover 2 frequently, so the responsibilities of the middle linebacker, pass rush, and both safeties are paramount. The pass rush has to get to the quarterback and force bad throws that can lead to turnovers. The middle linebacker has to be able to (at least in the Tampa 2), turn and run up the field to suck up the coverage through that part of the field. And the safeties have to be smart, athletic, fast, and able to tackle. The Bears right now have none of this.

The pass rush is nonexistent, the decent showing against Minnesota today notwithstanding. Jon Bostic shows up and makes good tackles, and seems to move well in space, but he's consistently exposed in coverage as he struggles to make up ground with his late reads. We underestimated what losing Brian Urlacher would mean to this defense; there may be no more important position on this defense than MLB, and he was one of the best and turning and running up the pipe. And it's not just Bostic - DJ Williams was not playing the position well before he went down with injury.

Let's not forget, though, how bad the safeties are. They are so valuable in this defense because they provide that over the top help to corners in the Cover 2. By getting to plays quickly, they can give the pass rush more time to get to the quarterback by deterring throws. Unfortunately for the Bears, Chris Conte and Major Wright are bad safeties overall and consistently prove to be liabilities in both the passing and run game. Conte shouldn't be starting in this league, period. He is slow to adjust to coverage responsibilities over the top, his support in run coverage is stunted by his inability to run to the play at a good angle without hesitating and getting blown up, and his subpar tackling ability makes him the scapegoat of plenty long runs. Wright isn't much better, but he covers up some mistakes with athleticism that Conte just doesn't have. How the Bears haven't cut Conte yet is pretty unbelievable.

Even with Alshon Jeffery's remarkable game, the offense isn't helping much. How you only score 20 points against a team that is 2-8-1 is beyond me. Looking at the statistics doesn't help, because they'll tell you that Josh McCown threw for over 300 yards and Jeffery broke his own franchise record for receiving yards in a game, especially on two ridiculous touchdowns that showcase his limitless talent. The Bears are loaded with weapons on that side of the ball, no doubt. It's been a revelation to watch the Bears develop into an offense with potentially the best WR duo in the game. Once they find ways to consistently turn that explosiveness into points (they struggle far too much as they get closer to the end zone), they'll truly be elite.

Matt Cassel, yes, Matt Cassel, torched the Bears
For me, the fact that so much of the Bears' offense and scoring game on two huge plays is telling. The Bears' offensive is simply not that efficient. They were an awful 2-11 on third downs, and they had too many drives where they stalled after marching into Viking's territory. I think part of it is that the offensive line had their worst game in a long time, with pressuring McCown into poor decision making, and especially a sequence at the end of the game where they had a 2nd & 1 and couldn't convert the first down to ice the clock. I think the offense is still the best I've seen the Bears have, and is one that (with a good defense) could make this team a championship contender. This is especially true when Jay Cutler is back under center, hopefully next week, and as the offense continues to find its stride on a down to down basis.

The defense, though. It's unfortunate that the first time the Bears have a dynamic offense, the defense is so poor. It's going to be tough for Phil Emery to fix the situation, but he has the offense on track after two off seasons so I'm anxious to see him try. You can almost guarantee Peppers is gone, and there's a good chance that Charles Tillman is too. You could see the Bears tender Melton a small one year deal to see if he has his legs back under him after knee surgery. Other free agents the Bears need to deal with on defense? Tim Jennings, Nate Collins, Kelvin Hayden, DJ Williams, Corey Wootton, and Major Wright. The potential is there for this team to completely revamp on defense.

Emery needs to start with Mel Tucker. Does he stay onboard after a tumultuous first season? The blame isn't all on him, as he was left with table scraps due to injury and poor performance regardless. At the same time, though, basic fundamentals of the Bears defense that he was familiar left are woefully underdeveloped. If he stays, will he keep the 4-3 Cover 2 defense? He has a background in 3-4 defenses, and with such a potential for turnover on defense, that will at least be in question. I think that even if Emery sticks with Tucker, he needs to keep a 4-3 simply because establishing a 3-4 doesn't happen overnight. The Bears do not have the personnel to make such a switch so easily.

Emery will almost certainly have to look at the draft to build and develop defensive line ability. With the extra cap space, the Bears need to address playmakers on defense, especially in the secondary, and try to not only add top end players but build depth. The scheme doesn't matter if you don't have players that can execute it. Emery did wonders with the offense, bringing it to levels we've never seen before in Chicago. Let's see what he can do with the defense.

All told, it's been a frustrating season for Bears fans. We've seen an (at times) explosive offense, giving us plenty to look forward to. In reality, just from the big plays the offense has made alone the Bears will likely be in each game moving forward. The problem is, though, the Bears defense simply doesn't have the answers, whether it's on the field or the coaching staff, to take care of the issues that plague it. This isn't a playoff team, they're a mediocre team that has overachieved even with the injuries and adversity they've faced all year. Surely, that is something to applaud, but with crushing losses to Washington, St. Louis, and now Minnesota, you can't help but feel that the Bears' defense cost them any chance at the playoffs. How truly ironic, for a franchise defined by tough defense, that a season that has been led by offense with a charge towards the playoffs now ends for all practical purposes because of awful defense.