A timely wake-up call
Lovie Smith's motivational ploys seemed to rev up the Bears' defense
CHICAGO -- NyQuil pitchman/Bears coach Lovie Smith said the dramatic benching of safeties Chris "Hitman" Harris and Brandon "Illegal Hitman" Meriweather wasn't meant as a pan-banging alarm clock to his slumbering defense.
Smith, of course, won't admit to some injury list gamesmanship with Julius Peppers going from doubtful with a sprained MCL to very, very active Sunday night.
"We're not trying to wake anybody up," said Smith, who has been known to put reporters to sleep with his Big Sandy, Texas timbre. "We're just trying to win football games and put guys out there that can make some plays."
Smith said Peppers, who hurt his knee in the first half of the loss to Lions on Monday night, supposedly didn't practice all week and Harris was in street clothes because he doesn't play special teams.
Personally, I like the legend better than the reality; Smith's Mind Games 1, Vikings 0.
I don't think you can properly credit the Bears' dominating 39-10 win over the Minnesota Vikings to the new safety tandem of Major Wright and Chris Conte, or to the veterans' shock of seeing Harris go from tweeting All-Pro to inactive volunteer coach. Certainly the general ineptitude of the Vikings' offense had a lot to do with the defensive side of the result. But however you judge this win, the stumbling Bears defense, which came into the game ranked 30th in yards per game at 419.6, certainly showed up Sunday night. The Vikings gained 286 yards. So did Smith's drastic moves wake this team up? Yeah, maybe it did. The proof is in the pudding. No wait, the pudding is Donovan McNabb's arm. The proof is in the results.
"Coming off a loss you're already like I've got to do better," defensive lineman Amobi Okoye said. "Then when the coaches do something like that, it's like, 'I have to do better.' It's on you to still have poise and know 'I can't play with a tight mindset, I got to play loose.'"
Whenever the Bears' defense hits a lull, the natural criticism is that the Cover 2 base is outdated, and the team's veterans are too old. Okoye, a first-year Bear, said the opposite is true. The Bears are at their best when they play within the proven system, not outside of it.
"It's about the system," he said. "When everybody is calm and collected and not eager to make a play, the system works great. When you're eager to make a play, that's when you have a tendency to jump out of your gap, a tendency to do things not in the system. That goes for everybody, every position."
Okoye is right. That was the criticism of the Bears' recent tendency to give up big plays. Defenders who should know better were abandoning their responsibilities trying to make a big play. The Bears held Adrian Peterson to 39 yards and sacked McNabb five times, including a safety. Both of his backups, Joe Webb and Christian Ponder, played. Neither very well.
McNabb went 19-of-24 for 177 yards, but couldn't get much downfield. Conte and Wright played well. Smith said Harris' benching was, as they say, a numbers' game. It was the "main reason Chris didn't dress."
"It's pretty simple," Smith said. "For us we have a starting crew. If you're not in the starting lineup you have to be able to play special teams; we base the rest of those positions on special teams. It's how we've always done it, we'll continue to do it that way."
Peppers only had two sacks going into the game, and all of nine tackles. He was the epitome of what Okoye is talking about with the system. Peppers didn't practice all week and was downgraded to doubtful Friday. Players who are doubtful on a Friday almost never play. Peppers got two sacks.
One of those came when he shoved McNabb to the ground on a rollout. It looked like Peppers was a schoolyard bully and McNabb an asthmatic dweeb who tried to run away with his own lunch money. For the 15 McNabb fans left, it was a sad, sad sight.
"I think his momentum made it look like I pushed him harder than I really did," Peppers said.
Conspiracy theorists thought Smith was trying to pull one over on the Vikings with the Peppers move. Last year, the Vikings listed Brett Favre as out and then started him against the Bears. It turned out to be the final game in Favre's career. (Probably.)
In fact, Peppers said he didn't know he was going to play until Smith told him he was active before the game.
"He told me I was playing, so I played," Pepper said. "That's pretty much it."
Whoa. Someone took the Jay Cutler media training seminar. Peppers' teammates told a different story.
"All week I knew he was going to play," Okoye said. "He always said he was playing."
Peppers, according to the company line, was confident in spite of the missed practice reps. As Okoye said, "he knows his body better than anyone else."
"He doesn't have to work out, let alone practice," Okoye said.
"You can't really explain a guy like Julius Peppers," Smith said. "He's special, nobody like him in the league."
Going into their trip to London, the Bears' identity is defined by their 3-3 record. Chicago has one win against a decent and two against subpar opponents. The three losses come to the class of the NFC. With 10 games left, the defense needs to bottle this performance.
"Hopefully that's who we are," Smith said. "The team you saw tonight."
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.