In openers, count on Bears defense
By MARK POTASH firstname.lastname@example.org September 8, 2011 9:30PM
Buffalo Bills v Chicago Bears
Updated: November 9, 2011 2:04PM
Facing Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday in the season opener will put the Bears immediately on the spot. But it’s not such a great deal for Ryan and the Falcons’ offense, either.
The Bears start each season chronically searching for offensive rhythm. And this season, even special teams coach Dave Toub says his usually elite group will be a ‘‘work in progress.’’ But the Bears are counting on their defense to be there from the start. And it usually is — no matter how good the quarterback on the other side is.
In Lovie Smith’s seven seasons as coach, the Bears’ defense has allowed an average of 12 points in openers. And that includes games against the Packers’ Brett Favre (170 yards, 40.9 rating), the Chargers’ Philip Rivers (190 yards, 73.3), the Colts’ Peyton Manning (257 yards, 81.8) and the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers (184 yards, 92.0).
The Bears are 3-4 in season openers under Smith, but the defense has been good enough to win every time. The only notable slip-up came in 2009, when Rodgers threw a 50-yard touchdown pass to Greg Jennings with 1:11 left to beat the Bears 21-15. That’s when Brian Urlacher suffered a fractured wrist in the first half that put him out for the season. (Rodgers’ 92.0 rating in that opening game is the best ever against the Bears under Smith. But when Urlacher was in the game, Rodgers was a pedestrian 11-for-19 for 91 yards and a 70.3 rating.)
So even though the Bears’ starting defense had zero sacks in the preseason against a first-team offense (Henry Melton sacked Browns backup Seneca Wallace last Thursday), the defense figures to turn it on when the real season opens.
‘‘It’s not [a matter of] turning it on. It’s just hard to get motivated for those preseason games,’’ Urlacher said. ‘‘You’re not game-planning. It’s either cover-2 or cover-1, that’s all we do the whole time. There’s not a whole lot to play for. You don’t want to get hurt. You want to get in shape if you can, run to the football.
‘‘But once we game-plan, [the early success] is a tribute to our coaches. We game-plan for the first opponent and then we do our defense. We go to the football. We get a lot of takeaways for some reason. We just play faster for some reason.’’
‘‘It’s just preparation,’’ cornerback Charles Tillman said. ‘‘Coach [Rod] Marinelli and the rest of the defensive coaches do a great job of getting us prepared. They try to confuse us every which way you could think of in practice. And it works. ’’
The Bears benefit from a group of veteran leaders on defense — Urlacher (33), end Julius Peppers (31), tackle Anthony Adams (31), Tillman (30), linebacker Lance Briggs (30) and end Israel Idonije (30) have eight years or more in the NFL. This defense might be on the verge of becoming old — Urlacher and Briggs in particular bear watching this season. But right now it collectively hasn’t lost anything that experience can’t make up for.
‘‘Once you see a drop in production, then I could talk about age,’’ Tillman said. ‘‘For now . . . with age you get experience, you get knowledge and we get better.’’
‘‘That’s the case with every team [having a win-now mentality],’’ Urlacher said. ‘‘We want to win now. Our window may be closing a bit — we are getting a little bit older. But we’re still playing at a pretty high level for as old as we are. We’re still pretty decent, I guess.’’
With Urlacher returning in 2010 after missing all but the first half of the opener against Green Bay in 2009, the Bears improved from 17th to ninth in total yards, from 23rd to second in rushing yards and from a tie for 21st to fourth in points allowed.
At this stage, you don’t know when it will stagnate or regress because of age. But the Bears are expecting to be even better in 2011.
‘‘It’s great to raise the bar the way we do,’’ safety Chris Harris said. ‘‘We plan on being a top-three defense.’’
They’ll get a great chance to prove it from the start. The 6-4, 217-pound Ryan, starting his fourth season, had career bests of 3,705 yards, 28 touchdown passes (to only nine interceptions) and a 91.0 passer rating in 2010.
But Ryan will have his own challenges. As good as he was overall, Ryan had a 76.2 passer rating (nine touchdowns, six interceptions) in outdoor stadiums last season. (He had 19 touchdowns, three interceptions and a 100.2 rating indoors). And he’ll be facing a veteran defense eagerly awaiting this moment. The preseason is over.