It's interesting how teams in professional sports - and in the National Football League in particular - get branded in certain ways. Often times these labels stick with teams years longer than they perhaps should. The Pittsburgh Steelers, for example, are still thought of as a smash-mouth, physical running team even though they haven't fared well on the ground for most of the past 20 games or so. Another example is how the Chicago Bears are still thought of as an elite, physical defense because of some of their success earlier this decade. The Bears aren't really an elite defense anymore in my opinion and haven't been for two years running.
Let's take a closer look.
The last time the Bears defense was outstanding was in 2006, the year they lost to the Indianapolis Colts in the Super Bowl. The year before in 2005, Chicago was lights out on defense and rode their opportunistic ball hawking defense all the way to the #2 seed in the NFC and a home playoff game at Soldier Field that they would lose to the Carolina Panthers. Let's start though with the 2006 defense though. Here are some of their numbers from that year - the season they made it all the way to the Super Bowl before falling to the Colts (league rank in parentheses).
Yards/G: 294.1 (5th)
Points: 15.9 (3rd)
Rushing Yards/G: 99.38 (6th)
Passing Yards: 194.7 (11th)
Turnovers: 44 (1st)
Sacks: 40 (8th)
DVOA: 2nd (Pass Defense = 1st; Rush = 6th)
Top Ten Tackle Leaders: Lance Briggs, Brian Urlacher, Charles Tillman, Danieal Manning, Ricky Manning, Chris Harris, Alex Brown, Hunter Hillenmeyer, Adewale Ugonleye, Nathan Vashar
The Bears were also good in 2005, but let's face it - four years ago means very little in the salary cap era of the NFL. I know us Steelers fans don't necessarily think of our team in 2005 as particularly similar to the squad we're watching in 2009. Anyway, the Bears were outstanding in 2005 on defense and combined with their solid play on that side of the ball in 2006, they earned the reputation as being one of the more physical and punishing defenses in the league.
Miscellaneous: The Bears started the 2006 season much like the 2008 Steelers did on defense. They were outstanding, holding their first 10 opponents under 300 yards. They pitched two shutouts in those first ten games and averaged only 12 points per game on defense while jumping out to a 9-1 record to start the year. They had three guys force at least four fumbles that year and eight defenders with two or more interceptions. By contrast, the Steelers only had one guy force more than four fumbles last year - Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison with seven. They also only had four players notch multiple picks. If you look at their roster from that year, you'll also notice that all of their top defenders were in their prime physical years - age 25-29 - with a number of other young key contributors like Tommie Harris being worked in during the early years of their career.
Let's see how they've fared the last two years though to see if they're deserving of still being thought of as one of the league's better units.
Yards/G: 354.6 (28th)
Points: 21.75 (16th)
Rushing Yards/G: 122.9 (24th)
Passing Yards: 231.7 (27th)
Turnovers: 33 (8th)
Sacks: 41 (6th)
DVOA: 8th (Pass = 14th; Rush = 4th)
Top Ten Tackle Leaders: Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs, Danieal Manning, Charles Tillman, Hunter Hillenmeyer, Brandon McGowan, Adewale Ugonleye, Adam Archuleta, Alex Brown, Ricky Manning
Miscellaneous: This is the year we really start to see the Bears defense decline. Chicago only held their opponent to under 300 yards of total offense on four occasions that season - once against the hapless Raiders and another against the rebuilding Chiefs running a Herm Edwards offense. They gave up 30+ points four times and likely would have finished even worse than 7-9 had they not sacked the quarterback and forced as many turnovers as they did. Adewale Ugonleye was particularly productive at 30 years of age for Chicago. He forced 6 fumbles, recovered three more, and had 9 sacks - tops on the squad that year. Ugonleye is now 32 years of age and not as explosive at the point of attack as he once was despite making his first Pro Bowl appearance last year (he should have made it the year before, not last season). It's also worth noting that 2007 was the first year of Bob Babich regime at defensive coordinator. I'm not sure of why, but former coordinator Ron Rivera was not retained by Lovie Smith following Chicago's run to the Super Bowl in 2006. Rivera had previously been in charge of the Bears defense since 2004 and had improved dramatically during his tenure there. Babich meanwhile got his first NFL gig with the Rams in 2003 when he was named their linebackers coach. Before being promoted to defensive coordinator prior to the 2007 season, Babich had never been a defensive coordinator at any level and had held only one job higher than a linebackers coach in his entire career - the head coaching gig at North Dakota State. Coaching matters - we know that having been blessed to watch Dick LeBeau for so many years. I don't think Babich is up to snuff and I'm frankly shocked he wasn't canned after last season.
