Last year, the Bears defense folded like an accordion when injuries hit because the group lacked depth.
The team dropped eight of 12 games during a stretch when the defense was unable to overcome the loss of starters such as free safety Mike Brown, nose tackle Dusty Dvoracek, cornerback Nathan Vasher and defensive tackle Anthony Adams. The defense plummeted from No. 6 in total yards allowed after two weeks all the way to 28th.
But this year's group may be better equipped to handle the inevitable injuries that occur each season.
"That's why we talk about playing as many players as we can throughout," head coach Lovie Smith said, "not just when we have injuries, where we have to [play them]."
Three-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Tommie Harris has missed the past two games, first with a knee injury and then because of a team suspension. Vasher, a Pro Bowl pick in 2005, was held out against the Lions because of a hand injury.
But the Bears won both games and find themselves atop the NFC North at 3-2, as other players took up the fight in the Week 4 victory over the Eagles and again Sunday in a rout at Detroit. The Lions were held to just 185 yards – the defense's best effort in nearly two years.
Five-year veteran Israel Idonije has filled in exceptionally well for Harris, who has been reinstated and is expected to play Sunday in Atlanta. As he did even before Harris' problems, Idonije played extensively in the Bears' defensive line rotation and will continue to get significant playing time. He led the team's linemen Sunday with three solo tackles, and he had four tackles plus a sack a week earlier.
"Israel Idonije really stepped up," Smith said. "He has taken advantage of every opportunity we've given him since he's been here. He played very well [Sunday] like he has the last couple weeks, and he hasn't peaked yet. He has a lot of ability, and I only see him getting better."
Rookie Marcus Harrison has also shown flashes with Harris out. He picked up his second sack Sunday, which is tied for second best on the team.
At cornerback, Corey Graham, last year's fifth-round pick, had gotten snaps in earlier games as a situational replacement for Vasher. He provided a seamless transition as a starter Sunday, leading the Bears with 10 tackles and helping contain the Lions' big, talented wide receivers: Calvin Johnson and Roy Williams.
DE Alex Brown
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
"Any time you miss a player like Nate, of course it hurts you," Smith said. "But Corey Graham has played well every time he's been given an opportunity."
At 6-0 and 193 pounds, Graham provides another physical presence in the secondary along with cornerback Charles Tillman and safeties Mike Brown and Kevin Payne.
"He did an outstanding job," Smith said of Graham's play on Sunday. "We talked about him in training camp, about the improvement that he's made, and that has carried on. He was aggressive in his play as a tackler, No. 1. A lot of times corners don't want to tackle, but he did a good job with that. He played the pass well. We were pleased with his overall play."
Harris and Vasher could both be back this weekend against the Falcons, but if not, this year's defense has shown so far that it can maintain its level of play at less than full strength.
"We obviously need Tommie when he comes back," defensive end Alex Brown said. "But we've got guys who can play. Just because they don't play, it doesn't mean they can't play."
Idonije and Graham have proven that, which was expected.
"That's what you're supposed to do," Brown said. "You get your number called, you're supposed to step up and play. They did a great job."
Notes & Quotes
The only person Lions WR Roy Williams exploited Sunday was himself.
The talented and talkative Williams had joked during the week that if Bears CB Charles Tillman didn't play then he would "just have to exploit" another Bears corner.
But Tillman did play, and he and Corey Graham, filling in for injured Nathan Vasher, kept the Lions passing game under wraps.
Williams caught seven passes for 96 yards, but he dropped at least five catchable passes.
"That's how it goes," Graham said. "I just wanted to go out there and be confident and try to make some plays. I didn't get too much [action] out there, but I thought that when I did, I did very well."
Calvin Johnson, who came in leading the Lions with 17 catches for 276 yards in just three games, was held to two catches for 16 yards. Graham was second on the Bears with seven tackles, and Tillman broke up four passes and returned an interception 26 yards for a TD. …
S Mike Brown may have given Williams a pat on the rear end near the end of the Bears' blowout victory, but he wasn't feeling any sympathy for the woebegone Lions or their yappy pass catcher.
S Mike Brown
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
"Are you kidding me?" Brown replied when asked by a member of the Detroit media if he felt sorry for the Lions. "There's no pity for the Lions. We don't have pity for the Lions. They don't have pity for us either when they were kicking our butts last year. What are you talking about?"
The Lions beat the Bears 37-27 and 16-7 last season. …
Against his former team, RB Kevin Jones contributed 36 yards on 10 carries to the offensive attack in his most extended playing time since the season opener.
"It felt good," said Jones, who was released after four seasons in Detroit. "I got to run the ball a little bit. I was just trying to get in a rhythm and just keep pounding them. That's what I tried to do today."
Jones was booed mildly by the Detroit fans, most of whom were more involved booing the home team.
"I thought they were booing the Lions, not me," Jones said with a laugh. "There were a lot of Bears fans cheering, so that's what I heard the most."
Jones had a 16-yard run on the final play of the third quarter that was almost a lot longer.
"Oh man, it was close," he said. "They got my ankle."
Quote to Note
"When your quarterback's throwing well and you have a lot of confidence in him, your guys are making plays, it definitely opens things up. The way he's playing, we'll call whatever we think we need to call. You can't win being one-dimensional, just running the ball or just throwing the ball. We have a long way to go." – Offensive coordinator Ron Turner on having balance between the run and the pass.
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