The Bears and Baltimore Ravens went into the 2013 season with the identical single biggest change to their respective defenses:
Both were moving on after the retirements of Hall of Fame middle linebackers in Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacher.
While their defensive seasons started with problems, the Ravens have gone one way, and the Bears, who started out better, have gone the opposite since then, for some very significant reasons.
Baltimore was savaged for 510 yards and 49 points in Week 1 by Peyton Manning, but have gotten steadily better, to the point where they are No. 10 against the run, No. 5 in rushing yards and fourth in sack percentage. They were tied for 12th in points allowed last year, No. 8 this year.
In every one of those areas, as well as total yards, the Ravens are better than their finish a year ago.
“We tried to improve our front and things like that,” coach John Harbaugh said. “Statistically if you look at us, we’re a lot better defensively than we were last year. But that remains to be seen over the course of the season with the intangibles and those kinds of things.”
In none of the 10 primary statistical categories are the Bears better than they were last season.
But the Ravens have had two substantial advantages in their post-Lewis progress. They were without Lewis for four games in 2011 and 10 in 2012, meaning they were forced to become accustomed to playing without Lewis.
Urlacher missed the last four games last season but then the Bears lost fill-in Nick Roach to free agency after playing well enough to entice a multi-year deal out of the Oakland Raiders.
The Ravens have had the same basic front four for all but two games, including rush linebacker/end Terrell Suggs. Tackle Arthur Jones missed two starts early; so did end Chris Canty.
Their middle linebacker — Darryl Smith — has started every game. The Bears were without starter D.J. Williams for all of the preseason, had him for six games, then lost him again, this time for the season. Rookie Jon Bostic started all preseason, then didn’t play the position again until late in the Giants game.
The Bears lost two of their top three defensive tackles (Nate Collins, Henry Melton) to season-ending injuries. Williams was gone after six games. Charles Tillman lost playing time to injuries before going on IR this week. Lance Briggs hasn’t played in two weeks and won’t for several more until his fractured shoulder heals.
“I think you just try to build around the guys that you have,” Harbaugh said. “And you start from the beginning and build the defense up around the personnel that you have. ... We didn’t change the structure of the defense really much. We just tried to build on what we were doing schematically and try to get better, keep pace and keep up with the National Football League chess game as much as we could.”