Yards/G: 334.6 (21st)
Points: 21.8 (16th)
Rushing Yards/G: 93.5 (5th)
Passing Yards: 241.1 (30th)
Turnovers: 32 (2nd)
Sacks: 28 (23rd)
DVOA: 7th (Pass = 10th; Rush = 5th)
Top Ten Tackle Leaders: Lance Briggs, Charles Tillman, Brian Urlacher, Kenny Payne, Corey Graham, Mike Brown, Adewale Ugonleye, Alex Brown, Tommie Harris, Nick Roach
Miscellaneous: The Bears really didn't have more than one or two impressive showings on defense last year. If you look at their schedule from 2008, you'll notice they only held their opponent under 10 points on two ocassions. One of them was against the lowly Lions. The other against the equally sad St. Louis Rams. They also played fairly well against the Carolina Panthers in Week 2 and against the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 14. Those four games constitute the only contests that they were able to hold their opponents under 300 yards of total offense. By contrast, the Pittsburgh Steelers only surrendered more than 300 yards just once in 2008 and only 6 times in 2007, four of which came in the final four weeks of the season after injuries had more than taken their toll on Pittsburgh's defense. Chicago also gave up 27 or more points five times last year, including 41 to Minnesota in Week 7 at Soldier Field. Finally, Chicago was able to remain competitive last year due to the fact that they still forced a healthy number of turnovers. In fact, they forced at least one turnover in every game last year. That's fairly impressive. It's worth nothing though that nine of their 32 turnovers - or roughly 28 percent - came in two of their 16 games. They actually lost both games. In other words, I see a team that was extraordinarily vulnerable against the pass manage to pad their turnover stats and consequently hang tough in a number of close games despite not having a very dominating defense whatsoever. The fact that they registered the 23rd fewest sacks despite seeing more passing attempts than any other defense also speaks volumes about their inability to control games with their defense like they once could.
Finally, I mentioned earlier that the Bears defense was largely in the peak window on the defensive side of the ball in 2006. By 2008, the Bears roster on defense featured three starters over the age of 30. Perhaps more importantly though - because after all, the Steelers defense has its fair share of veterans - the Bears no longer were receiving such substantial contributions from their younger defensive players as they had in years past. IN 2007, the Bears drafted Greg Olson - a tight end out of Miami - in the first round and Dan Bazuin - a defensive end from Central Michigan in the 2nd. Bazuin never made it on to the field for the Bears. The Bears 3rd and 4th Round picks were also on the offensive side of the ball.
The next year, the Bears drafted an offensive tackle in the first round, yet another running back in the second, a wide receiver with their first 3rd round pick before finally selecting Marcus Harrison with their other 3rd round selection. Harrison looked pretty good last year but the bottom line is that's not much attention paid to the defense for several years in a row. In an attempt to shore up their defense after several years of not retooling its personnel, Chicago finally paid more attention to that side of the ball in this past April's Drat. Five of the Bears first seven picks were on defense. Smart move if you ask me, particularly because they seem to have a running back for the future in Matt Forte, a quarterback in Jay Cutler and an above average offensive line that gave up a respectable number of sacks last year (29) considering how bad their quarterback play was, not to mention how often they had to throw the ball due to the poor play from the defense.
Though they lost, for a game the Bears defense looked good this past Sunday night. They stymied Aaron Rodgers and the Packers offense for most of the evening. Green Bay had just 224 yards of offense, 72 of which came on their final drive of the game. Though I think Pittsburgh will have a few opportunities to run the ball after softening the Bears defense through the air, I'd still say I'm not holding my breath hoping that the running game will somehow materialize this Sunday, even though I'm no believer in Chicago's defense generally speaking. The Bears limited Green Bay's rushing game to just 76 yards on 22 carries. They should be just fine against the run even without Urlacher.
That's enough for now and I apologize for the lack of any real coherency with that post but I wanted to try to take a little bit closer look at the Bears defense the past several years to see really if they're as worthy of the frequent praise they get for their play on defense. My take? They've neither been terrible nor great, but in the past two years, I'd put them closer to poor if not for an opportunistic defense that has a knack for turning the ball over.