Tight ends torching the Bears

October, 8, 2011
10/08/11
11:57
AM ET

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Bears linebacker Lance Briggs indicated the team’s struggles against tight ends are merely a matter of opportunity: throw it to the tight ends, and they catch it.

For the team’s sake, hopefully that’s not truly the case Monday night when the Bears face Detroit Lions tight end Brandon Pettigrew, who ranks second among players at his position over the past two years in receptions (93).

When asked why tight ends continue to produce strong showings against the defense, Briggs said “because the quarterbacks are throwing it to them.”

“You throw it to the tight ends enough, and they’re going to catch some of them,” he added.

Show enough of a penchant for allowing such completions, and teams will continue to exploit the weakness. At least that’s how it appears teams have attacked the Bears over the past four weeks.

Tight ends have averaged more than six catches per game against the Bears over the past four games for an average of 82 yards and a touchdown, not to mention an average of 12.6 yards per grab. Green Bay Packers tight end Jermichael Finley and Carolina’s Greg Olsen account for all of the TDs. But the point is clear: Teams continue to enjoy success against the Bears when they throw to the tight end.

“That’s the way things are going to go,” Briggs said. “Teams are using their tight ends. [In] their third-and-long packages, instead of having four receivers out there, they’re keeping tight ends out there.”

Less than stellar play from the team’s safeties over the first four weeks seems to play a role. Starting free safety Chris Harris strained a hamstring at the end of the club’s season-opening victory over the Atlanta Falcons. Since then, the club has utilized two more combinations of starters at the position, with Major Wright, Craig Steltz and Brandon Meriweather taking first-team snaps.

[+] EnlargeGonzalez
Fernando Medina/US PresswireTony Gonzalez was the Falcons' leading receiver with five catches for 72 yards against the Bears in Week 1.

Briggs said, “I can’t blame Chris Harris for the plays I messed up,” but acknowledged unsteady play at safety has been “tough on the whole back seven.”

Briggs insisted the blame shouldn’t all be directed at the safeties, while fellow linebacker Brian Urlacher said the struggles on defense aren’t a simple matter of missed assignments.

“It’s not that simple; wish it was,” Urlacher said. “We could fix that real easily. We’re just not doing the things we normally do. Sometimes we’re not running to the football, sometimes not catching balls that are thrown to us like we usually do. It’s all fixable. We’re giving up big plays, and not making any ourselves.”

Pettigrew certainly makes plenty. The seventh-most targeted tight end in the NFL, according to ESPN Stats & Information, Pettigrew has hauled in 22 of the 27 passes thrown his direction for 240 yards. Of that yardage, Pettigrew gained 108 of it after the catch, meaning sound tackling should be a major point of emphasis for the Bears against the tight end.

The potential return of Harris should help in that regard. Harris hasn’t played since the season opener, but expressed optimism about returning to the lineup against the Lions.

Harris said “we don’t point fingers around here,” adding that “we have to get better individually, [and] as a group.”

Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli explained that in the team’s system, emphasis on handling outside receivers sometimes leaves the unit vulnerable in the middle of the field. That’s one of the major weaknesses of Cover 2 that is usually covered up by the athleticism of the club’s linebackers.

“Sometimes in Cover 2, you go out and you really bang them on the outsides with the wideouts. So there could be some void areas inside,” Marinelli said. “Then there’s times where you’ve just got to rush and cover. We’ve got to cover our guys a little tighter, and then you’re rushing a guy to help him.”



So while it’s obvious that coverage and the pass rush share a symbiotic relationship, ultimately the defense needs to execute better to prevent tight ends from gouging the club for chain-moving yardage.

Marinelli admitted the defense was “off last week” in defending Shockey and Olsen.

“But we’ve identified it; we’ve seen it,” the coach said. “The corrections have been made. Now we just have to go out and do it Monday night.”

Michael C. Wright

ESPN Chicago Bears reporter

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