Bears at a loss to explain their losses

Posted by ESPN.com’s Kevin Seifert

CHICAGO -- I think I heard a collective groan here Sunday when Bears coach Lovie Smith stepped to the podium and said: “I don’t have a lot of reasons to give you on why we played that way.” In this case, however, I’m with Smith: The Bears’ performance Sunday was inexplicable.

How does a team with playoff aspirations fall as flat as the Bears did Sunday? Why were no adjustments effective as the opponent scored on its first six possessions? How did a starting defensive lineman get so worked up after four plays that he punched an opponent, leading to his ejection? And why did your quarterback take a 15-yard penalty for arguing with officials and then question his team’s internal makeup afterward?

That’s right. Quarterback Jay Cutler was asked if the Bears have a chemistry and leadership problem after their 41-21 loss to Arizona. Cutler response: “I don’t know. We’ll see.”

To a man, the Bears had no answers after their second blowout loss in three games. The only variance was how alarmed they were. Smith noted “our entire play was bad,” but he optimistically suggested the quick turnaround to Thursday night’s game at San Francisco would serve the Bears well. Tight end Greg Olsen said it was “unfair” to suggest the team is going in the wrong direction after blowout losses Sunday and two weeks ago at Cincinnati.

Only Alex Brown, the Bears’ classy and well-spoken defensive end, was visibly disturbed by what happened. Brown has been with the team since 2002, and if anyone deserves to hit the panic button, it’s him.

“For this to work,” Brown said, “we have to believe it’s going to work and we have to have a sense of urgency and we don’t have that right now. I don’t know what the hell is wrong, but we have to change it. It’s the eighth game of the season, and I know a lot of people like to think we’re better than 4-4. But hell, our record is 4-4. ... If we want to have any aspirations of going further or making it to the playoffs and stuff like that, then we’ve got to play a hell of a lot better.”

Brown went on to say that “anybody that doesn’t feel bad after that shouldn’t be here,” making me wonder which Bears players he was referring to.

“We keep saying, 'Go home and soul search and look at yourself,' but I don’t know. Something’s a little ... there might be a little more than that.”

Brown said he had “no idea” exactly what “a little more” was. But I’m less inclined to believe the team has quit or that there are some bad apples damaging the group. More than anything, when I watch the Bears, I see a team that has lost its edge and deleted its own identity. Simply put, there is no longer an internal or external expectation in Chicago that the Bears can play good defense.

Two weeks ago, Cincinnati led 31-3 at halftime and finished with 30 first downs. On Sunday, the Cardinals rolled up 296 offensive yards and 20 first downs in the first half alone. After defensive tackle Tommie Harris got himself ejected in the first quarter, the Bears allowed an average of 6.1 yards per middle rush for the rest of the game, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Finally, the Cardinals converted eight of their first nine third-down opportunities.

I suppose every team is allowed one lemon per season, one game where nothing seems to work and the end result is a college homecoming-style blowout. But deeper problems are evident when you can’t slow down your opponent twice in a three-game span.

The Bears' defense seems beyond repair to me. I know. Just last week I suggested the Bears could milk six more wins out of their schedule. But in Sunday’s affair, at least, I underestimated the impact of a steamrolled defense on the entire team. It seemed to send the Bears’ offense into a panic; coordinator Ron Turner called passes on 10 of his first 12 plays. Tailback Matt Forte got only five carries.

Brown suggested that players should play “like our backs are against the wall” from the first whistle, but that seems like wishful thinking to me. The Bears briefly got back into Sunday’s game in the fourth quarter when the Cardinals started emptying their bench. Danieal Manning’s interception of backup quarterback Matt Leinart might have been a turning point, but the Cardinals restored order as soon as starter Kurt Warner returned to the game.

“If we don’t figure it out, there’s going to be a lot of those games,” Brown said. “We’re going to have a lot more of those games these last eight games if we can’t figure it out.”

After watching Sunday’s game, however, I don’t have much faith in the Bears’ ability to do that. We should all agree that cornerback Charles Tillman shouldn’t be matched up in single coverage with an opponent’s top receiver, as he was Sunday against Larry Fitzgerald and two weeks ago against the Bengals’ Chad Ochocinco. But would Cover 2 approach be any better considering the Bears’ questionable pass rush of late?

Can we now accept that the Bears don’t have the personnel to blitz effectively? On Sunday, they faced a quarterback in Warner who had been highly vulnerable to the blitz this season. In the first eight games of the season, in fact, Warner had a 61.3 passer rating when opponents sent added pressure.

On Sunday, Warner’s rating was 104.8 against the blitz, and it didn’t matter how the Bears schemed it. He went 3-for-3 when the Bears blitzed two linebackers. He was 4-for-4 when the Bears blitzed a safety. And when they emphasized coverage, rushing only four defensive linemen, Warner completed 10 of 13 passes.

(Those figures are all courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information.)

So let’s try to put it all together. The Bears are supposed to be a team built around defense and an offense that, to use Smith’s phrase, “gets off the bus running.” But they no longer have a competent defense, let alone one that can play at an elite level. They haven’t been able to run for most of the season, and Sunday they never even tried.

Chicago is three games behind Minnesota in the NFC North and has three days to prepare for a Thursday night game at San Francisco. Smith referred to that quick turnaround as an “opportunity” and said the Bears are no different than a team that “played bad ball right at the end of the half” and has a “chance to regroup quickly.”

Smith, of course, couldn’t say why his team had played “bad ball” or how it would “regroup quickly.” I hope this conclusion isn’t too dramatic, but it sure seems like his team has strayed irrevocably from the core values he installed in 2004. They don’t play decent defense and they don’t even try to run the ball. What is the Bears identity? Who are they? It’s inexplicable.