Bears need Briggs, road strips to slow down Eagles
BY MARK POTASH Staff Reporter December 19, 2013 9:26PM
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Updated: December 19, 2013 10:29PM
Linebacker Lance Briggs feels good, feels ready to play and is expected to return Sunday in Philadelphia after missing seven weeks with a fractured shoulder. But does he know the Peanut Punch?
‘‘Based on the first two days of practice, we’re really hopeful he’ll be able to play on Sunday night,’’ coach Marc Trestman said. ‘‘It looks like we’re moving in the right direction.’’
Briggs’ return won’t be a cure-all for a defense that ranks 27th in the NFL in total yards, 29th in yards per play, last (32nd) in rushing yards allowed, 25th in passing yards per play and 26th in sacks per pass play. But at least it will be a psychological boost for the Bears to have No. 55 on the field.
And almost certainly a physical boost as well. Briggs figures to be in better position to make tackles and make more plays than his replacement, rookie Khaseem Greene. And it’s a good bet that rookie middle linebacker Jon Bostic will benefit from having a seven-time Pro Bowl player next to him.
How much of a difference can Briggs make?
‘‘I don’t know,’’ Briggs said Thursday at Halas Hall. ‘‘I like to think I’m a guy who’s going to get in his gap, and when the opportunity’s there, try to make [the play]. Hopefully I can help the team. I don’t want to get out there and hurt us.’’
No doubt Briggs will help. But it remains to be seen if he can help give the Bears’ defense the bite it has been missing since the first four games, when defensive coordinator Mel Tucker was running Lovie Smith’s defense and the Bears, pretty much at full strength, led the NFL in takeaways with 14.
Since then, as the injuries piled up — defensive tackles Henry Melton, Nate Collins and Stephen Paea, cornerback Charles Tillman and linebackers D.J. Williams and Briggs — the Bears’ defense lost that takeaway edge that made noticeable lapses easier to handle. They allowed 459 yards to the Steelers on the road and won 40-23. They allowed 123 rushing yards to the Vikings and won 31-30.
After those 14 takeaways, the Bears have only 11 in their last 10 games — ranking 27th in the NFL in that span. The most telling statistic: The Bears have zero fumble recoveries in the last 10 games. They have failed to recover their opponents’ last 10 fumbles.
That’s an astonishing streak of futility for a team that thrived on forcing fumbles and recovering them under Smith. The Bears had at least one fumble recovery in 86 of 144 regular-season games under Smith (59.7 percent) — and never went more than five games without one.
The Bears apparently are struggling so much just to make tackles, they’ve lost the ability to gang up and strip the ball. The Bears have forced only five fumbles in the last 10 games (two of them by Tillman) — and only two in the six games Tillman has missed.
Injuries and the lineup changes that ensued are the culprit, Briggs said.
‘‘Most of these weeks this year, we’ve had a new starting front four or a different rotating front four,’’ Briggs said, ‘‘and a lot of young guys, and a lot of guys learning on the run. So there’s a lot of things that we had planned coming into the season that we kind of had to scale back, we had to throw out. We had guys that were actually learning how to play the base stuff. It just takes time.’’
No doubt the Bears’ defense misses Melton, Briggs and Tillman. But newcomer Jeremiah Ratliff is starting to fill the Melton void. Briggs likely will return Sunday. That all helps. But it could be that the Bears miss the Peanut Punch most of all.