With the troubles running through the pass rush (before Green Bay at least) and struggling linebackers, maybe it shouldn’t be any surprise at all that the Bears’ secondary has been the target of both critics and offenses.
Add to that the troubles with Charles Tillman’s knee, taking him out of the second half in three games that included the Detroit game, and the problems were borderline predictable. The mission statement now is holding to a sound course:
“We just want to see those guys continue to play fast, play with confidence, be where they’re supposed to be and make the plays that are there for them to make, and that’s all,” said defensive coordinator Mel Tucker. “We want these guys to play smart, that’s knowing your assignment and doing your job, play fast, read in the key, where does you key tell you to go, and then be physical.
“And if we can do that as a unit, we’ll get better and that’s really what it comes down to so the message to all the guys regardless of position is all the same.”
Now Tillman is back in full, which projects to alter the entire balance of the defense.
Tillman will be linked for this period of NFL history with Calvin Johnson, a cornerback with the size and skills to challenge the NFL’s most revered wide receiver. No one completely shuts Johnson down, and he has scalded the Bears on more than one occasion. The Lions defeated the Bears in both 2007 games, Johnson’s rookie season.
Since then, however, the Lions have lost nine of 11 games to the Bears. They won the first game this season despite Johnson finishing with a pedestrian four catches for 44 yards that day.
The issue for the Bears is the need to defend Johnson, who put up 329 in a one-point win over the Dallas Cowboys in the Lions’ last game before their off week, but to do it without compromising the rest of the defense.
“He causes so much attention out there at the receiver position, defenses are constantly focused on him,” said running back Reggie Bush, the chief beneficiary of Johnson’s presence, other than quarterback Matthew Stafford. “He’s being double-teamed, triple-teamed at times. Anytime we have six men in the box, I definitely feel like I can take advantage of that and just force defenses to be honest. When we’re both clicking and we’re both playing well, that makes it tough for defenses.”
The defense cannot afford to skew toward Johnson and invite a repeat of the 139 Bush rushing yards of the first meeting. The plan is to let the front seven take care of the rush on Stafford and containing Bush.
The rest is up to Tillman, Chris Conte, Tim Jennings and Major Wright.
What to watch for: Stafford is completing 62.4 percent of his passes, a step up for someone with only one season in his first four at better than a 60-percent rate. He also has dialed down his interception rate, with 16 touchdown passes vs. six interceptions and a pick percentage of 1.8 percent, down from a career rate of nearly 3 percent before this season.
The significance is that Stafford is setting the pace of an offense that is not giving the ball away the way it once did. If Stafford is maintaining a high completion percentage, the chains are moving and the Bears’ offense does not get on the field as much as it needs to.