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Thursday, January 13, 2011
You've gotta trust the defense

By Jon Greenberg
ESPNChicago.com

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- In the land where the middle linebacker is king, we defend ourselves every day.

We battle the weather, the traffic, the politicians, belief in the Cubs. It's rough out there, and we appreciate some security.

After a few years in the wilderness, the Chicago Bears' defense is back, and its time to shine is nigh, with the Bears' playoffs beginning Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks. I don't believe in Santa Claus, trickle-down economics, or the demise of Chicago's Democratic machine, and I certainly don't believe the Bears' offense is going to carry this team to the Super Bowl.

Brian Urlacher
Brian Urlacher again leads a defense that has the potential to carry an average offense to the Super Bowl.

The Bears traded for one of the better arms in the NFL (along with the guy it's attached to) and one of the best offensive minds in the game (and the guy it's attached to), and we have an offense ranked below Cleveland's. There's good reason to be cynical about Jay Cutler's fortunes in January, but if there's one thing this season has taught me, it's to respect and trust Lovie Smith's defense.

By the numbers (35 takeaways, 69 points off turnovers, 57 three-and-out drives, see below), or by anecdotal evidence ("Did you see that interception by Peanut?"), this defense is as formidable as the 2006 Super Bowl unit, maybe more so with the addition of Julius Peppers, who looks like he belongs in one of Lance Briggs' comic books.

The Bears' defense has been a delight to watch all season, even if you hate the sight of Urlacher backpedaling and cornerbacks playing 8 yards off the ball.

Smith's Cover 2 style of defense has taken more of a beating nationally than Cutler's body language, but with the addition of a competent pass rush, mainly Peppers, not to mention a healthy Urlacher, you can see why Smith is so attuned to running it as his base defense, and why his players respect him as a coach.

"People have been dogging us the last couple years; why are we running the Cover 2, and all these NFL analysts, saying it's not a good defense," Tillman said. "Here we are, we're running it, and look at us now. It's gotten us this far."

Earlier in the season, first-year defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, who has earned cult hero status among his players, was fond of saying "the star of the defense is the defense." Not exactly headline material, but it has that homespun wisdom quality that works for this team.

And as Tillman said, it's true.

"I think it makes complete sense," he said. "I'd feel guilty if I just said the best player on this defense is Brian Urlacher. But then what about Lance Briggs? What about Pisa [Tinoisamoa]? What about Tommie [Harris]? What about Double-A [Anthony Adams]? What about Pep [Peppers]? What about Chris Harris? In essence, he's right. The star of the defense is the defense."

You could write a novella just listing all the defensive superlatives this season. Here's a few the Bears highlight in their postseason guide:

  • The defense gave up 16 points per game, and allowed just 107 second-half points, fewer than seven per game.

  • The defense has allowed 14 passing touchdowns, and gave up multiple touchdown passes only twice.

  • The defense is third in rushing yards per game at 90.1 and third in opponent passer rating at 74.4.

    I could keep going.

    So it's with good reason this is a confident group, a talkative group. The few Bears defenders who talked Thursday were extremely loose, a sign of a group that's ready to play. Briggs was boisterous, Urlacher monosyllabic, Tillman expansive. And all three linchpins of the Super Bowl defense seem eager to get back. Eager and confident.

    I don't think the defense is looking past Matt Hasselbeck, Marshawn Lynch & Co., but the Bears aren't living in fear of the Seattle offense. When the Seahawks beat them 23-20 in Week 6, Briggs was out, and the Bears finished with no sacks and no takeaways, a rarity unlikely to be repeated. The Bears had 23 sacks in the past nine games and had 11 games overall with multiple takeaways.

    For the Bears, this is the first of three games they plan on playing in the next month. They haven't been shy about talking Super Bowl.

    "Not to the extent of the Jets," Urlacher said, chuckling. "We're not talking about it like that. But I think everybody wants to win that. I don't think there's any problem with saying that. We're not going out there saying, 'We're going to be Super Bowl champs,' but our goal is to win the Super Bowl. If we don't do that, we haven't reached our goal. That's all there is to it. We wanted to win our division, beat Green Bay and win the Super Bowl."

    Urlacher passed on starting a war of words with the Seahawks, like the AFC teams are doing with each other, and Briggs said the Bears don't need to speak out in the media to validate themselves, because they believe in each other.

    "Going into the playoffs, that's what confidence means to us," Briggs said. "We know what we're going to get out of every one of these players, so we don't have to go out and say what we're going to do, or who we're going to beat, or how we're going to beat them. Because we're confident in what we do and the guys we have around."

    For the guys who are around from the Super Bowl season, the bravado is certainly earned. After all, they dragged one sorry offense to the Super Bowl and the ninth-ranked defense seems poised to do it again with a unit that is ranked 30th in total offense. Not that you'll hear the defense speak ill of its peers.

    "Our offense is playing pretty well too," Urlacher said. "They're the reason we've played so good the second half of the season. They've held on to the ball, converted third downs and they've run the ball, and they kept us on the sideline, kept us fresh."

    Urlacher's not lying -- the defense's ranking has dropped lately after being torched a few times, mostly by good teams -- but he's being a little diplomatic.

    The Bears' offense laid eggs against New England and Green Bay and got one big quarter against the Jets. Still, it's not about the offense, just as it's not about what the Seahawks do. The Bears' defense puts everything on its back.

    "We take on that responsibility," Tillman said. "It also helps that Coach Smith is a defensive head coach. So I think every game, no matter what the offense does, he's always going to put the game on the defense's shoulders. That's just the kind of guy he is. If they can't score points, we win the game. That's his motto."

    Some things never change. In the land of Dick Butkus, Mike Singletary and Urlacher, why would we ever want it to?

    Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.