The day Lovie Smith was fired, and when Rod Marinelli followed him out the door a day after Marc Trestman was named his replacement, a thought crossed the minds of many of us: The defense can't be expected to play at the same level it had in 2012, when it ranked 5th in the NFL.
What we've seen through two weeks hasn't been a freefall, by any means, but 17th isn't 5th.
You can argue the relative production and impact of the main absentees from last year (Idonije, Urlacher, Roach and Hayden) versus that of their replacements (more McClellin, Williams, Anderson, and Frey). The attempt to stabilize the transition with Mel Tucker maintaining much of the status quo in philosophy and terminology remains a work in progress. And that last phrase is probably the most important thing to remember.
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We'll have a better answer on all this when we see if the two highest-paid defensive players can return to their Pro Bowl status. Julus Peppers Wednesday wasn't about to use physical excuses for his performances against the Bengals and Vikings, but he didn't care to answer questions about those games, either - preferring to look ahead to the Steelers and vowing a better pass rush. The back of his "bubble gum card" indicates the numbers will come, but anyone familiar with his history also knows there are quiet stretches each season. For that, he deserves the benefit of the doubt that double-digit sacks and double-team attention will return. If it doesn't, he'll either be injured, or 33 years of age means NFL Father Time has started to get the best of him.
Henry Melton played even fewer snaps than Peppers did (one half in Oakland) in the preseason, courtesy of a concussion. The Under Tackle's been one of the best in the league the last couple of years, so he may just be getting back in game shape. One sign of encouragement was his 3rd-and-goal stop of Adrian Peterson on the Vikings' final offensive play Sunday, holding them to a field goal that allowed the offense to win the game.
Lance Briggs, Tim Jennings and Charles Tillman have played like they did last season, even if Peanut's been a bit banged-up. I'm not sure you could characterize the Urlacher/Roach 2012 model as head-and-shoulders better than Williams/Anderson this season. Stephen Paea's playing his best ball as a Bear these first two weeks. But the initial gut reaction of a slip of this defense over the course of 14 more games seems to rest on a few matters: Health, Peppers and Melton reaching the bar they've set for themselves, and Shea McClellin and Corey Wootton taking the next step.
But for some perspective, the defense has allowed just 13 more yards in winning the first two games this season versus splitting the first pair against Indianapolis and Green Bay a year ago. They had eight sacks a year ago versus weaker offensive lines, as opposed to the two thus far. They've allowed one more touchdown (four) and matched the number of field goals allowed (three) than the first two weeks of `12. Like last year, their opponents have scored one defensive and one special teams touchdown.
Optimistically, the defense - even if it stays in the middle of the pack - has a greater margin for error under the belief the offense is only using the opening chapters of Marc Trestman's playbook. But if those guys up front start making an impact again and Peppers can still follow through on Wednesday's promise, this promising start should easily continue building momentum. The first step is keeping the league's second-worst offense in its misery Sunday night.