This looks familiar
Chicago Bears' defense, special teams once again define team's winning identity
When the Chicago Bears are really good, which is to say a serious contender, there's a specific formula that works for this franchise. Punishing defense plus electrifying special teams and a dash of offense equals a potentially special season. The Bears are on the verge of that now, right at the edge of something promising.
Not many teams in this age of all-offense-all-the-time can amass 140 yards midway through the third quarter and hold a 28-point lead over a worthy division rival, but it's what the Bears know best. Historically, it's the signature of their best teams. Sunday's trashing of the Lions is exactly the way the Bears should aspire to play, from the 24 points off turnovers, to Devin Hester's 82-yard punt return touchdown, to the four interceptions of Matt Stafford, to repeatedly hitting the Lions in the mouth in the second half even if it meant making peace with the attendant penalties.
Don't get me wrong, the Bears' ability to go deep into the postseason will depend largely on whether Jay Cutler and MVP Matt Forte can keep playing the way they have during the winning streak, which has now reached four games. But the Bears aren't rooted in offense, never have been and apparently never will be. Their championship teams, whether we're talking about The Monsters of the 1940s or '63 or '85 (or even the '06 team that lost the Super Bowl), were all built around superior defense, home run hitters on special teams and an offense that didn't give it away.
And don't the Bears know it. They're not looking for Jay Cutler to be Tom Brady or necessarily throw for 300 yards. It's pretty, but it's not who they are and it's not what they value. The Bears were fine with Cutler completing 9 of 19 passes for 123 yards Sunday. Let the Chargers or another one of the Pretty Boy teams worry about passing numbers; the Bears will take a six-turnover performance, particularly the two pick-sixes, over pitch-and-catch anytime. Now on the back nine of the season, the Bears have become comfortable with themselves. Dennis Green's line, "They are who we thought they were" comes to mind watching them Sunday. Lovie Smith admitted it afterward when he said, "It was about the defense. We preach and we practice taking the ball away. You have three non-offensive scores you're going to be hard to beat. Defensively, it's not a good football game if we don't take away the ball."
So Lovie mentioned defense first. Second? "We rely on special teams," he said. "We're not shocked when we score with special teams; we've done it so much. I've had a great seat to watch every return [Hester] has had."
And what about the offense, Cutler was asked afterward? "We didn't have to do a whole lot," he said, summing up the offensive approach the franchise and its fans understand best over the years.
Anthony Adams, the defensive tackle, went as far as saying, "This is how we win. Everybody feeds off playing this way, playing defense like that, D. Hester returning like that. It's symbolic of how we play. That's the formula."
Appropriately, the Bears are OK if victory comes with fines and even warnings from the league office. When Detroit beat the Bears last month on "Monday Night Football," pretty decisively at that, the Lions let everybody know about it. Delivering cheap shots and running off at the mouth had become the Lions specialty, if you ask the Bears who said privately during the week they couldn't wait for the rematch. After the flesh-eating Ndamukong Suh had ripped Jay Cutler's helmet off without penalty, and after rookie Nick Fairley had slammed Cutler to the ground late (drawing a flag) the Bears had seen enough. With a cushy lead, retaliation was in order.
The defining hit of the afternoon came after the outcome had been determined. The score was 34-6 when Lance Briggs launched a shoulder into 6-foot-5, 240-pound Calvin Johnson (a Lion most Bears actually like), a textbook hit that dropped Johnson like a Joe Frazier left hook. The zebras flagged the hit, undoubtedly because in today's NFL it was simply too hard; you could hear Briggs' pads slam into Johnson over the din and the wind. It was quintessential Butkus, a great linebacker walking away energized from the scene of a hit-and-stare. The Bears, truth be told, could give a damn about the penalty. "Did I do a 360?" Brian Urlacher asked afterward about the leap he executed in the split second after the hit. The answer was, yes, he did.
