- Michael C. Wright, ESPN Staff Writer
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LAKE FOREST, Ill. – Somehow, the Bears defense snuck past the topics of discussion, lost in postseason euphoria, concern about Jay Cutler and the offensive line and debates on whether Lovie Smith should play the starters Sunday against the Green Bay Packers.
Behind closed doors at Halas Hall, though, surely the staff seeks ways to return the defense to dominance.
Smith alluded to the unit’s struggles Monday, expressing confidence in its prospects for resurgence in time for the postseason run.
“We have played better defense than we played yesterday,” said Smith, a day after his defense surrendered nearly 400 yards and 34 points in a win over the New York Jets. “We’re not really complaining. I know we’re going to get it back defensively.”
Will they? It’s certainly a question worth finding an answer for as the team gears up for the playoffs.
“I wouldn’t say it’s time to sound the alarm,” said Pro Bowl linebacker Lance Briggs. “Everything we’ve done is correctable. Plus at the end of the year, offensive coordinators all have a year’s worth of tape to study and scheme off us. There’s been some good schemes, good game plans against us the last couple games. It’s really good for us to see those kinds of things. We have an idea of how teams are going to attack us, what’s been successful and what teams are going to continue to do. We’ve seen things this year alone we haven’t seen in the [seven] years we’ve been playing this defense.”
The Bears generated nine takeaways in the four games immediately after the Oct. 31 bye -- including at least one in every game -- while allowing opponents an average of 14.5 points, and a 32.7 percent conversion rate on third downs.
But over the last month, the defense’s production dipped. The takeaways fell to seven, including two outings in which the Bears didn’t force any turnovers. Points allowed rose, with the team giving up an average of 26 points over the last month, including 34 or more in two of the last three contests.
Bears opponents scored four red zone TDs in the four games after the bye, and then jumped to six over last four weeks. In addition, the Bears have given up more than 100 yards rushing in five consecutive games. In the 10 games prior to that, the Bears allowed 100 yards or more just three times.
“I just think that when there are breakdowns, usually they’re our own,” defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said. “And they attack us on all those things. That’s all part of the game. Usually, they’re all correctable, and we can adjust to them. We have our little wrinkles here and there. But basically, we’ve got to go out and really execute well, which we’re planning on doing.”
Players pointed to everything from improved game planning of opponents to the slippery Soldier Field turf in trying to figure out what’s gone awry.
Linebacker Brian Urlacher said “the footing in Soldier Field has been horrible. You watch us on film, just slipping. We’re a fast team, and when you get us on a surface like that, it kind of takes a little bit of our speed. The field has been so bad we haven’t been able to do what we normally do.”
The competition has been better, too. Three of the team’s last five opponents (Philadelphia, New England and the New York Jets) have already clinched playoff berths, while the three clubs the Bears faced in the three weeks immediately after the bye all currently sit below .500.
What’s encouraging is the Bears are taking a proactive approach toward shoring up the deficiencies, which will certainly intensify during the team’s next bye week with extra time to prepare for the divisional round of the playoffs.
Similar to the offensive resurgence the Bears experienced after the Week 8 bye, the team seems poised for one on the other side of the ball.
“I don’t know, man. We’ve been taking turns getting out of our gaps, not being where we need to be fast enough, and not recognizing plays fast enough,” said defensive tackle Anthony Adams. “When we see what we’ve been doing all year on film, and see how we did it last week [against the Jets], it just doesn’t add up. We’ve just got to get back to the basics, man. The coaches recognize it, and they’re drilling us like crazy to get back to being dominant. [The Jets] put out like, what, 34 points? We’ve still been winning, but that’s embarrassing.”
Smith pointed to a slowdown in takeaways when identifying some of his key areas of concern for the defense. The Bears are 7-0 this season when they finish games on the positive side of the turnover margin (38-7 in seven years under Smith), and 5-8 over the last three years when the turnover margin is equal.
“As far as getting it back, one of the things we haven’t been pleased with is just the amount of takeaways,” Smith said. “This time of year, that turnover ratio is big. We haven’t taken the ball away enough. Hopefully we get back to that this week.”
Briggs feels the same way, knowing that despite the win over the Jets, the Bears need more to make it back to the Super Bowl and win it.
“It wasn’t the type of football we need to play to win in the postseason,” he said. “So moving forward, this is a good test for being more [fundamentally] sound and being who we are.”