Commentary

Third-and-wrong

The Bears defense's inability to get off the field on third down is a troubling trend

Updated: August 29, 2010, 3:52 PM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- Walking from the parking garage to Soldier Field, I passed a vendor at a booth hawking programs and noticed something unusual.

The Bears were not only selling $5 game programs at the booth, but also $5 bottles of 5-Hour Energy drinks. You know, the stuff you see at gas station counters and on cheap TV commercials.

So, take that Forbes Magazine, which dared criticize the organization in its annual business of football preview. That's good sponsor integration for the preseason, which has been known to induce coma-like somnolence.

Fans could've used a shot of fake enthusiasm for the Bears' penultimate game of the preseason, a 14-9 loss to the Arizona Cardinals. Chicago's dreams of a preseason Super Bowl are shot with an 0-3 record. Heck, I could've used a shot of energy slurry. I wasn't alone.

After watching a sluggish Bears team get shut out when the first-teamers were in, I'm not sure the company would want to be associated with the Monotonous of the Midway.

Good thing this game doesn't count, huh?

Here's the silver lining: Expectations can't get lower for an organization celebrating the 25th anniversary of Chicago's favorite team. It can only go up from here when Detroit comes calling Sept. 12.

Not that everyone is looking for the positives.

When Lovie Smith entered the interview room, the volume on the postgame show was still blaring and Smith got to hear my ESPN 1000 colleague, Fox analyst and former Bear Tom Waddle joke that he needed a margarita after watching this game.

"Man, that's how it goes when you're 0-3, I guess," Smith said with more than a mixture of acquiescence and annoyance.

If the Bears play like this in the regular season, Waddle, not to mention us hoi polloi, might need to mix our energy drinks with something stronger. Like Absinthe. It could be a very long season if things don't pick up, and not because they're playing in January.

Jay Cutler had a bad game, 10-for-20 for 129 yards, rife with underthrows and poor decisions. He played under duress, getting sacked four times in 2 quarters, and his offense seemed out of sync for much of their time on the field.

Cutler and his offense will get better, as long as the line holds up and the learning curve flattens.

The defense, however, should be better already. But it's not. And it's the glaring problem right now as the competitive portion of the preseason is all but over. The Bears travel to Cleveland on Thursday for the finale.

[+] EnlargeChicago Bears defense
Dennis Wierzbicki/US PresswireThe Bears' defense has looked atypically sloppy this preseason.

On the Cardinals' two scoring drives against the first-team defense, they converted all four third downs, all of which were of the third-and-long variety.

To make matters worse, linebacker Lance Briggs left the game early in the second quarter with an ankle injury. The Bears' sideline reporter "tweeted" Briggs was spotted leaving the stadium in a walking boot. Brian Urlacher didn't play because of a strained calf.

Even Smith, a perennial glass-half-full guy with the media, couldn't mask his unhappiness with his team's progress.

"We're not where we want to be right now," Smith said. "The plan was for us to play a lot better at home in the third preseason game."

You know what they say about plans, they're useless until you get hit in the mouth. Or in the case of Chris Harris, juked out of your jock. Harris, the prodigal safety who returned to the Bears secondary, had another bad game, continuing an unimpressive preseason. Harris, dressed in a nifty fedora after the game, admitted his faults.

"I just had a bad game today, point blank," he said. "I'm human. I had a bad one. I'll bounce back next week."

A half-hour later on Twitter, he elaborated to his followers: "Ugh. Tonight might have been my worst game ever. I had a bad game today....I know! I'm Human!

Thank God its the preseason n it doesn't count."

Doesn't he know Twitter is for self-promotion, not self-flagellation?

With injured rookie Major Harris likely licking his lips on the sideline, Harris was behind Stephen Williams on his 27-yard scoring catch in the second quarter, though it was Charles Tillman that let his man free. But it was the second scoring drive where Harris really got burned.

Cardinals running back Tim Hightower juked Harris near the line of scrimmage as he ripped off a 29-yard run in the Arizona's second possession of the third quarter. And then he "shook" Danieal Manning and Harris up the middle for a 13-yard gain.

On third-and-13, Matt Leinart hit Steve Breaston on a quick slant and Breaston raced toward Harris at the goalline. Harris went for the hit, but Breaston skied over him for the score.

"I missed a couple of tackles, a couple of plays I should've made," he said. "I didn't. I have to get them next time."

Breaston's score put the Bears down 14-0 with 6 minutes to play in the third, and that was it for the regulars.

The Bears had let their previous two opponents convert 13 of 31 third downs(41.9 percent), so this wasn't just a case of Arizona making plays. It's the Bears defense not making plays when they count.

"It's just one of the parts of the game we have to clean up," defensive end Julius Peppers said. "We've got to be better in that area. That's one of the things we definitely have to get corrected."

To be fair, the Bears made some early stops on third down. For instance, Hunter Hillenmeyer batted down a Derek Anderson pass on third-and-3 during the Cardinals' first drive.

The Cardinals' combo of Anderson and Leinart completed 16 of 22 passes for 178 yards. Chicago stopped the run in the first -- 9 carries for 15 yards by four guys -- but Hightower burned them in the third and finished with 62 yards on eight carries.

With Cutler and Mike Martz, the architect of the Greatest Show on Torn-Up Grass, the offense is going to put up points. But it's also going to turn the ball over. And the Bears need the defense to make plays.

The mostly Cover 2 defense is coached by Rod Marinelli, who like Martz won't be addressing the media after games, but it's Smith's baby. We know that. Everyone knows that. The Bears can't rely on a bend-and-don't-break strategy if they can't get off the field on third down.

"We've gotten ourselves defensively to the third-and-long situations," Smith said. "It's making a play, here and there, is what we need to do. We are making progress. We just haven't been able to finish plays."

Despite the free agent spending and the hiring of Martz, there hasn't been an outpouring of partisan zeal from the devoted fanbase. Not like last year when Cutler was traded. Most predictions run the gamut between 9-7 and 7-9. Smith said not to worry. There's still one more preseason game and three weeks of practice.

"We're going to be a good football team," Smith said. "We're not there right now. We haven't played that way yet."

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

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.

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