Defense, not Cutler, Bears' biggest issue

Julius Peppers (Tim Fuller/USA TODAY)

Jay Cutler may have played poorly today, turning the ball over four times, but it was Chicago's defense in the first half that allowed Detroit to rack up an insurmountable lead.

When Detroit Lions running back Reggie Bush burst through the line of scrimmage on a first-down run in the second quarter today, he saw Chicago Bears safety Major Wright moving in for the tackle. Wright had the ball carrier dead to rights and lowered his shoulder for the hit. Yet Bush leapfrogged Wright, clearing the defender as if he were a track hurdle, before outracing the rest of Chicago's defense for a 37-yard touchdown run.

It was a score that put the Lions up 20 points late in the first half, a lead they would never relinquish on their way to a 40-32 victory in Week 4. It was a play that effectively finished off the Bears, no matter what the final score indicates – Chicago scored two late touchdowns to give the illusion this game was close.

The play was a microcosm of where the Bears have gone wrong defensively this season. Coming into the game, the Bears were ranked 18th in the league in total defense and passing defense, and 15th against the rush. Those numbers are sure to fall with the Lions rolling up 417 total yards, 159 of which came on the ground.

And that was almost all Bush, who today did his best Barry Sanders impression, making numerous Chicago defenders miss en route to 139 yards on the ground. He also caught 4 passes for 34 yards, giving him 175 yards from scrimmage on the day.

Bears defensive players, nearly to a man, blamed poor tackling as the reason for Bush's dominance.

"Plain and simple, we just missed a lot of tackles," Charles Tillman said after the game.

"When we don't tackle the way we need to, that shows what [Reggie Bush] can do," said Cory Wootton.

"For us, missed tackling was a big part of our game," Stephen Paea said. "We need to correct that."

And they are all correct. It's surprising that a team, which excelled in tackling under former head coach Lovie Smith, can't bring anyone down this year. The only roster turnover came at linebacker, so it's not like this is a new defense in terms of personnel. Yet in terms of coaching, there's a definite difference.

Defensive coordinator Mel Tucker was hired this year after a season in Jacksonville in which his defense ranked 30th in the league overall, 22nd against the pass and 30th against the run. The 2012 Jaguars finished with 20 sacks as a team, the fewest in the league.

Most blamed a lack of talent, and not Tucker, for the horrible defensive performance in Jacksonville last year. Unfortunately for the Bears, the same problems have followed Tucker to Chicago. The Bears came into today's game with just four sacks through three games and were ranked 28th in the league in sacks per pass play. That lack of pressure up front – with the same cast of characters that totaled 41 sacks last season, eighth most in the league – has severely hurt the club defensively.

Throughout most of this afternoon's contest, Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford had as much time as he needed to scan the field and step into his throws. Despite that, his accuracy was off and his receivers dropped a number of passes, so the outcome could have easily been a lot more lopsided.

The Bears did finish the game with three turnovers, one interception and two fumble recoveries, and forced two fumbles that bounced back into Detroit hands – including Stafford's goal-line touchdown. In that area, Chicago's defense excelled but at this point, we might need to accept the realization that in between turnovers, the Bears are going to give up a ton of yards and plenty of points. And if those turnovers suddenly dry up, it could get ugly.

That is unless Tucker corrects the tackling problems and figures out a way to get some pressure up front. At this rate, Chicago is on track to finish in the bottom half of the league in all three major defensive categories. That never happened during Smith's nine-year tenure. That's not a coincidence.

Jay Cutler was miserable in today's game, throwing three interceptions and losing a fumble that was returned for a touchdown. If he plays only marginally better, the Bears would have had a real shot to win the game. But the downward trend of a defense that used to dominate using almost the exact same personnel is a much bigger concern going forward. During one stretch today, Detroit scored on six straight possessions. You can't win when the defense takes half the game off.

Cutler has shown signs of improvement this year but had a bad game today. The defense has done nothing but get progressively worse. That must stop or the Bears will fall far short of expectations this season.


Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his third season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.

BearReport.com Recommended Stories