Opportunistic defense drives Chicago's success

Posted Oct. 08, 2012 @ 10:24 a.m.
Posted By Nolan Nawrocki

Jay Cutler has had a knack for starting slow this season, as he especially did against Indianapolis in the season opener and has done in all five games this season. He opened the Jacksonville game by picking up a rolled snap on 3rd-and-1 and firing it into the hands of Jaguars CB Derek Cox to kill the Bears’ very first offensive drive.

With Rod Marinelli’s defense playing sound, fundamental, all-out football, Cutler has had a lot of leeway to escape trouble. Starting the game by forcing two three-and-outs, the Bears’ defense set the tone against the Jaguars with a very disciplined, assignment-sound gap-control defense. Brian Urlacher moves with the heaviness of a 13-year veteran and Lance Briggs has never been fleet-footed, but the two veteran Pro Bowl linebackers compensate for the burst they are lacking by moving before the snap, showing great anticipatory instincts, taking direct angles to the ball and almost always fitting exactly where the defense calls for them to be. Their ability to disguise blitzes, understand zone concepts and create big plays in coverage serves as the signature of a Bears’ defense that is driving the team's success.

The Jaguars played very competitive football in the first half, controlling the clock and slowly moving the sticks the way offenses need to against a defense that's designed to not give up the big play with a consistent deep two-shell. The Jaguars’ defense matched the Bears’ bend-but-don’t break style and held the Bears without a touchdown for the first 40 minutes of the game.

Up 6-3, the complexion of the game changed when long-limbed, opportunistic savvy veteran CB Charles Tillman snared an underthrown Blaine Gabbert pass and weaved through traffic, with great protection from his Pro Bowl bodyguard linebackers, to score his second touchdown in as many games. By reaching the endzone, Tillman accomplished the mission of the Bears’ "D" — something that it is doing better than any team in the league right now — in scoring points.

A blitzing Briggs nearly produced two more points on the following drive when he sacked Gabbert on the two-yard line, narrowly missing a safety. It took until the opening play of the fourth quarter for the Bears' big, powerfully built group of weapons to find the endzone on offense. On successive drives, Alshon Jeffery beat tight man coverage from Rashean Mathis for a score, and Brandon Marshall lured Cox to bite on a double move, freeing himself to haul in an over-the-shoulder TD pass.

That’s when the Bears’ LB duo struck again, working so well in tandem like a pair of old friends who know exactly where each other is going to be. When Urlacher jumped an underneath, dump-off route to Maurice Jones-Drew that could not have been timed any better, he jarred the ball free on impact directly into the arms of an alert, fast-approaching Briggs, who raced 36 yards for the Bears' fifth defensive score in the past three games.

As long as the Bears’ LB unit continues to beat the test of time and stay healthy, it can be a force to be reckoned with, especially with DT Henry Melton and DE Julius Peppers proving to be capable of dominating on the defensive line, continually flushing production to the rest of the defense and easing the job of a ball-hawking secondary that has preyed on jittery, unprotected quarterbacks in all four wins.

In coming years, GM Phil Emery will need to add an infusion of youth into one of the league’s oldest defenses and the Bears might want to continue preserving Urlacher at times down the stretch. Right now, with three last-place teams (Detroit, Carolina and Tennessee) owning a combined 3-11 record next up on the docket, Lovie Smith should be able to ride into the midseason mark with a single blemish against Green Bay on the record. How the Bears handle the Texans in Week 10 and a cross-country trip to San Francisco in Week 11 will go a long way in determining how far they can go, with the league’s top two contenders obliterating all that gets in their way and serving as a barometer by which the Bears can measure their capabilities.   

• For the Jets to have any chance against Houston on Monday night, they will have to outscheme two of the NFL's finest play-callers on each side of the ball and win on special teams. From a sheet talent perspective, the deck is stacked heavily in favor of the Texans, who could easily produce another embarassing shellacking of the Jets on a national stage. That prospect has NFL executives believing a regime change could be on the way in the Big Apple.

• What stands out most in watching the 49ers’ defense is just how big, physical and tough they are compared to the rest of the league. Against the Bills, Ray McDonald, Isaac Sopoaga and Justin Smith dominated the line of scrimmage. San Francisco is easily the most impressively built team getting off the bus, featuring a hulking offensive line with the same intimidating look as the rest of the defense. No team in the league is better built to physically wear out the opposition than Jim Harbaugh’s smashmouth, pound-the-rock squad.

 • When it comes to maximizing matchups, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick runs circles around much of the league, and his offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels did an excellent job of creating them against McDaniels' former Broncos squad. Though the Patriots’ offense is widely regarded as being a prolific, pass-driven attack, it is the Patriots’ running game that opponents must figure out how to defend. When the Broncos employed nickel coverage expecting the pass, the Patriots jammed the ball down the field and used a very precise, up-tempo, high-percentage, short-to-intermediate passing game to pick apart Jack Del Rio’s base defense. The Patriots’ biggest problem in their two losses was the inconsistent play of the offensive line. With OLG Logan Mankins returning to the lineup against Denver, it helped pave the way for a career-high 151 rushing yards for Stevan Ridley.

• To earn a playoff berth, Eagles head coach Andy Reid must find a way to correct Michael Vick’s terminal turnover issue, and could benefit from spending more time preparing Trent Edwards and Nick Foles this season. Vick’s three fumbles, losing two, against Pittsburgh, including one approaching the goal line, were the difference in the Steelers’ 16-14 victory.

• The explosion that Seahawks DE Bruce Irvin showed coming off the edge against Carolina is reminiscent of the unique burst once showed by the some of the game’s greats. When he pins his ears back, the rookie has an initial take-off that pops out more than the league’s most talented pass rushers, Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware. When defensive coordinator Gus Bradley stunts the Seattle front, as he did on the Panthers' final possession when Irvin hit Newton, forcing a fumble that the Seahawks recovered, Irvin is a matchup nightmare for offensive linemen.

• A pair of University of Illinois defenders from the 2011 draft, Chargers 18th overall pick Corey Liuget and Saints third-round pick Martez Wilson, played key roles in the Saints' 31-24 victory, with Wilson bending low out of a four-point stance and ripping underneath Jared Gaither to strip Philip Rivers on the final drive, and Liuget showing well all night in the trenches. Wilson, drafted as a linebacker, has the edge burst to become a more feared edge rusher for a Saints defensive line that can use the help.

• The inability to hold leads often signals a lack of adjustments and being outschemed in the second half. The Panthers took a 10-6 lead in the third quarter after Captain Munnerlyn returned an interception for a touchdown but eventually fell to the Seahawks, 16-12. One trait that is very noticeable — even with the Panthers trailing by four late in the fourth quarter — is that there is no quit in the defense. Although the Panthers have been able to muster only one win, the defense continues to play hard and it stood out for its intensity late in the fourth quarter.