Defense must improve on third-and-long

CHICAGO -- Making hand gestures to illustrate the point, Bears coach Lovie Smith laid out what he called the “perfect scenario” for his defense, in the minutes after the club’s 32-17 preseason loss to the Raiders.

“We kick off; get them backed up with a third-and-[17],” Smith said. “Normally, a team isn’t gonna convert on third-and-[17].”

But the Raiders’ first-team offense did just that against the Bears starters, and also converted a third-and-9 in the second quarter on a 14-yard pass from Jason Campbell to Louis Murphy. Both conversions led to points for the Raiders, who moved the chains on three of four first-quarter third downs.

The conversions themselves proved problematic, for sure. But the larger issue coming from Saturday’s game was the club’s inability to get off the field in third-and-long situations. Consider this: the Bears defense in 2009 -- as inconsistent as it was -- held opponents to a 20.6 conversion percentage (18 of 87) in situations where they faced third-and-8 or longer.

The Raiders were 3-for-8 (37.5 percent) at keeping drives alive in those situations Saturday against the Bears starters.

“If you go back and look at each of those drives, I feel we did some real good things,” said defensive end Israel Idonije, who finished with three tackles and a fumble recovery. “It was just one big play that put them back into it. That’s what we’ve got to tighten up, those big plays.”

The Bears’ starting defense allowed five completions of 13 yards or more, including passes of 27, 40, and 24 yards. The Bears’ starters also gave up a 15-yard run by Michael Bush in the first quarter.

But for Smith, the third-down conversions hurt most.

“The third down conversions -- especially the first one, we had them backed up third-and-[17] -- the two screen passes really put us on our heels early,” Smith said. “I thought we settled down a little bit after that. The guys came back and played a lot better.”

So it wasn’t all bad for the Bears.

The front seven, led by a strong performance from defensive end Julius Peppers, kept the Bears’ struggling secondary -- plagued by issues at safety -- afloat in the first half. Although Peppers notched only one sack while Tommie Harris and Mark Anderson were officially credited with quarterback hits, the defensive line kept Campbell under duress, for the most part.

Neither received credit in the official statistics, but Peppers delivered a whopping shot to Campbell in the first half while Matt Toeaina -- whose name doesn’t even appear in the official game stats -- made Charles Tillman’s first-quarter interception possible by smashing the quarterback as he delivered a pass intended for Zach Miller.

Peppers received credit for five tackles, a sack, and a pass defense, in addition to a forced fumble. But the defensive end either hit Campbell or laid a hand on him on several occasions.

“On the first drive, we could have played better, but in the end, we started making them kick field goals,” Tillman said. “In all, I thought it was a pretty good first half for the first team. But I think we need to come out and start fast.”

Smith agreed.

“We talk about starting fast,” he said. “Getting down 10-0, the Raiders had control of the game early, and got us in a hole.”

It’s a situation the Bears can’t afford to get into consistently, regardless of the high-octane, yet unrealized potential of the offense.

“All of us still have a long way to go,” Peppers said. “I think it was a step forward from last week.”

But the next step has to be bigger.