Five years ago Landon Cohen was a seventh-round draft choice by the Detroit Lions and was, by far, the most experienced of the Bears Backup Boys. Cohen had 25 games of NFL action under his belt, but none since 2011 before a couple games with Dallas this September before the Cowboys cut him loose and a desperate Phil Emery rolled the dice on him.
Christian Tupou was passed over by 32 teams -- including the Bears -- for seven rounds of last spring's draft. Then he was cut by the Bears after a training camp invite. In desperation, he was brought back from the practice squad less than two months ago.
Cheta Ozougwu lasted into the seventh round before Houston took a flier on him in the 2011 draft. Since then, after eventually winding up with the Bears a little more than a year ago, he had two games of NFL experience before the Bears forced him into action a couple of weeks ago.
David Bass was a seventh round draft pick of Oakland before being a victim of the Raiders' final cut. They tried to sneak him through and get him on the practice squad, but his performance against the Bears in this August's preseason game convinced Emery to take a flier on him. So Bass had zero games of NFL experience until the Saints game in Week 5.
2012 first-round draft pick Shea McClellin had 14 games of NFL experience, with seven total tackles, before being expected to undertake a greater role this season.
2012 sixth-round draft pick Isaiah Frey didn't play a single game last year. Early in training camp, he was asked to become the team's nickel back, participating in more snaps than not in the modern-day NFL. Frey has turned into the most pleasant surprise, holding his own and perhaps opening the door to greater future opportunities
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These are the Bears who have been asked to fill in for Henry Melton, Nate Collins, Israel Idonije (through Emery's own decision, and drafting) and Kelvyn Hayden. On top of that, second- and fourth-round draft picks Jonathan Bostic and Khaseem Greene had taken exactly ZERO NFL defensive snaps before they had to, when D.J. Williams and Lance Briggs (19 years of NFL experience, combined) forced them into the lineup.
This is what the Bears have been relying upon against experienced, high-flying, NFL offenses. Emery had to make his choices on what his priorities were a year ago, and if we asked for a show of hands a year ago, that priority was offense, with a prayer his defense would stay healthy.
There's been a lot of talk about gaps and fits and "do your jobs" in the defensive failures. We're talking whopping inexperience and guys who need to overcome a lack of physical skills with heart and intangibles. You can get away with that in a spot or two in the NFL; you can't when counting upon multiple replacements to players with years of experience (if not Pro Bowls) under their belts.
It would be unreasonable to think that Jeremiah Ratliff can step right in after more than a year off and return to Pro Bowl-level play. It might be too much to ask of ex-second-round pick Stephen Paea to be a run defense difference-maker after being sidelined twice already by turf toe. It's not too much to ask of Emery to make the right choice with precious top picks, and the jury on McClellin seems just about decided in the court of public opinion.
But these were the characters (along with Corey Wootton, learning a new role, on-the-job) asked do a job as good as the others have done in this league. Defensive coordinator Mel Tucker can teach and preach and go over film, but at some point guys just aren't as capable of winning one-on-one battles to make it all work, from a physical, and talent, standpoint.
We shouldn't necessarily be surprised at what's happened. Somehow, through all this, the Bears have remained a factor in the division title discussion, in a way completely opposite from years' past. They couldn't make the playoffs in five of the previous six years with those causes 180 degrees different. There's still time for it all to come together, but the reason the Bears are even in this spot is failures of acquiring reliable depth in drafts past, catching up to the present.