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Bears show signs of improvement against Colts

9/9/2008
Brian Urlacher and the Bears' defense took advantage of a depleted Colts' o-line in Sunday's 29-13 win. Joe Robbins/Getty Images

In Super Bowl XL, the Indianapolis Colts offensive line dominated the line of scrimmage against the Chicago Bears. Joseph Addai and Dominic Rhodes ran wild, and Peyton Manning had time to survey the field and find the open receiver. The loss sent the Bears into a downward spiral that led to a 7-9 record last season. Now, they are apparently ready to be a factor again, as the defense stifled the Indianapolis offense, and rookie running back Matt Forte ran through the Colts defense in a decisive 29-13 win Sunday night.

The Bears are built around defense. Since Lovie Smith was hired in 2004, they have been among the best defenses in football. Injuries led to a solid but unspectacular defense last season, and consequently, pressure was put on the sputtering offense. Overlooked in this lackluster season was a gradually improving defense that was among the league's best over the second half of the season. Based on the Football Outsiders DVOA ratings (explained here), Chicago ranked 18th in defense through Week 9 but second behind San Diego after Week 10.

On opening night, the Bears had their full arsenal of defensive players. Cornerbacks Charles Tillman and Nathan Vasher were healthy and up to the task of taking on the Colts' receivers. Defensive tackle Tommie Harris dominated the middle of the line. Even injury-prone safety Mike Brown appears healthy.

The key was the play of the linebackers. Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher were able to crowd the line of scrimmage, thwarting the running game. They have enough athleticism to still drop into the passing lanes. This strategy was a drastic improvement over the Super Bowl, where the linebackers positioned themselves eight yards downfield and allowed the Colts to run all over them.

The Bears' strategy took advantage of a hobbled Colts offensive line. Pro Bowl center Jeff Saturday is out due to injury and the Bears pressured the center of the line, and the novice group that included two rookies failed to control the line of scrimmage. The Colts had no success running the ball up the middle, and their reserve linemen seemed unable to run their patented stretch play.

Also, Manning's lack of confidence in his line led to a steady diet of throws underneath. Not a single Colts receiver averaged even 10 yards per reception. The Colts just missed a couple of big plays, but otherwise they were mostly limited to underneath slants. Manning's frustration on the sideline was visible.

The dominant defensive performance allowed the Bears' offense to play conservatively. The Bears' struggles last season were largely due to the revolving door of mediocre quarterbacks. Kyle Orton played adequately Sunday, but the key was he was never forced to make plays outside his comfort zone.

Forte's big 50-yard touchdown gave the Bears an early lead, and from that point, Orton took very few chances. He worked on underneath throws and completed two big passes to his tight end, providing enough offense to let the Bears coast home with a victory.

The Colts should hardly panic. Saturday will be back in the next couple weeks, and Manning will get more comfortable after missing the whole preseason. The bigger story is that the Bears showed signs that they might be back. A dominant defense got them to the playoffs in 2005 and 2006 and just might get them back in 2008.