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Wednesday, October 2, 2013
Updated: October 3, 10:46 AM ET
Back to basics for Bears defense

By Jon Greenberg
ESPNChicago.com

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Chicago Bears cornerback Tim Jennings laughed when he heard about Detroit Lions vice chairman Bill Ford Jr. referring to the Bears as "thugs." But not because he knew Ford was joking.

"What was he watching?" Jennings said in reference to Sunday's 40-32 loss in Motown. "I don't know. Calling us bullies? I don't think anyone in this world would probably agree with that. We're far from it. I wish we were."

Don't sell yourself short, Tim. The Bears do steal footballs like bullies steal lunch money.

But let's just say this defense could use Nelson Muntz ("The Simpsons") and the O'Doyle family ("Billy Madison") on the defensive line.

Tim Jennings
Chicago Bears cornerback Tim Jennings said he's not as worried about tackling the Saints' Jimmy Graham as much as running back Darren Sproles.
Every week, we're asking the Bears defense when it's going to pressure the quarterback and how it can better execute the simplest of defensive techniques: the tackle.

And nearly every week this season, we've seen an opponent go nuts in the open field. A.J. Green, Antonio Brown and Reggie Bush were all fantasy heroes against the Bears.

Don't get me wrong. These Bears can certainly bully, given the chance. You don't want to see Lance Briggs and D.J. Williams in a dark alley, let alone heading toward you in the flat. Nor does a receiver want to catch a pass without having GPS awareness of the whereabouts of Chris Conte or Major Wright.

But Chicago's defense is best known nowadays as the jewel thieves of the NFL, a crew of pickpockets and safecrackers. The hardest blows most opponents are likely to see are Peanut Tillman's football punches.

If the Bears put some licks on Lions running back Bush last week, maybe they're 4-0 going into this weekend's game against the New Orleans Saints.

For the Bears defense, the takeaways keep coming -- a league-high 14 and counting -- but facing the No. 2-ranked passing offense in the NFL this Sunday at home against New Orleans, Chicago's weaknesses could continue to be exposed. Drew Brees with time to throw is a dangerous proposition.

The Bears are giving up 384 yards (277.8 passing) and 28.5 points a game. Neither of those stats is very good. While this defense is designed to give up yards, and though it has continued to excel in the red zone, there is plenty of room to improve. In Week 4, the defense gave up 30 points in the first half, thanks in part to the offense's foibles. So anything less would work.

This week, however, is more of a tough test than a chance to gain confidence.

"Every week we're learning to turn it up," defensive end Corey Wootton said. "The biggest thing we've got to do is get pressure in (Brees') face."

Given that the offense is still finding its way -- and still turning the ball over too much -- the time-tested Bears defense could use a familiar shutdown game this week against New Orleans, which has its pass-game mojo back with the return of head coach Sean Payton, who missed a year as the "BountyGate" scapegoat.

The failures of the Bears' front four will be an ongoing story this season -- whither Rod Marinelli? -- but as far as tackling, the Bears think they just need to work on the basics. Of course, the Bears don't tackle in practice. At least not each other. Maybe they could import some rowdy Lake Forest teens who need some tough love.

"It's an easy fix, we just have to get back to the fundamentals, the basics," Jennings said. "Everybody get to the football and make the tackles. The first drill today was tackling drills. We missed way too many tackles in the Detroit game."

Last week, Bush did the bulk of his damage (112 of 139 rushing yards) in the first half, including a 37-yard touchdown run in the second quarter. The Bears missed a number of tackles on the elusive back, including three on one play as he juked through the line of scrimmage.

"Typically when you see something like that, it's a mis-fit or a missed tackle," Bears defensive coordinator Mel Tucker said. "Because pretty much everything we do is sound and solid. Every run is accounted for, every gap is accounted for. Typically those are things you can fix, because there's no mystery to it."

The Bears are middle-of-the-pack in rush defense in the NFC and near the bottom in kick and punt coverage. Not to say this is an epidemic, but it's certainly a trend.

Aside from dealing with Brees, who should be a real delight with time to throw, matchup problems exist in the form of an athletic tight end -- 6-foot-7 Jimmy Graham -- and running back Darren Sproles, who is listed at 5-foot-6 and has similar game-breaking ability.

Jennings said he's not worried about tackling Graham as much as Sproles.

"The big guys are the easy part, it's the small, shifty guys that are the problem," said the 5-foot-9 Jennings. "Trust me."

In a 38-17 victory Monday night over Miami, Sproles burned the Dolphins with seven catches for 114 yards, which included a 48-yard gain and a 13-yard touchdown grab. He also ran for a 5-yard touchdown.

"We've just got to have 11 guys get to that ball; it just can't be one-on-one tackling," Jennings said. "That's going to be a bad picture. You seen that last week against Reggie Bush."

Bears coach Marc Trestman also pointed to Sproles' skill as a punt returner, which is of particular interest considering the Bears' struggles in kick coverage.

"He's a hard guy to find," Trestman said. "He's an explosive player who does a lot of damage in space. We've got to get population around him. We can't stop until we find him."

One area where the Bears might be able to edge New Orleans is inside the 20. The Saints have scored seven touchdowns and seven field goals in 16 red zone possessions. Their 43.8 touchdown percentage is 26th in the NFL.

The Bears have the third-best defensive touchdown percentage in the NFL, giving up four touchdowns, along with seven field goals, in 12 possessions.

Jennings believes that the defense's familiarity with the principles of the West Coast offense will help this Sunday.

"The good thing about it is we kind of face the same kind of offense each and every day at practice," Jennings said.

That's a new twist for this franchise. The offense helping out the defense.

"With the type of weapons they have, you have to try to throw them off a little bit," said Bears offensive tackle Jermon Bushrod, a former Saint. "And that's going to come from us too on offense. We have to fight to keep them on the field as much as possible."

I guess now is a good time to mention that the Saints' defense is one of the best in the NFL.

Remember the good ol' days, when the Bears were undefeated?