Monday, September 21, 2009
On the level
By Melissa Isaacson ESPNChicago.com
It is not often that an NFL defense strives to be characterized as even-keeled, humble or, God forbid, laid-back. But under the leadership of head coach Lovie Smith, who is calling the Chicago Bears' defensive signals from the sideline for the first time since his days as coordinator for the St. Louis Rams, this appears to be the personality emerging.
And, after the first two weeks anyway, it seems to be working.
Going into the "Monday Night Football" contest between Indianapolis and Miami, both of which are included in the current rankings, the Bears are sixth in the league in total yards allowed per game (267), eighth in average passing yards (176.5), 12th in rushing yards (90.5) and 11th in points (17.5).
That might not sound like ample reason for backslapping, but considering that the Bears ranked 21st in total defense in 2008 and 28th in '07, after finishing fifth in '06, even early progress is worth noting.
Sunday's 17-14 victory over the defending champion Pittsburgh Steelers in the Bears' home opener might have been a "12-round battle" -- in the words of defensive Anthony Adams -- but it was also a high-level chess match, with Smith moving the pieces to just the right places after a rough start.
"Every game I've been here as head coach has been fun," Smith said. "But my involvement has changed, and I am having a blast. That was a challenging offense that we went against [Sunday], and the guys are the ones making adjustments on the sideline. It's fun to see that."
Combine the fresh approach with an older and possibly wiser veteran core of Adewale Ogunleye, Alex Brown, Adams, Tommie Harris, Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman; sprinkle in cerebral Hunter Hillenmeyer replacing more of a chip-on-the-shoulder type in Brian Urlacher at middle linebacker, and it at least partly explains the lack of whooping and hollering in the winners' locker room Sunday.
"In the same way that when we lost to Green Bay [in Week 1], we were quick to emphasize it was just one loss, while we were excited about winning [Sunday], it was also just one win," Hillenmeyer said Monday. "It's great, but if they make those field goals [38- and 43-yarders missed by Pittsburgh's Jeff Reed in the fourth quarter], it ends up differently.
Lovie Smith doesn't get to high, nor too low. The Bears defense now seems to reflect that personality.
"We don't want to put too much stock in it, where all of a sudden we're this great team that can't be beat. We're fortunate to come away with the win and hopefully it gets a little momentum going. But we don't want to read too much into it either way."
Nor should they. But after the potentially demoralizing loss of Urlacher for the remainder of the season and the slow start by Chicago's running game, holding the defending champs to 14 was enormously encouraging.
"I can only speak for the defense, but I don't think we played our best game," Hillenmeyer said. "And to still get away with a win, especially against a team like Pittsburgh, from a confidence standpoint, that's pretty big."
That confidence was shaken early when the Steelers put together a 92-yard scoring drive on their first possession, then followed that up by marching 52 yards downfield.
Smith called it "maybe the shock of Brian not being there." Whatever the case, on first-and-10 from the Bears' 38, Brown -- this week's defensive MVP with two sacks after Ogunleye had two against the Packers -- pressured Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger into a poor pass picked off by Tillman to halt the drive and remove the sizable pits from the Chicago defenders' stomachs.
After gaining 144 yards on their first two possessions, the Steelers managed just 164 the rest of the way.
"Whenever a team gets you on your heels like that, just to be able to come back and play the way we did the rest of the game, it speaks highly in terms of just remaining composed," Hillenmeyer said. "A lot of times when a game starts out like that, it's a bad sign of things to come. And really, those first couple of drives, that was their best shot, and our coaches did a great job with the pressures.
"It seems like we were a step ahead of them. They would adjust to what we were doing and then our coaches, we'd get on the sideline and they'd have something ready. So every drive, we'd go out there with some little wrinkle that was getting to Roethlisberger and getting that pressure, which I think proved to be one of the keys there."
With Hillenmeyer filling in ably for Urlacher; Nick Roach and Jamar Williams sharing the load on the strong side in place of Pisa Tinoisamoa; and Briggs and the front four all combining to put consistent pressure on Roethlisberger, it made life considerably less stressful for the Bears' secondary.
"I'm glad we played these guys early, it's given us a measurement of exactly where we are as a defense," safety Danieal Manning said. "There were plays we should have made that we left on the field. But we've got a good edge right now, we're feeling good about ourselves."
Not that the guys will be shouting this from the Halas Hall rooftops any time soon. This is a defense, and a team, that is finding itself right along with its fans.
Asked if that's just the coach's personality coming through, Smith couldn't disagree.
"It would have to rub off on the team in some kind of way," he said. "I don't think you can get too high or too low. You have to be even-keeled, just react to what's going on at that time. We have so much football left to go, and the guys realize that. We have a lot of professionals. They realize what's going on.
"We're 1-1. Just think about it. What has one win gotten you? You're not going to the playoffs with one win."