Commentary

Errors show Bears' D needs change

In the Marc Trestman era, defense is no longer the Bears' foundation

Updated: December 29, 2013, 11:59 PM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- Shortly after his season ended with another embarrassing loss to the Green Bay Packers, a sullen Lance Briggs pulled his luggage out of the restricted area of the Chicago Bears' locker room and quickly rolled it to the door to the outside. He didn't stop by his locker, and he avoided a reporter's entreaties to talk.

As the last available vestige of the Super Bowl Bears, No. 55 had zero words after Green Bay won the NFC North "championship game" with a 33-28 victory over the Bears.

Briggs could've talked about the indignity of the play on which the Bears' defense let a live ball -- a fumble by Aaron Rodgers -- sit idly on the field for receiver Jarrett Boykin to scoop up and score. The "Lovie Smith Bears" wouldn't let that happen, right?

But the linebacker's season, already truncated by injury, was now over, so he took off.

[+] EnlargeAaron Rodgers
Scott Strazzante/Chicago Tribune/MCT via Getty ImagesJarrett Boykin's scoop of Aaron Rodgers' fumble was a defining failure for a Bears defense that couldn't afford any mistakes.
Free safety Chris Conte? He didn't talk to reporters, either, though everyone was curious about his role in the blown play that led to the winning touchdown.

Despite a first-quarter interception that led to a touchdown, Conte was immediately looked at as the game's goat, a role he has been thrust into many times this season.

What could he say, besides he knew it was his fault?

Just a week after getting waxed 54-11 in Philadelphia by the Philadelphia Eagles, the Bears were 46 seconds from winning the division. But they lost it in awe-inspiring fashion.

You might have been surprised at exactly how the Packers won, but no one should be shocked that it happened. It was the Bears' defense.

The two themes to this 8-8 Bears season were Jay Cutler's viability as a franchise quarterback and the sad crumbling of the "Lovie Smith defense."

Cutler's future can't be answered just yet. Most expect him to get a long-term deal done this offseason.

Defensively, it's obvious the Bears must clean house and start over. The wrecking-ball philosophy might very well go to the defensive coordinator position after just one season.

While he didn't have much to work with -- and he smartly tried to segue from the previous defense to a new one -- defensive coordinator Mel Tucker had a miserable first season replacing Rod Marinelli and Smith. It's hard to have much faith in him.

It's tough to know how much is his fault and how much should be pinned on the players, a thinner and less-talented core than we're used to here.

But after one season, it's safe to wonder if the defensive coordinator spot could be Marc Trestman's undoing, like the offensive coordinator was for Smith. Trestman takes care of the offense like Smith did the defense, and one side of the ball suffers.

The good news is general manager Phil Emery has carte blanche to bring in new players and the Bears can cultivate a new, aggressive defensive scheme. The offense, if Cutler is back, is in good shape.

Cutler played well enough to win, and the offense scored touchdowns on three of its first four possessions in the second half. Matt Forte -- who proved to be a bargain, not a contract albatross -- had another explosive game.

But the Bears' defense, a sieve all season, provided one final twist of the knife to the glory days, when a missed blitz led to a too-easy touchdown to give the Packers the comeback victory.

On the winning play, it was fourth-and-8 from the Bears' 48-yard line with 46 seconds left and the Bears leading 28-27. Rodgers avoided an all-out blitz and found a streaking, wide-open Randall Cobb for a 48-yard touchdown.

How it happened is up for interpretation and further video review.

The Bears unleashed what cornerback Tim Jennings said was a "fire blitz," a common term for a zone blitz, and Conte was guarding Cobb in the left slot.

Cobb was in the left slot and Conte was waiting for him downfield. Cobb, seeing that there was no safety help deep, called for the ball before he even beat Conte around the 40, near the first down marker.

As Cobb ran by, Conte moved to switch to the outside receiver. Cornerback Zack Bowman gamely left his man on the outside to try to catch Cobb, but to no avail. Several players called it a "miscommunication."

"We had a blitz called, and not everybody on the back end was on the same page," Bowman said. "We all take full responsibility for it, and we have to get everybody on the same page. We're not blaming anybody. We need everybody on the same page."

By the look of it -- and we watched the play over and over after the game -- that's a nice way of saying it was Conte's fault.

Cobb said he saw Conte "was flat-footed, so I just threw my hands up and stayed on the move."

Like every blitz, the play is designed so that the ball doesn't get that far. While defensive end Julius Peppers nearly got Rodgers, he got chipped by fullback John Kuhn, and the Packers quarterback moved to his left and uncorked a perfect throw down the field, and Cobb scored to silence Soldier Field.

"That was the route," Rodgers said. "He had a vertical, but I didn't think that was going to happen."

That's why Rodgers gets the big bucks and no one ever calls for a 34-year-old backup to take his job. He makes that play happen.

The Packers had already converted two fourth-down plays on their final drive, and for the game, they went 9-for-18 on third down. But the Bears had picked off Rodgers twice, and it seemed like the Bears were going to escape with a win until that play.

As the ball sailed in the air, return ace -- and future free agent -- Devin Hester knew he might be witnessing the end of his Chicago career. He's a free agent and his record-setting days could be over.

"I was just hoping he'd drop it," Hester said. "To lose a game to go into the playoffs, it's tough. It wasn't like he made a great move or a great catch. He was just that open."

Just that open.

And that wasn't even the most embarrassing play of the game.

In the second quarter, with the Bears leading 7-3 and Green Bay at Chicago's 17-yard line, Peppers got home on Rodgers, nailing his arm as he prepared to throw. No whistle blew as the ball landed down the field, and no Bear made a move for the ball as Boykin picked it up and then realized the play was still live. He scored and the Packers took a 10-7 lead.

In the Lovie era, players pounced on every ball that touched the ground. Of course, that's a common practice from junior high to sandlot leagues. But in a game the Bears had to win, everyone froze.

"We all thought it was a dead ball," linebacker James Anderson said.

"I didn't hear a whistle," Trestman said. "So, you know, I was as curious as everybody else why nobody was moving toward the ball."

"One of those fluke plays that we just didn't finish," Jennings said. "That's not what we practice. If that ball [is] on the ground, it's our ball. That just simplifies how this year has been going for us, man. Just been up and down. To let something like that happen, that's not us. That's some of the things with the transition, the new style and everything we got going. Not making excuses. That's just how the year's going."

Past tense, Tim. The season is gone.

It figures. The season the Bears figure out the new-fangled forward passing game, and the defense falters.

One day, I'm sure they'll figure everything out at Halas Hall, but on a cold night by the lake, it was chaos as usual for one side of the ball.

And there's no defense for it.

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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