As long as Bears’ defense is forcing turnovers, it’s OK
BY ADAM L. JAHNS Staff Reporter October 19, 2013 1:08AM
Cornerback Charles Tillman can keep the Bears’ defense dangerous during a difficult season by doing what he does best: knocking the ball loose. | Paul Sancya/AP
Updated: November 21, 2013 6:50AM
The list of woes affecting the Bears on defense is long and frustrating.
They’ve lost four important players to season-ending injuries, and others are dealing with nagging ones. They’ve somehow managed to become a poor tackling team. Their pass rush has been absent. Some of their best players have struggled, while opponents continue to pile up yardage against them.
But the takeaways are still there. They have become the defense’s saving grace.
Of course, the Bears need to tackle better, cover better and rush the passer waaaaaay better, especially against a dynamic quarterback such as the Washington Redskins’ Robert Griffin III on Sunday.
But as long as the ‘‘Peanut Punch’’ still leads to loose balls and as long as interceptions keep coming, the Bears have a chance to survive no matter how pedestrian certain statistics say they are.
‘‘The most empowering thing is that turnovers are most of the game,’’ coach Marc Trestman said. ‘‘If you play smart and create turnovers and take care of the ball, that’s the No. 1 factor in final scores. It’s not time of possession. It’s not yards gained. It’s turnovers. Turnovers are the most relevant stat, and up to this point we’ve been very good at it, which has enabled us to be in every game essentially and have opportunities to win in the fourth quarter.’’
The Bears are second in the NFL with 17 takeaways and rank second with 62 points scored off of them — 27 by the defense and 35 by the offense.
Standards are high for defensive football in Chicago, but the Bears don’t have to be as good as they have been in the past, not with quarterback Jay Cutler (95.2 passer rating) protecting the ball better and leading a better-equipped offense that is averaging more than 24 points per game and is expected to get even better.
Relying too much on takeaways and defensive scoring was a flawed philosophy under coach Lovie Smith. But Smith’s get-the-ball-at-all-costs mantra is still very much part of the defense’s DNA, and it’s impressive that the Bears are still forcing turnovers despite deficiencies in areas that would help create them.
The Bears are allowing opponents to convert 43 percent of their third downs and have only eight sacks, third fewest in the league. They rank 20th in total defense.
Detroit Lions running back Reggie Bush, Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Antonio Brown, New York Giants running back Brandon Jacobs, New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham and Cincinnati Bengals receiver A.J. Green have good arguments for the best individual game against the Bears this season.
But as long as the turnover ratio remains in the Bears’ favor, the defense will be OK.
‘‘Yardage is yardage,’’ defensive backs coach Jon Hoke said. ‘‘In Pittsburgh, you’ve got a two-score lead. You’re going to play softer coverage, and they’re going to throw it every snap. You can look at numbers any way you want.’’
It’s takeaways that matter.
COACH’S CORNER WITH MARC TRESTMAN: On Redskins’ linebackers
When it comes to keeping Bears quarterback Jay Cutler ‘‘clean’’ this Sunday against the Washington Redskins, there are two players to key in on in their 3-4 scheme: outside linebackers Ryan Kerrigan and Brian Orakpo.
Kerrigan, who made the Pro Bowl last year, leads the Redskins with five sacks, while Orakpo has three. Their speed and size — Kerrigan is 6-4 and 260 pounds and Orakpo is 6-4, 257 — make them tough to handle.
‘‘No. 1, you can’t block them with running backs,’’ Trestman said. ‘‘No. 2, you’ve got to block them with linemen or big people. That exposes the internal areas and allows them to internally blitz and make some things happen.
‘‘So you’ve got two legitimate guys outside who are pass-rushing defensive ends who can play in coverage and can cover man-to-man. That’s what the 3-4 is all about is having those kind of bodies to be able to do that. They have that.’’
The Bears have faced 3-4 teams in the New Orleans Saints and Pittsburgh Steelers this year, but the Redskins are different.
‘‘This team plays a little more true 3-4, true double-bubble, as I would call it, where the guards are uncovered and the center is on an island with the nose,’’ Trestman said. ‘‘It just makes it more difficult at times when there’s two bubbles over both guards. There’s more flexibility you have to have with your protection package to be able to get everybody blocked and take care of the most dangerous rushers.’’
UNSUNG SPOTLIGHT: Bears LB Khaseem Greene
While Jon Bostic takes over as the starting middle linebacker this week, his best friend on the Bears will continue to prove his worth on special teams.
Fellow rookie linebacker Khaseem Greene remains a crucial part of every special-teams unit except Robbie Gould’s field-goal group.
‘‘It’s coming along good,’’ Greene said. ‘‘[Special teams] can be an advantage in the game. That’s been my role, and I’m just embracing it and enjoying being out there.’’
The former Rutgers star has learned that special-teams success is in the details.
‘‘It’s the difference between making a tackle and giving up leverage and somebody going for a touchdown,’’ Greene said.
Greene and special-teams leader Blake Costanzo are also the next linebackers up should another injury happen.
‘‘I’m weak[-side], strong and Mike [middle] if I had to,’’ Greene said. ‘‘That’s the beauty about all the linebackers here. We have to know every linebacking position.’’
Quarterback Jay Cutler and top targets Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery and Martellus Bennett might be taking up the spotlight, but it’s running back Matt Forte providing balance for the offense with his best season in years. Forte is seventh in the league in rushing with 100 carries for 442 yards and three touchdowns. He also was fourth in total yards from scrimmage, averaging more than 114 total yards per game heading into Week 7.
If the Redskins have success in their return game Sunday, it will be an indication that the Bears’ special teams need major work and major tweaks.
The Redskins’ return game has been a weakness; heading into Week 7, they were 26th in average kickoff return.
‘‘We’re inconsistent still,’’ Bears special-teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis said. ‘‘The other night [against the New York Giants], we played good for a whole game and then you give up a play [a 46-yard return by Jerrel Jernigan] that starts with the kick [by Robbie Gould and] we’ve got guys free that we need to make a tackle with. We just need to get some young guys stepping up, and we need to play a consistent game. That’s what we need to do.’’
A stat to consider: The Redskins have 16 sacks this season, but seven of them came against quarterback Matt Flynn and the lowly Oakland Raiders on Sept. 29.