Commentary

Early returns

Two weeks into the season, Lovie Smith's defensive play-calling seems to work

Originally Published: September 25, 2009
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

Everyone knows you can't judge stats through the first two games.

After all, how long do you think (pause while checking the online stats) this Drew Brees guy is going to lead the NFL in passing?

OK, bad example.

How about rushing? I mean the Chicago Bears' Adrian Peterson isn't going to lead the league on the ground all year. I mean, that's ludicrous.

Ah, it's the Minnesota Vikings' Adrian Peterson. Yeah, that makes sense.

Well, team defense must have some outliers, right? See, the New York Jets are ranked first. They were mediocre last year, a faceless outfit at best.

Oh yeah, Rex Ryan is the coach there now. He's meaner, and funnier, than his old man.

Well, here's one team that doesn't belong: The Bears defense is fifth in yards allowed.

Last season, the Bears were 21st (334.7 ypg) last season, and 28th (354.7) the year before. Brian Urlacher's been out the past six quarters and his linebacker teammate Pisa Tinoisamoa has barely played since going down early in the opener. Six guys have started in the defensive backfield and defensive linemen Tommie Harris, Israel Idonije and Alex Brown have all been hobbled a bit by injuries this week, to different degrees.

Everyone who follows the Bears knows that the defense has had problems since Ron Rivera left town, which is why Bob Babich is back coaching the linebackers and Smith is calling plays.

The change in coaching has helped, to be sure, but the Bears have also gotten a little lucky that the quarterbacks they've faced have been less than impressive. Aaron Rodgers was pretty lousy all by himself, until that 50-yard go-ahead touchdown pass, and Ben Roethlisberger was plagued by Santonio Holmes' drops and a lack of a consistent run game.

[+] EnlargeLance Briggs
Icon SMILance Briggs says coaching has less to do with the defense's early success than the players simply playing better.

The Bears (1-1) have seen only 44 running plays, ninth-fewest in the league, though some of that is certainly by design. The Bears' perceived weak spot is their secondary, but their front four has benefited from defensive guru Rod Marinelli and the play-calling of Lovie Smith.

"We're just playing better football," defensive captain Lance Briggs said. "You can point out anything you want to. Obviously, you bring in Rod Marinelli, Lovie takes over, but it really comes down to the players believing in what we're doing. Maybe that's it, maybe that guys are more motivated this year, maybe we're just playing better football for two games."

It's unlikely that Seattle Seahawks quarterback Seneca Wallace will do much to hurt the Bears in the air, should Matt Hasselbeck stay sidelined with a cracked rib, as expected. But the Seahawks' rushing game, led by Julius Jones with a cameo by Edgerrin James, could be a cause of concern at raucous Qwest Field.

The Bears are 12th in rushing defense, allowing 90.5 yards per game, and have given up an average of 4.1 yards per carry (which puts them in a three-way tie for 15th in the NFL). That isn't a bad number for a team that is struggling with injuries all over the defense, but one that should provide caution with Seattle on deck.

Jones had 117 yards, including a 62-yard touchdown run, on 19 carries in the team's 28-0 win over St. Louis in Week 1. He had only eight carries for 11 yards in last week's 23-10 loss to the Mike Singletary-tough 49ers, scoring Seattle's only touchdown on a 1-yard pass from Wallace.

The 62-yard score, while impressive, belies Jones' early production. That was the only run he's had thus far that was 10 yards or longer.

The Bears, throughout Smith's Tampa 2 era, have been strong at limiting running backs from piling up major rushing yards incrementally. They get a few here and a few there, but more often than not, the front seven contains the run to manageable levels. Problems occur when running backs break a tackle or two. Jones has the ability to do that, though he's really only shown it that one time.

Through our small sample size, 32 percent of the Bears' rushing yards allowed have come from yards gained after running backs have already gained 10 yards.

The fantastic statistical Web site Football Outsiders (which provides content to ESPN.com) measures this stat and the Bears rank 28th in the NFL. For example, on Rashard Mendenhall's 39-yard run last week, 29 yards count for that stat. So far, seven of the 44 rushes against the Bears have gone for more than 10 yards.

[+] EnlargeAdewale Ogunleye
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesThe Bears have six sacks in the first two games, thanks in part to two from Adewale Ogunleye in Week 1.

But the Bears' sturdy front seven has managed to hold runners to limited gains. They are fifth in stuffed percentage -- the percent of runs stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage -- at 29 percent and fifth in adjusted line yards, which is slightly more complicated to explain but it's a very good thing.

Essentially, the site explains, a team that has good adjusted line stats and bad 10+ numbers has a strong defensive line and occasional troubles tackling and in pursuit.

Last year, the Bears were second to Baltimore in adjusted line yards, first in stuffed percentage at 28 percent, and 27th in 10+ yards allowed. One place Marinelli's influence is likely being felt is in sacks. Last year, the Bears were 27th in the NFL with 28 sacks. They have six through two games, two each by Adewale Ogunleye and Brown, who sprained his ankle last week.

"There are a lot of things we can correct," Briggs said. "Lovie showed us some of the numbers that were in -- total defense, right around five or so, but there were a lot of errors we need to improve on."

One main thing to improve is causing turnovers. Last week, Charles Tillman picked off a lazy Roethlisberger deep pass, but in reality, even Alfonso Soriano could have bunny-hopped and snagged it. Craig Steltz recovered a fumble on special teams with 9 seconds left to clinch the win. Those are the only turnovers the Bears have caused thus far, though they have forced two other fumbles that weren't recovered.

The Bears defense, lineman Anthony Adams admitted, is getting older. Wiser, maybe, but creakier by the day, and certainly weaker without Urlacher barking signals and dropping into coverage.

There aren't a lot of young guns on the defense, aside from the developing Al Afalava at strong safety, that give one hope for a bright future.

The time is now for the Bears' defense. Sunday will be a good test to see what the rest of the season will bring.

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.