Tracing the Bears' defensive decline

Posted by ESPN.com’s Kevin Seifert

Walking into Chicago’s locker room Sunday, I was tempted to ask a few players for fingerprint identification. They had to be imposters, right? There seemed to be no way a Bears defense could allow an opponent to score on its first six possessions, as Arizona did Sunday in a 41-21 victory.

Nor is it believable that two weeks ago Cincinnati scored on its first seven drives. Both the Bengals and Cardinals pulled back in the second half, the kind of pity move a college coach makes against an overmatched homecoming opponent. Or, as FOX analyst Troy Aikman said during Sunday’s broadcast: "I thought high school football was played on Friday.''

Indeed, no NFL defense should ever be trampled to this degree, no matter how explosive the opponent. That it’s happening to the Bears, a team built on the concept of a swarming and dominating defense, is particularly jarring. What has happened since the Bears' defense carried the team to the Super Bowl three years ago? Let’s examine a few key developments, using the chart at the bottom of this post to trace its statistical decline.


We could spend all day debating coach Lovie Smith’s decision to fire defensive coordinator Ron Rivera after the 2006 season. Let’s put that argument aside for a moment and agree on this: Three years later, Smith still hasn’t found an adequate replacement.

Smith acknowledged the failure of Bob Babich’s tenure last winter, gently demoting him to linebackers coach while allowing him to keep the coordinator title. Smith has taken over as the primary playcaller and de facto coordinator, but if anything, the Bears' defense has performed worse under that arrangement.

Take a look at the chart. You’ll notice that most statistical measurements began a decline after the 2006 season except for one: Third-down conversions.

The Bears ranked second among NFL teams in stopping opponents on third down in 2007 and fifth in 2008. Third-down defense is a great equalizer, and on more than two-thirds of those occasions the Bears were holding the line and getting the ball back for their offense.

Third downs are also a strong measure of scheme and play calling. Much like a two-strike count in baseball, third down is football’s greatest battle of wits. You use tendencies, history and instinct to guess what the offense will fall back on to maintain possession.

On that count, Smith has failed as a playcaller. Opponents are converting 42 percent of third downs this season, plummeting the Bears to No. 25 in the NFL.

Consider the Cardinals’ first third-down conversion last Sunday. The Bears showed blitz by running linebackers Lance Briggs and Hunter Hillenmeyer to the line, but ultimately rushed only four players on third-and-10. They defended with their traditional Tampa 2 scheme, but cornerback Zack Bowman played far off of receiver Steve Breaston, who ran a simple square-in for a 23-yard reception. If you don’t challenge the quarterback, you have to challenge the receiver. Smith’s call did neither, and the play looked like a half-speed practice rehearsal.

"[We’re] not making plays on third down," Smith said. "I know that’s a pretty simple answer to your question. But we have to get off [the field] on third down."

To this point, Smith isn’t giving the Bears a fair chance.

Talent drain

The Bears built a strong nucleus of players earlier in this decade, but over the past five years they’ve failed to infuse any notable talent to maintain their skill level. The last impact player the Bears drafted was defensive tackle Tommie Harris, their first-round pick in 2004 whose production has fallen off considerably over the past two years.

In Week 9, the Bears started six players who arrived after 2004. Only defensive end Adewale Ogunleye, acquired in a 2005 trade with Miami, has been a difference-maker -- and even Ogunleye has dropped off since notching 10 sacks in his first season with the Bears.

There has been some hope for Bowman, who seems to have some ball skills. But to this point, his performance has been no different than any of the legions of middling draft picks the Bears have trotted out at defensive back.

Quite simply, you can’t have a dominating defense without at least a few dominating players. At this point, the Bears have two semi-elite players in Briggs and cornerback Charles Tillman.

No interior disruption

Last week, NFL Network offered a replay of the Bears’ legendary 2006 victory at Arizona. Among many other twists and turns, the game was notable for middle linebacker Brian Urlacher’s 25-tackle performance.

We shouldn’t underestimate the impact of Urlacher’s season-ending wrist injury this year. More than anything, however, I’m reminded of Urlacher’s postgame interview that evening. Urlacher essentially acknowledged he went unblocked most of the night. The interior duo of Harris and Tank Johnson kept Urlacher clean throughout.

You see none of that while watching the Bears’ defense these days. All three linebackers are regularly fighting off blocks. Neither Harrison nor Anthony Adams approaches Johnson’s ability to absorb blockers. And Harris rarely makes a play in the backfield, let alone affects the outcome of the game.

To realize how a defensive tackle can change a game, you only have to think back to the Bears’ 2006 victory at Minnesota. Harris sliced through the Vikings’ offensive line to force a fourth-quarter fumbled exchange between quarterback Brad Johnson and tailback Chester Taylor. The Bears recovered, and Rex Grossman soon hit Rashied Davis for a go-ahead and, ultimately, winning touchdown pass.

Interior disruption is a hallmark of dominating defenses. The Bears haven’t had that in awhile. According to their official statistics, their defensive tackles have combined for seven tackles behind the line of scrimmage. That’s less than one per game.

I’m sure we could come up with other factors, causes and effects of the Bears’ defensive decline. The trio above are what came to my mind. Feel free to add your ideas to the comments section below.