Commentary

New faces, same identity

Bears' offense hoping to evolve while defense keeps winning games

Updated: September 23, 2013, 3:09 PM ET
By Michael Wilbon | ESPNChicago.com

PITTSBURGH -- At some point this season, if the Chicago Bears are to seriously contend for a championship, they're going to have to field a 21st century offense, an offense in which "down the field" replaces "check down" and the Bears outgain the opponent by 200 yards, not the other way around. That's at some point. But not now. Not yet. Chicago's been dying for a new Bears narrative since, well, Sid Luckman -- an identity not entirely dependent on defense -- which is the very reason Marc Trestman now occupies the corner office. But that story will have to be written some weeks from now, maybe months.

[+] EnlargeJulius Peppers
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarJulius Peppers said the Bears' defense knows it must force turnovers and score, and that's what it did in Pittsburgh on Sunday night.
While the Bears are still figuring out exactly what Trestman is asking of them and trying to take the concepts from a whiteboard to real, live football games, the team will have to do what it's done pretty much forever, which is to say "play defense." That's how they beat the Steelers Sunday night 40-23, even if a 60-point game doesn't suggest a lot of defense was played. You could look at the Bears allowing the Steelers 459 yards, particularly Ben Roethlisberger's 406 yards passing, and say they didn't play much defense at all, but you'd be wrong. Defense in today's NFL can't be measured accurately by yards, or sometimes even points; the rules don't allow for sustained smashing of quarterbacks and smothering of receivers, so there's just one way to impact the game week after week, game after game: takeaways.

The Bears forced the Steelers into five of them Sunday night. Two Roethlisberger interceptions -- one returned for a touchdown -- and three Pittsburgh fumbles, one of which was returned for a touchdown. The five turnovers led directly to 24 Bears points. Simply, that has to be enough to win football games, especially against an injury-depleted, talent-challenged Pittsburgh team that fought with a save-the-season spirit but is so short of what we're used to watching from the Steelers franchise.

So, while the Bears are upgrading the offense to look like something we're accustomed to seeing from the Packers or Patriots, quarterback harassing, interceptions and fumbles -- plus the points they produce -- will have to rule the day. This is still the formula. For now, anyway. As Charles Tillman pointed out afterward, "Remember, historically, we know that being plus-one in the turnover category allows you to win 70 percent of the time. Plus-two translates into winning about 80 percent of the time, and plus-three is somewhere in the 90-95 percent range."

Plus-five, then, should be lights out, even if there is some drama, as there was in the early fourth quarter in Pittsburgh.

It's a formula that doesn't leave much margin for error, which is why the Bears are trying hard to abandon it. But it was also the smart way to play against the Steelers, which Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall were refreshingly honest enough to say afterward. The Bears first down-the-field connection came in the fourth quarter on third-and-12 with the Steelers charging hard to cut a 24-3 deficit to 27-23. Cutler hit Marshall for 41 yards, which was easily the Bears' most important pass of the game to that point. Asked why it took so long, Cutler said, "We were in protect-the-football, slow-it-down mode … I didn't play that well tonight … [Things] weren't going exactly like we thought they would … It's our third game in this offense; we're still learning … We didn't want to give 'em anything easy, didn't want to force the ball."

Marshall admitted, "We really didn't attack them deep … they were in Jay's face all night." Were these breakdowns, or inadequacies or mistakes the Bears were making? Marshall added, "It's tough. There's a lot he's thrown at us." By "he," I presume Marshall meant Trestman. But the bigger point was this: While the Bears are learning this offense, which is radically different from what they did for Mike Tice last season and Mike Martz two and three seasons ago, they can still win games because the defense can force turnovers just about every week. They've forced 11 turnovers in three weeks. In other words, conservative play might have to carry the day for awhile.

Why argue with 3-0?

If the Bears were planning to camp out in this mode forevermore, it wouldn't be good enough. But they're not. You could see hints of what's to come from the way Cutler worked Alshon Jeffery on the Bears' first offensive possession of the game and the way that type of quick-hitting-but-short passing game created some space for Matt Forte. When the Steelers started coming after Cutler with some effectiveness, Trestman decided to value ball security rather than forcing the issue with downfield passes. It wasn't pretty, to be sure, but, as Cutler pointed out, with future Hall of Fame defensive players and a coordinator wearing black and gold, why not let discretion help get the Bears a road win? Cutler admitted this is requiring more patience than the guys on offense might want to exhibit.

There's not much to like about the offense converting five of 15 third-down opportunities or averaging 4.3 yards per offensive play (to Pittsburgh's 7.1) or struggling so mightily at the goal line on two different series.

[+] EnlargeChicago's Jay Cutler
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesUntil Jay Cutler and the Bears' offense fully understand Marc Trestman's system, look for more conservative play calling.
But, again, let's take stock: Bears 3-0, Lions 2-1, Packers 1-2, Vikings 0-3.

Maybe there's even a little bit of magic to a season when you can turn one downfield pass the entire night into 40 points and a win on the road. Maybe the Bears have reached the point at which they'll take Cutler making three wonderful plays in the fourth quarter over Rothlisberger's 400 passing yards.

Of course, there's a new kind of patience being practiced by the Bears' defense, too. With hard-hitting defense having been essentially legislated out of the NFL in lieu of very legitimate concerns for player safety, yards are a pretty easy thing to come by. Tillman and Julius Peppers are two of the Bears defenders who've been in the NFL long enough to remember when holding a team to, say, 300 yards or fewer was something great defenses expected to accomplish frequently during a 16-game season. But this is a quarterback's league now, a league in which men like Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers (quarterbacks the Bears will face a total of three times this season) expect to throw for at least 300 yards per game. Rodgers had that many in less than three full quarters a week ago against the Redskins.

"Takeaways and the points they lead to is what you have to really look at," Peppers said, though the expression on his face told the listener the notion was killing him. "The thing is that's what we do, take the ball away. And, yes, with the way the game is played now, it's clear we have to do that on a weekly basis. We did it last year. We expect to do it all the time at this point."

Going forward, of course, the defense will have to pressure quarterbacks and force takeaways without their "franchise tag" player, tackle Henry Melton, whose knee injury Sunday night appeared to be very serious.

The Detroit Lions and Matthew Stafford are on deck. The Steelers' cupboard might be pretty bare; Detroit's is stocked, especially if Reggie Bush is back in the lineup next Sunday at Ford Field. The defense is going to have to take the ball away from the Lions, too, and then away from the Saints after that. Gradually, if the Bears are lucky and Trestman's theories become practical Sunday reality, it will resemble something more akin to a tag-team effort. Until such time, the wisdom of a conservative approach on offense might be an approach we're historically tired of, but the one -- given such an adaptive and resourceful defense -- that'll produce the best results for the time being.

Michael Wilbon | email

Pardon the Interruption co-host
Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN and appears on the "NBA Sunday Countdown" pregame show on ABC, in addition to ESPN. You can follow him on Twitter: @RealMikeWilbon

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