Defence The Recipe For Bears Success
Something is stirring in Chicago. After six straight wins The Bears are 7-1 and sitting atop the NFC North with a two game lead on their fierce rivals the Green Bay Packers. Led by an uncompromising defence, there is a growing belief in Chi-Town that this side could go all the way to the Super Bowl.
So far in 2012 the Bears have been utterly dominant. They have put up 236 points whilst allowing only 120, a differential of +116 points, which is comfortably the best in the NFL. Amazingly to do this the Bears are averaging just 324 offensive yards a game, ranking them 25th in the league in this category, yet the 29.5 points a game they are putting up is the third best in the league. Those stats seem to contradict each other, so how is this possible? Well, it is because of their incredible defence.
A storied franchise; the Bears have long been famed for their tough defence’s, with the legendary 85 Bear’s defence widely considered the greatest of all time. The 2012 version might not quite be on the same level, but it is the best in the league at this moment in time. The numbers they are putting up are quite staggering.
A tough side to move the chains against, they allow just 15 points per game, second only to the 49ers and are fifth in total yards allowed per game. The true strength of this defence however lies in their ability to force turnovers. This Bears defence has an astonishing 28 takeaways on the season, with 17 interceptions and 11 forced fumbles. Critically, it is from these turnovers that they are scoring points from.
Of these 17 interceptions, the Bears have remarkably returned seven of them for touchdowns. To put that in perspective, the NFL regular season record is nine! Fair to say they are on course to smash that record by seasons end. Considering they have only conceded nine touchdowns for the entire season, with half of those coming when games were safely won, the defence is almost scoring as many points as they are conceding.
Throwing the ball against this Bear’s secondary is proving a nightmare. In Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings they might have the best cornerback pairing in the league. Jennings leads the league in both interceptions (7) and passes defended (15), whilst Charles Tillman is a genuine contender for the Defensive Player of the Year. Not just content with shutting down the oppositions number one receiver on a weekly basis, best demonstrated by his domination of Calvin Johnson in week 7, he single handled forced 4 fumbles against the Titans last week in a phenomenal individual display for a cornerback. It took his season tally to seven and is a perfect example of the domination of this Bears defence. In the wonderfully named Major Right and second year improver Chris Conte, they have a reliable pair of safeties sitting behind them, allowing them to play aggressively and make these big plays.
Then you have the defensive lineman. The Bears play a base 4-3 defence with a number of physical pass rushers which represents another of the great strengths of this defence. They have multiple players all capable of sacking opposing quarterbacks with Henry Melton (5), Israel Idonije (4), Julius Peppers (5) and Corey Wooton (4) all contributing to the 25 sacks they have amassed, leading the league with a 3.15 sacks per game average. This depth of options they have to rush the passer makes it impossible for opponents to double block them all and provides major headaches for all their opponents.
When you add in superstar line-backers of the caliber of Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher who have 15 pro bowl nominations between them it is easy to see why this defensive unit is having so much success. Throw in Nick Roach who has done well covering tight ends this season and it completes this tough uncompromising defence filled with big time play makers and physically dominant players capable of stifling both pass and rush.
With such domination on the defensive side of the ball, the Bears have got away with having a fairly pedestrian offence. As previously stated, they rank just 25th in offensive yards per game despite sitting 3rd in total points per game. They are ranked 29th for passing offence, showing their reliance on the ground game where they rank 11th. This is an offence based around their star running back Matt Forte. In Forte they have a genuine star, who is showing no long term damage from his knee injury, averaging a little over five yards per carry in his seven games for the season. He has 539 rushing yards on 107 carries as his workload continues to steadily grow. He has been eased into the season with Michael Bush given plenty of carries over the first month of the season and offering a reliable backup option to Forte. Forte is not only a good runner, but effective in the passing game too where he has caught 20 balls for 179 yards.
When it comes to the passing game however, all the talk is about the Cutler-Marshall combination. The arrival of star wide receiver Brandon Marshall has reunited Cutler with his favourite weapon from his Denver days and the two have wasted no time in demonstrating the obvious chemistry that exists between them. He has been targeted 90 times by Cutler from 241 passing attempts, meaning that a league high 37.34% of the time when a passing play is called, Cutler is throwing to Marshall. This combination has yielded 59 receptions, 797 yards and seven touchdowns so far and been a resounding success. He has added the deep play threat and genuine number 1 receiver that has been sorely lacking at Soldier Field over the past few seasons. Outside of Marshall there is little else to like about the Bears passing game though with Cutler completing just 59.4% of his passes, and averaging just 222 passing yards a game. His passer rating has slowly risen to a respectable 85.3 after a disastrous first three weeks where he threw three touchdowns and six interceptions, improving to a 12-8 ratio by midseason.
The area that has dogged the passing game has been the protection, or rather lack thereof provided to Cutler by his offensive line. Heading into the season there were serious doubts over whether it would improve significantly enough to offer Cutler suitable protection. The indication so far is that is cannot. Cutler has been sacked 28 times this season, second only to Aaron Rodgers (29) and to make a playoff run they are likely going to have to overcome sides with great pass rushes such as San Francisco, New York and Green Bay, the side who so embarrassed them back in week two. They were lucky to escape with a win against Carolina in week 8 after allowing six sacks in the first half and it continues to plague them as an issue. Cutler is capable of making the plays needed to put points up, but only if this offensive line can protect him. This side is winning games in spite of its offence at the moment, not because of it.
Over the next fortnight the Bears face the Texans and the 49ers, two acid tests against two genuine contenders with two of the best defence’s in the league. We are about to learn a lot more about the Bears over the next two weeks. Can their defence continue to carry them all the way? Or will their offensive line shortcomings prove too much to overcome? Expect low scoring defensive duels, where the Bears penchant for the pick six may just prove decisive.