Not long thereafter, on the fourth and final interception, this one by Tim Jennings, D.J. Moore got tangled during the return with Lions quarterback Matt Stafford, and after being thrown to the ground got up and ran like a snorting Bull right into Stafford, precipitating a bench-clearing brawl, which the Bears had wanted all week and the Lions had wanted ever since falling impossibly behind. Again, the Bears were thrilled to take down the Lions symbolically and literally, plus reestablish themselves as nasty boys who will walk it, as opposed to the Lions who mostly talk it.
Anyway, as Cutler said afterward, "You don't want to tell everybody to do that but yeah, at a certain point I think this team has to draw a line and if a team is going to cross it we have to retaliate and we're going to have to stand up for ourselves. We're coming together as a team and that's a good sign of it. I don't think anybody's going to really mess with that defense a lot. We've got some heavy hitters over there."
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They do, really, especially in Briggs and Urlacher, who, along with Peppers, are again having superb seasons. But there are others, the Meltons and Idonijes and Roaches and Tillmans and Contes who are starting to consistently lay the wood to people. We're seeing opponents' receivers drop more passes, surely flinching as they do. We're seeing the Bears secondary give up fewer big plays, the kind that helped the Lions win in Detroit.
So what, exactly, happened since the beginning of the season when the defense looked somewhere between ordinary and sloppy? The Bears did something the analysts don't talk about very much anymore: they plain, old-fashioned got better. They went to work every day and improved. They practiced over and over and over until they got it right. OK, defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli made some subtle changes like moving Peppers inside more frequently to avoid chipping running backs en route to the quarterback. And as Melton said, "Coach Marinelli really challenged us. You see I was inactive last week. Coach is a grinder. He stays on you. We can have a tackle-for-loss play and he'll look at guys and say, 'How come you weren't doing your job here?'"
Lovie and Marinelli really are birds of a feather. They believe, some would say to a fault, in what they are teaching. "I think you have to stay with the game plan as much as anything," Lovie said. "We believe in our system. We're not a [team] that's going to put in a new defense every week. We believe in our basic philosophy. When things aren't going well, we go back and try to play it better."
And after games like this, 37-13 and it wasn't that close, the players become even more convinced they're doing the right things, and that those things work. For a minute, through the first five games of the season, the Lions walked their gangsta walk but they've come back to earth lately, with a thud now, and they go back to the drawing board before some particularly difficult games. As if the lopsided loss wasn't bad enough. And Lovie actually took the ambitious Lions down a peg when he said of beating them, "You can only have one true rival," meaning Green Bay. Ouch. Lovie did add, "But we knew what kind of football game this was going to be."
Cutler, to laughter, said, "It wasn't clean and it wasn't quiet."
But winning those kinds of games is what the good Bears teams, historically, have done well.
Now they go into an interesting part of the schedule, four games with AFC West opponents, none as good as Detroit, none within light years of the Packers. The Chargers, napping as they often do, are first up. Nobody can figure out the Raiders or the Chiefs. Please, don't try to convince me Tim Tebow can beat the Bears with two pass completions as he did the Chiefs on Sunday. Three wins in those four games is what the Bears ought to come away with, and that's before winnable games with Seattle and Minnesota.
Yes, the offensive line is going to have to figure out what to do to replace Chris Williams, who is set to have wrist surgery and will be out indefinitely. But the Chargers' defense ain't Detroit's. Cutler and Forte won't be bottled up by great defenses from AFC West teams. And imagine what Hester might do if he plays without a bad ankle and flu-like symptoms that forced him out of Sunday's game. Hester really is a marvel. He's as good as he was in 2006, which is rare for a return man. And Cutler/Forte are an upgrade over Rex Grossman/Thomas Jones in 2006.
They know they're onto something now, at the brink of something exciting, something meaningful. They said privately all week they would crush the Lions and kept their word. Defense, special teams, ball protection. Fundamental, boring stuff to be sure, but it's the way the franchise has always rolled.
Smith, notoriously understated, said, "We're climbing the charts right now." Which, bold as it sounds for him, might very well be an understatement, too.
Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN. Wilbon joined ESPN.com after three decades with The Washington Post, where he earned a reputation as one of the nation's most respected sports journalists.