With eight games left to play, the Chicago Bears are as long a shot to make the playoffs as any team in the NFC except the winless Detroit Lions.
Crippling losses to the 49ers and Steelers have moved the Bears from holding the NFC’s seventh seed to No. 15.
And while the offense has been the main problem – it was historically bad until the second half vs. Pittsburgh – it’s their once feared defense that was a bigger problem in those two losses.
The defense came out of the gate relatively strong over the first five weeks, with blowout losses to the Rams and Bucs more about the awful positions the offense kept putting it in than its own failings. The defense, for the most part, was a top 10 group giving up 20 points a game, excellent on third down, extremely stout against the run and No. 1 in the league in sacks and in the red zone.
But trouble was on the horizon. It arrived when the Packers came to town, which began the current four-game losing streak with a 24-14 win that was a three-point game with five minutes to play. The main culprit in the loss was the run defense.
In fact, during these four losses to Green Bay, Tampa Bay, San Francisco and Pittsburgh, the Bears have allowed an average of 146.5 yards a game on the ground and fallen to just 23rd in the league against the run and 14th getting off the field on third down.
I asked Bears coach Matt Nagy on Monday where he felt the problem had come from and how he hoped to fix it.
“There were some big outliers there, especially in particular that San Francisco game, where, boy, they were really running the ball well against us and had some long drives and the yards per rush attempt was high,” Nagy said. “We really focus on the outliers.”
Nagy and defensive coordinator Desai have talked about “explosives,” a handful of big runs that can change a game and throw the averages and total numbers out of whack.
A big part of it may be as simple as injuries. While never an excuse, it doesn’t mean they’re not a cause.
Consistent with the current four-game skid is Khalil Mack, clearly one of the top five or so defensive players in the game, trying to play on one foot in the first two and then missing the last two altogether.
Combine that with Akiem Hicks playing hurt and those injuries are probably a big part of that handful of plays that are changing games.
Defensive line coach Chris Rumph talked Monday about Hicks’ issues.
“It’s heartbreaking that seeing a guy battling through the season, he’s out there battling and just came up a little short with the injury,” Rumpf said. “It’s been really good for the guys to see a guy whose been around the game for a couple of years out there do it at his age.”
It may be inspirational, but it isn’t stopping the run or the explosives.
Those explosives are a problem with the pass defense as well. Still a solid 10th in the league overall, it is 24th in average gain per pass.
Second-year cornerback Jaylon Johnson has been one of the defense’s most consistent performers. He said it’s frustrating but fixable.
“Honestly, just keep fighting and stop shooting ourselves in the foot,” Johnson said. “There are some opportunities that we have that we either hurt ourselves on whether it was flags or just not capitalizing on making plays, but it’s definitely a lot that we’re leaving out on the field.”
It is debatable whether or not this club is really just a handful of plays away from where they could or should be, but as dire as things feel, eight games certainly provide plenty of opportunity.
A pair of wins in four days against the Ravens and Lions would thrust the Bears right back into the Wild Card chase.
But the Ravens will bring the NFL’s best rushing attack – 154.1 yards a game – to town with them and who is more explosive than Lamar Jackson?
If the run defense doesn’t reappear Sunday it will be time to start talking about next year.