Bears can win with defense
But to do so, offense must to stay out of way with ball control football
Julius Peppers and Brian Urlacher celebrate a big stop against the Lions in the 4th quarter. (Chris Sweda, Chicago Tribune / November 13, 2011)
Mike Mulligan November 16, 2011
Super Bowl runs are like great comedy. It all comes down to timing.
Just ask the Chargers, who arrive Sunday in Soldier Field as an almost-dynasty, a never-was team that might have been good enough to win a Super Bowl were it not for the unfortunate circumstance of being at its best while the Patriots and Colts dominated the AFC.
Do the Bears find themselves in the same position? Are they doomed to runner-up status, not only in the north division, but in the NFC itself? Even with their season turning from stagger to swagger, the rejuvenated Bears trail the perfect Packers by three games in the division with seven to play. The race isn't technically over, but it sure feels that way. How do you pick up four games on an unbeaten team with seven remaining?
You don't. But In the modern NFL it's just as important to be the hottest team as the best one. The Packers aren't a hurdle for the Bears, but rather an inspiration. What they did last year, going on the road as a sixth seed en route to a championship, serves as incentive, motivation and encouragement for every wild-card team. Odds are the Bears are going to have to beat Green Bay at Lambeau Field if they want ultimate success this season. (He's right. We have to turn around what happened last year and beat them twice at home if we want it all)
But is there any other team in the NFC that much better than these Bears? Not if they continue to defeat the enemy within and play to their formula for success. It's a pity the Bears opened the season attempting to score points and win on offense. That decision probably cost Lovie Smith a shot at Coach of the Year. While Smith has done the best job in-season of rebooting his team, the question remains, why did he have to do it? (Apparently he still hasn't learned the true definition of insanity)
For the past three years, the Bears haven't understood their identity on offense to start a season. All they need do is rely on high-percentage passes, protect the quarterback and run the football. They are built to win on defense and special teams, and controlling their offense is part of that formula. (Which is why the hiring of Mike Martz made about as much sense as the hiring of Terry Shea did) The Bears' offense currently ranks 17th in the NFL, the highest it has been in the Jerry Angelo era other than the No. 15 ranking it enjoyed in 2006 en route to a Super Bowl appearance. Mediocre offense is all that is required if the defense is playing to its capabilities.
When Smith arrived in 2004 the Bears' defense ranked 21st in an injury-plagued season. They followed that with a No. 2 finish, then fifth in the Super Bowl year before falling off badly when Ron Rivera was sent packing, to 28th, 21st and 17th before Julius Peppers' arrival sparked a top 10 ranking (ninth) and a trip to the NFC title game. The defense has risen steadily this year from a low of 31st following Week 4 to a current 25th ranking. That is hardly spectacular, but Smith's defense isn't designed to limit yardage.The coach prefers the Aikman ratings, a seven-category analysis that measures how a team limits opponents in rushing, passing, third down efficiency, first downs, points, red zone efficiency and takeaways. (And I agree with that as long as they are stopping drives short of the end zone and getting takeaways. They may be ranked 25th in yardage allowed but they rank 6th in point differential, defensive points given up less defensive points scored. That ranking eliminates points given up by the offense or special teams and subtracts defensive points scored from those allowed)
The Bears' defense is fifth in the Aikman ratings after finishing second a year ago. It helps that it forced the Lions into six turnovers. That gives the Bears 20 takeaways, tied for second in the league with the Packers, Texans and Bills behind only the 49ers. (Probably a much fairer way to judge the Bears style of defense)
The Bears seem destined to make the playoffs and open on the road against the Giants or Cowboys before traveling to play the 49ers or Saints. They can beat all those teams. The Giants humiliated them last year, but that's when the Bears were playing a wide open offense. Ditto the Saints earlier this year. The Bears have a decided advantage over all those teams in special teams, just as they figure to dominate that area against the Chargers.
Injuries can sabotage the narrative for any team. If Peppers' knee gives out, all bets are off. Losing Chris Williams at guard isn't so much a problem because of the player, but rather the continuity of the unit. A guard should be easier to replace than a tackle. And Edwin Williams fits a profile of center/guard that already has paid dividends this year with Roberto Garza and Chris Spencer.
A four-game winning streak means the Bears are demonstrating resilience, building confidence and playing with consistency. It's a super formula. (They're finally back to playing Bears style football again, restraining pass happy Martz and getting more aggressive in pass coverage are paying off. If they can keep playing this way we may just get that chance to upset the Packers and return the favor. I can't think of any better way to make a Super Bowl entrance than that)
Special contributor Mike Mulligan co-hosts "The Mully and Hanley Show" weekdays from 5 to 9 a.m. on WSCR-AM 670.
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