Aged to perfection
Bears' veteran defenders not ready to take back seat to improved offense
ARLINGTON, Texas -- How dare we think offense would be the calling card of this team, that the defense would be along just for the ride? How dare we think Urlacher and Briggs and Peppers and Peanut Tillman were too old and not imposing enough anymore and incapable of carrying the load? How silly was it to presume the Chicago Bears could seriously contend this season only by winning shootouts?
OK, the Dallas Cowboys aren't the Patriots or Texans when it comes to big-strike football. The Cowboys, who have been anemic offensively in each of the last three weeks, could really be in serious trouble. Tony Romo, bless his heart, has no idea how lucky he is after a mistake-filled loss like this that Kyle Orton is his backup and not Tim Tebow. Nonetheless, a big reason the Dallas offense was so dysfunctional Monday night in a 34-18 loss is that the Bears' defense was ruthlessly effective.
Let's take inventory: five interceptions off Romo, two for touchdowns. The Bears, when the defense scores a touchdown, is 17-2 since 2005. Don't get me wrong; Jay Cutler played his best game of the season by far, completing 18 of 24 passes for 275 yards, and made the Cowboys' defense look positively amateurish with those uncontested touchdown throws to Devin Hester and Brandon Marshall. And having Matt Forte in the lineup, even if he carries it only 13 times for 52 yards, sets up everything the Bears do when they have the ball ... but the defense, still, is what makes this team go.
The defense, if you take away garbage time in the wins over Indy and Dallas, has been pushed around for essentially one drive per game in the three victories and on two drives up in the loss at Green Bay. "Hey, we've got guys who can still play on this side of the ball, too," Julius Peppers said, laughing through mock annoyance.
When asked how he felt coming into the season, hearing his unit is "too old," Peppers gave an answer that might surprise some. "In reality," he said, "it's kind of the truth. But there's something to be said for both experience and the wisdom that comes with age. We're going to need the offense to be what it has the potential to be as this season progresses ... but I thought as long as we had No. 54 (Urlacher), No. 55 (Briggs), myself, Peanut ... I thought we'd have one of the top defenses in the league."
Peppers put special emphasis on "No. 54." Notice how nobody is talking anymore about Urlacher being out of position or a step slow or unable to run with tight ends and backs. "There's a huge difference without him in our defense," Peppers said. "I wanted him out there. No, I need him out there. There's a sense of calm when he's in the huddle. He makes the right call almost 100 percent of the time. He has control of the defense. I don't know how he's feeling; you'll have to get that out of him. But are we talking productivity? It seems the same to me. I don't mean statistically. I'm talking about his impact on what we do as a group."
Briggs admitted he was "a little bit sour" about his defense being described as too old. "We've got a lot of pride and we felt coming into the season that we could still do the things this defense wants to do ... shut down the run, pressure the passer. And even if we'd lost a step ... OK, we can make up for that with knowledge. I think we can get into position faster even if we're not physically as fast. I think what we've got is a lot of older guys (Urlacher is 34, Peppers is 32, Tillman and Briggs are each 31) playing really well."
The consensus around the locker room after the game was that the Bears were, well, surprised Briggs could run that fast on his 74-yard interception return (a play the NFL could change to a fumble recovery and return after a sack by Henry Melton). What the older defenders are also able to do when the young bucks like Corey Wootton, Shea McClellin, Melton, Stephen Paea, Major Wright and D.J. Moore are playing as well as they are, "is pick our spots," Peppers said. "I can take myself out for a play and rest ... "
Peppers paused and said, "I need to stop talking about this. We're playing well, but I don't want anybody talking about us as a top defense ... I'd love to fly under the radar for as long as we can."
But you don't go unnoticed when you take two the other way on Romo. It's the same show for eight years running, a show that isn't playing well with the locals. Where, but from Cowboys ticket holders, could more than 20,000 Bears fans get tickets and make such a ruckus? No, there's not going to be a quarterback controversy in Dallas, even if Romo throws five picks and even if Orton completes 9 of 10, including a touchdown pass during mop-up time.
But the absence of controversy doesn't mean all's well. Jerry Jones, who wisely tends to go cheerleader in the moments immediately after losses, told reporters after the game, "I'm very disappointed to get beat at home in front of our fans. We thought a lot was at stake here. We got a long way to go ... I'm glad we have the time off that we have. That'll give us the chance to reassess and look in the mirror ... "
The Bears, meanwhile, vowed to put the good feeling away in order to be in a proper frame of mind to play in Jacksonville on Sunday. As well as the defense played it's probably of greater immediate significance that the offensive line played as well as it did against the Cowboys.
For the next few days anyway, the offensive linemen can take their kids to school or pick up the dry cleaning or simply turn on the radio and not hear their names being cursed. In fact, a little praise is in order. By the time DeMarcus Ware did get to Cutler, in the third quarter, it wasn't a case of Ware blowing through J'Marcus Webb. The sack that produced Cutler's turnover was the quarterback's own fault, pretty much. The Bears offensive line kept Cutler remarkably clean, to that point that he was sacked only once through three quarters, that he had time to find Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, that he could step up in the pocket and fire off his front foot.
In total, the offensive line allowed two sacks, the second of which was totally insignificant, the equivalent of Cutler deciding to not risk a mistake and taking a knee. Roberto Garza admitted, "Obviously, on a big stage like this against a good defense there was a little more pressure on us."
But after what had to be an embarrassing loss to the Packers in a Thursday night, prime-time game in Week 2, the line delivered, as did play caller Mike Tice, who came out ordering screens and slants and quick passes that allowed Cutler to get rid of the ball quickly and stay off his backside. In all it was as fine a game as the Bears have played since the five-game winning streak that ended last November. And it was a reminder that while defense has been abandoned by some NFL franchises, while the league has tried to legislate it out of the game, while the backs are not allowed to jostle receivers like Dez Bryant and not allowed to tee off on quarterbacks like Tony Romo, the old geezers don't seem to care that defense is out of style. They keep finding new ways to impact the game, like taking the ball away and scoring nearly as much as the newfangled offense. Maybe it's been in the club's DNA for so long there's simply no other way the Chicago Bears can play.