- Melissa Isaacson, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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CHICAGO -- The bravado is what has defined the Chicago Bears' defense, what has seemingly always defined it, its sense of ownership and responsibility for the team's fortunes ingrained as a sort of birthright, which is both admirable as well as practical.
And so it was no surprise when first Jay Cutler went down and then Matt Forte, that Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs and the bunch would promise to take care of things, to hold the team together, to carry the load.
"That's just how we think," cornerback Charles Tillman said. "If we're winning, the defense, I still think, will say, 'It's on us.' I think that's just who we are, that's how we are. We know Coach [Lovie] Smith is a defensive head coach, and we like to take the load and we take it with pride."
So how shocking is it after four straight losses, including a rather atypical effort in Sunday's 38-14 loss to the Seattle Seahawks, that the Bears' defense could not fulfill its pledge?
Cumulatively, the four losses -- given the five victories that preceded them -- are as galling as they are destructive. But until Sunday, the defense could at least sleep a little better at night knowing that it put in a strong enough effort to win.
On Sunday, however, the Bears allowed the Seahawks 18 first downs and pass plays for 43, 33 and 21 yards twice. In the first half the defense scored on an Israel Idonije fumble recovery in the end zone caused by Julius Peppers and allowed just four pass completions and limited Seattle to seven points in 12:51. But it all unraveled with Seahawks quarterback Tarvaris Jackson completing 15-of-19 passes for 176 yards in the second half and Seattle striking for 31 points in eight more minutes of possession. And the Bears failed to force a single takeaway.
Again, much of the burden falls on an offense and replacement quarterback that has been almost unable to function without Cutler, particularly on Sunday when two of the second-half touchdowns came on interception returns.
But a listless Bears' defense did not carry the load, much less put the offense in position to win, making you wonder if they have finally been beaten down by the circumstances.
"They say mental toughness is the ability to be at your best on command," Tillman said. "I think collectively in this locker room, we deal with mental toughness pretty well."
Tillman was referring, in part, to Sam Hurd's arrest on federal drug charges, a story serious enough to make national news and one that no doubt posed a distraction to Sunday's preparations, hard as the Bears may have tried to avoid it.
But, both mentally and physically, the defense was outplayed Sunday, and even the best teams know when this is true.
"Yeah, there were a few distractions out there, but there was no reason we shouldn't come out and get it done today," said cornerback Tim Jennings, who was benched at one point in the second half after failing to tackle Golden Tate on a 33-yard reception, was beaten by Ben Obomanu on a 43-yard pass play and was flagged for pass interference, all in the third quarter.
"We came out on fire pretty much, then were flat in the second half," Jennings said. "They came out a little more aggressive because they saw we were in more man coverage, and it seemed like they came out running more [bootlegs]. They came out with a whole different game plan."
All of which enraged Urlacher.
"Yeah, I'm mad," Urlacher said. "This is not our team. This is not how we're supposed to play. This is not how we should play. Doesn't matter who is playing quarterback, the defense has to play better, that's all there is to it."
Corner and special teamer Corey Graham, called for using his teammates as leverage in trying to block a Seahawks' field goal which put Seattle in position to score their first touchdown, said the loss was largely the fault of the return teams for not making game-altering plays. And he's right in that the Bears' special teams is counted upon to score as much as the defense is to force takeaways.
"It's been devastating just to see a season go down the drain like this," Graham said. "You lose all these games, especially this when it's a must-win situation and we don't play as well as we need to. It's terrible."
The long-term ramifications are there in front of us. The defense, while still among the most capable in the league, is not getting any younger, the proverbial window potentially closing. But sometimes it's just about a defense that is tired, about guys missing tackles in an effort to strip the ball, in others missing angles or getting beat.
"We just made too many mistakes [Sunday]," said Peppers, in no mood to discuss whether the last four weeks has simply presented too much for one defense to overcome.
"That's not what I'm focused on right now," he said. "Right now I'm focused on trying to get a win. I'm trying to have that feeling of getting a win. I'm not trying to review the season and see what went wrong and what we're going to do next year or in the offseason. Right now I want to beat Green Bay next week."
It will be a tough one, no question, with the Packers likely angry after their undefeated season was squandered with a loss to Kansas City on Sunday. Urlacher said that's all the Bears' defense needs to hear.
"The next game is a rivalry game," he said. "It doesn't mean anything to them, I guess. I don't know if we're going to be able to make the playoffs now or not but you want to win every game you play, I know that much. Especially against them. So we'll try to get up this week."
Urlacher paused. "We won't try, we will be up for this week. It's a big game for us, and we'll try to go up there and win."
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.
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