- Jon Greenberg, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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CHICAGO -- All that hype for the Chicago Bears' new big receivers, and through three games, the most consistent pass-catcher on the team might be a sports writer-sized cornerback with size-nine shoes, Tim Jennings.
That's just classic Bears football.
"One of the best receivers is the word," said an amazed nickelback D.J. Moore. "He's got what, four [interceptions] in three games? I'm buying my ticket. I'm going down to watch him in the Pro Bowl."
Yes, Jennings, listed at 5-foot-8, is really lei-ing out this season. In the second half of the Bears' 23-6 win over the St. Louis Rams on Sunday, Jennings made three big plays to continue his hot start: A deflection on fourth-and-1, a tipped pass that led to Major Wright's interception return for a touchdown and a game-clinching pick, his league-leading fourth of the season.
"The Hawk," Brian Urlacher said. "Unbelievable every game."
All that focus on the arrival of No. 15 (Brandon Marshall), but the big number for the Bears is 14 -- their sack total through three games. Or how about three, the amount of touchdowns the Bears' defense has given up through three games.
When Jennings has more interceptions than the defense has touchdowns allowed, the numbers are bound to balance themselves out eventually. As defensive end Israel Idonije said, "It's early still for us, but we're enjoying this today."
In a game where replacement referee Jerry Hughes persistently used the World War II-era pronunciation of St. Louis, "St. Louie," the offense and defense went back to the traditional roles set forth in the golden days of the franchise.
Yes, like the sun continuing its stubborn routine of rising in the east and setting in the west, a similar, equally reliable event occurred at Soldier Field. The Bears' defense rose while the offense stunk.
With Matt Forte out, and Jay Cutler and Marshall's throwmance on a break, the Bears looked as feckless as ever on offense. I've seen this movie before. For instance, I saw it last week in Green Bay in a 23-10 loss. Only this time, the Bears (2-1) got a better draw in opponents and Cutler didn't kill himself with turnovers.
It's like the universe is correcting itself after that offensive explosion in Week 1. All those words wasted on the new high-flying offense in the preseason and after that 41-point outburst against the Indianapolis Colts.
Sure, sure, I'm overreacting again. The "Jay Cutler Show" offense will have its day again, but the defense is proving once again that wisdom comes from experience.
The defense was actually better than usual. St. Louis finished with 160 net yards and never got closer than the Bears' 28-yard line. The Bears want to practice red zone defense this week, since they didn't get any opportunities on Sunday.
Looking through the stats only reinforced my respect for this unit. Only three Rams drives ended in Bears territory, two ending in long field goals and the other in Jennings' pass breakup on fourth-and-1 at the Bears' 43. That play was on St. Louis' opening drive of the third quarter and Jennings thought it was a game-changer.
"Just beat the guy in front of you," he said of his mentality on the play. "I just want to go out there and compete, press and they try to run a slant and I got my hand on the ball."
Rams quarterback Sam Bradford was sacked six times and completed just 18 of 35 passes. The Rams totaled 59 yards on the ground. The Bears' front four picked up five of those sacks and tallied eight of the nine hurries.
Idonije had 2½ sacks, tackles Amobi Okoye and Stephen Paea had one, Julius Peppers was only credited with a half-sack, but he was a terror on the field. Linebacker Nick Roach had his first sack and rookie defensive end Shea McClellin continued to be an active presence, moving inside and outside, rushing the passer and dropping back into coverage.
Bradford played like Bad Jay Cutler. Well, a little more in control, but he did take a Cutler-like beating.
"You know what? You can feel it," Wright said about the pressure from the front four. "You can feel it on the field. You can feel how they pressure on the quarterback so quick."
The Rams trailed 10-3 after the half, gaining only 58 yards, and their last possession of the quarter was a doozy with Roach's sack, a 15-yard penalty on Peppers for tossing running back Steven Jackson like a rag doll ("I didn't hear the whistle so I finished the play," Peppers said) and a drive-ending sack by Peppers and Idonije.
"That's expected," Peppers said of the D-line's success. "That's nothing to be patting anybody on the back about. We should be playing like that. We're going to continue to play like that throughout the season."
While pressure helps the defensive backs break on balls, the coverage in the secondary forced Bradford to hold onto the ball too long. It's what the defense is designed to do.
"With our front four," Jennings said. "You're not going to sit back there and pat the ball and find an open man. We felt like if we can make him double-pump, our guys are going to get there."
As usual, the Bears' defense didn't succeed with a lot of exotic looks.
"I don't know if we confused him or not," Urlacher said. "But we ran a lot of Cover 2 and our upfront guys got after him. We moved around a little in the A gaps but it just a good job of those guys upfront mostly."
Preparation was key. Wright said film work showed that Bradford has a tendency to lock onto his receivers, and that led to his interception on the Rams' first drive of the fourth, when St. Louis was in striking distance, trailing 13-6.
"Tim is playing some great ball," Wright said. "Sam Bradford was looking his way the whole time. As we're watching film, he's not the type of quarterback that's going to look one way and go back the other way. He was honed in on that side. I was like, you know, let me take a shot over here. Tim's playing great ball, he tipped the ball up, me being right place, right time, I took it in."
That's classic Lovie 2 defense that has stayed in vogue all these years. Once again, we're wondering how good this team could be if the offense could get its act together. I think the offense will, but if the Bears find themselves playing in February, it's going to be because the defense carried them. Some things, thankfully, never change.
The Bears' defense carried the day in a win against the Rams.