- Jon Greenberg, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- For years, it was standard practice for the Chicago Bears' defensive players to tell the unvarnished truth about their play and lie through their dental work about the repeated failings of the offense.
Call it Lovie's Law.
It was a vicious circle of lies as reporters tip-toed around reality and the defensive players stuck to their nonsensical scripts. If the Bears lost 3-0, the defensive players noted, then it was their fault for giving up three points. They should've had a pick-six, two safeties -- you name it.
It was as if the Bears defense was a stoic father making up excuses about why his kid was a bum.
The truth, of course, was that under former coach Lovie Smith and Brian Urlacher, the Bears defense had a special swagger. It owned the field and the locker room. It was the daddy.
But that's all changing now. This is an offensive team in waiting, and the waiting is almost over. Head coach Marc Trestman is an offensive guy. Jay Cutler has grown into a role as team leader. Brandon Marshall and Martellus Bennett are the best quotes. Even a rookie offensive lineman in Kyle Long is a go-to guy with a paid weekly radio appearance. A rookie offensive lineman!
Strange times indeed.
But the ascendance of the offense, in practice and in public, does not mean the defense has ceded its spotlight. Not quite.
Even with Urlacher retired, waiting patiently for that elusive phone call from Cutler, and Smith gone, the Bears defense remains wholly unique. The Bears still take the ball away better than anyone else.
It's an art, really.
"That's what they thrive on," said strongside linebacker James Anderson, who is new to the team. "That's what this defense is built around. To be part of it, to learn how to do it, how to practice it, how to perfect it, it's special."
That was the key to the defense under Smith's guidance: Finishing drives with takeaways. One man represents it best.
Urlacher's stony mien that was the face of this defense is gone, but cornerback Charles "Peanut" Tillman remains the defense's Iron Fist.
While he didn't force a fumble in the Bears' 24-21 win over Cincinnati last week, Tillman picked off two passes in the Bengals' first four possessions; the first resulted in a Bears touchdown. He can smell takeaways. It's a gift.
"You look around, before you go six, seven plays, that guy's got the ball again," Anderson said.
Tillman's most ardent student, fellow cornerback Tim Jennings, forced a key fumble in the fourth quarter that led to a go-ahead touchdown. Last season, the Bears scored nine defensive touchdowns, which is insane. Don't expect a repeat of that. But the team's 44 takeaways (24 interceptions, 20 fumble recoveries) is certainly in play. That's just what this team is taught.
Already at three, the Bears will go hunting for more this week against Minnesota, especially against quarterback Christian Ponder.
The worry right now, and there has to be a worry, is that the defense gave up too many yards, too many third down conversions against Cincinnati. The worry is that the takeaways were just a band-aid for a front four that couldn't cause pressure and a lot of bad tackling.
Against the Bengals, Chicago gave up two touchdown drives of more than 90 yards and two other drives around 50 yards. Cincinnati converted 7 of 11 third downs.
Tillman was victimized by the lack of a pass rush. Green torched him and the secondary for nine catches, 162 yards and two touchdowns.
And the Bears didn't quite put on a tackling clinic in their first full day of hitting this season, especially in the open field.
"Sunday we made some pretty big plays, but we missed a lot of tackles, myself included," Tillman said.
The demise of the Bears hasn't quite been reported, but it's been predicted as the key components -- Tillman, linebacker Lance Briggs, defensive end Julius Peppers -- are all on the wrong side of 30. All three could conceivably be gone next year.
No one can say when the end will come for this group, but know this: No one has higher expectations than the veterans in that locker room. This is a group that cares very deeply about its craft.
"We're all professionals, we all hate to lose," Tillman said. "We have high standards for ourselves. I think that's what made our defense successful for so long, is the standard. We set the bar pretty high for ourselves."
With that in mind, the front four's performance -- one sack, two tackles for a loss -- has been a focus this week, along with a return to fundamentals.
Like many teams around the league, the Bears didn't tackle much, if at all, in training camp, and the starters got limited reps in the preseason. While the Bengals only collected 61 yards rushing, the Bears weren't pleased with the basics.
"Lance said [the team had tackling issues] immediately after the game and [defensive coordinator] Mel [Tucker] said that," Trestman said. "We all know that. It's part of the preseason, too, where we don't tackle during the preseason or training camp. Even if we had a chance we wouldn't because we want to get our guys to the season safe. So we know there's a cost-benefit to not doing more of it. Thankfully, we were able to get through the first game and we'll be better this week."
This week the Bears aren't focused on one-on-one tacking. The key phrase that filtered through the Bears to the media at Halas Hall on Wednesday was "population tackle." Tucker, Tillman and Corey Wootton all used it to describe how they planned to defend against Vikings running back Adrian Peterson this Sunday at Soldier Field.
"Our defense will have its hands full because he's a guy who makes you play team football," Tillman said. "You can't have one guy tackle him, you have to population tackle."
"Everyone is at the point of attack every time he gets the ball -- the front side, the back side, the D-line, the linebackers, the secondary." Tucker said. "Every time he gets the ball he can go the distance."
"Man, you've got to get guys to the ball," Anderson said. "You've got to get helmets to the ball. You can't try to take that guy one-on-one. If he makes the first guy miss, he'll break tackles. Leverage and tackling. You've got to make sure tackles."
Trestman said the coaches talked about lowering pad levels against the Bengals at halftime. That's what Anderson means by leverage. That's the key this week, too.
"You've got to lean back into your fundamentals and technique," Anderson said. "You get tired, you start getting high [pad level]. The more we get used to playing games, to lowering our pads a little bit, we'll be fine."
Anderson is new around these parts, but he's a quick study. The Bears defense isn't dead yet.
After a slow start against the Bengals, the Bears defense is focused on a return to fundamentals as it prepares for the Vikings' Adrian Peterson.