Commentary

Shades of the old gang

Veteran holdovers from Lovie Smith era make last stand to help right Bears D

Updated: December 19, 2013, 9:32 AM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Every week, NFL beat reporters talk to the star player of the home teams opposition on a conference call. A dozen people crowd around a speakerphone to ask tough questions and receive awkward answers.

In the world of the conference call, every player is great and it's always going to be a tough game.

It's a condensed conversation that is like almost every other one in an NFL week in which only a handful of players say interesting things and most coaches treat mundane details like diplomatic cables.

[+] EnlargeLance Briggs
AP Photo/Scott BoehmA big part of Chicago's success on defense might rest on the shoulders of Lance Briggs, who should return this week after being out for two months.

But every so often, someone asks Philadelphia Eagles star running back LeSean McCoy, the leading rusher in the NFL, what the Chicago Bears defense looks like it in its current state.

OK, that someone was me.

"Lance Briggs is probably one of the best linebackers that I've faced, and I'm actually saying that in an honest way," McCoy said. "He's one of the best. Him actually being out there and been banged up and having rookie guys have to step in and have to play at a role like that, it's tough for them.

"Seeing things like that and missed tackles and guys out of line, out of place, that kind of makes a running back happy. And seeing teams gash 'em, automatically that light bulb lights up in your head like, 'Wow, we can get the running game going.'"

The guy they call Shady was just being honest.

With a fast-paced attack led by new Eagles coach Chip Kelly and all-around back McCoy, the Eagles have the best rushing attack in football. McCoy averages 5 yards a carry and has 1,343 rushing yards and seven touchdowns to go along with 45 catches for 507 yards. Almost of all of those receiving yards come after the catch, so he's making guys miss in space.

Quarterback Nick Foles will be there "for the next thousand years," Kelly said recently. Imagine how many plays they can run in the Kellyenium.

It's a tough offense to stop when you have a good defense, because it takes discipline and experience -- things the current Bears defense lacks.

"It's hard enough just figuring out who has the ball, and once the defense realizes who has it, by then the [offensive linemen] are up on them and I'm in the secondary," McCoy said. "To get the playmakers the ball and have the guys up front blocking so well, automatically that makes it tough on them and creates confidence."

Meanwhile, the injury-ravaged Bears have the worst run defense in the league. They recovered eight fumbles in the first four games and haven't recovered one since.

The originator of the Peanut Punch, Charles Tillman, is out for the season and perhaps is done as a Bear.

Yes, the Lovie Smith defense is all but dead. Next year we'll see wholesale changes. Two years from now you couldn't guarantee any one player being in a Bears uniform.

[+] EnlargeZack Bowman
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsThe two picks by Zack Bowman, left, on Sunday against the Browns were looked upon as a harbinger of good things to come for the Chicago D.

But there's time for Briggs to give that group a proper burial before we sprinkle its ashes across Soldier Field.

Briggs, the epitome of the Bears defensive success this past decade, should return this week after missing two months. He was having a very good season before he fractured his shoulder in the Washington Redskins game on Oct. 20, the same game Tillman was injured.

Even if he's rusty and a bit of out of shape, he's still Lance Briggs. When he has to sub out, the Bears should just put a 55 jersey on a scarecrow. At least it would have proper "gap discipline."

While the season has been a slog thanks to injuries and a coaching change, to their credit, the Bears cleaned up their mess last week, resurrecting a sliver of pride from the era when the defense ruled the locker room and was among the most respected in the NFL.

They allowed just 98 yards rushing to the Cleveland Browns. Take that, Chris Ogbonnaya and Edwin Baker.

"That was the goal for last week," defensive tackle Jeremiah Ratliff said. "Well, I don't want to say it was a goal. But now it's a standard. Now we know we can do it."

Given that in the team's previous seven games, the Bears allowed 1,429 rushing yards (between 145 and 258 a game), 100 is a nice, round number to shoot for.

Ratliff, who was waived by the Dallas Cowboys and signed in early November, has been a welcome addition since being activated three weeks ago. With Henry Melton and Nate Collins out for the season, the Bears were stuck mixing in veteran Corey Wootton and a dinged-up Stephen Paea with reclamation projects and Shea McClellin.

Ratliff looked stout last week in his second start. Uneven line play has logically weakened the entire defense, which has been without Briggs since the Washington game, a week after middle linebacker D.J. Williams was knocked out for the season.

The balance of power at Halas Hall has shifted considerably to the offense now, and the D knows this. Ratliff, who didn't know what it was like before at Halas, said he appreciates the integrity of his teammates.

"What I love about this group is everybody is honest," he said. "Every man on this defense is honest and accountable."

More important, the defensive unit just needs to be productive. While it couldn't get a fumble last week, Zack Bowman's two interceptions, one of which he returned for a touchdown, were viewed as a welcome sign that maybe the Bears are ready to finish on the right note.

"That's what we need to get back to," Wootton said. "I thought it was a step in a positive direction. It couldn't be better timing. Better late than never."

With two weeks left and two good offenses left (assuming Aaron Rodgers plays in Week 17), there's no better way for the Lovie Smith defense to go out than to make a stand now.

McCoy wouldn't give us a number goal for this week, but Ratliff is thinking big. Or, I guess, small.

"You hear all week about guys talking about keeping them under 100," Ratliff said. "When you're eating lunch, guys will sit down and when they'll say, 'Hey, we're keeping them under 100.' You can see everyone is thinking about it, and if you having enough guys seeing it and believing it, it's going to happen."

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.

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