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Loss to Lions was wake-up call for Bears

CalvJohnsgets away from demoted safety BrandMeriweather score TD Lions’ win. | Getty Images

Calvin Johnson gets away from demoted safety Brandon Meriweather to score a TD in the Lions’ win. | Getty Images

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Updated: December 13, 2011 9:08AM

The Bears’ defense was an ­obvious culprit after a 24-13 loss to the Detroit Lions at Ford Field on Oct. 10 dropped the team to 2-3. With virtually the same cast that was ninth in the NFL in yards allowed and fourth in points allowed in 2010, the Bears suddenly were 29th in yards and 17th in points.

The problem was no secret: big plays. The Bears allowed three touchdowns of 79 or more yards and five plays of 50 or more yards in the first five games of the season. Last year the Bears allowed two plays of 50 or more yards in 16 regular-season games: touchdown passes of 59 yard (Tom Brady to Deion Branch) and 53 yards (Brett Favre to Percy Harvin).

Of the five long plays this season, none were more glaring than the two breakdowns against the Lions: a 73-yard touchdown pass from Matthew Stafford to Calvin Johnson; and an 88-yard touchdown run by Jahvid Best.

Big plays by the 6-5 Johnson are going to happen, even against the best defenses in the NFL. But Best’s stunning run seemed to startle Bears coach Lovie Smith to do something. Best came into the game averaging 3.0 yards per carry, with two rushes longer than 10 yards (19 and 12). But he burned the Bears for 163 yards on 12 carries.

‘‘It was ugly,’’ linebacker Brian Urlacher said. ‘‘They had three plays for over 200 yards. So that can’t happen. If we’re gonna give that up again, we’re not gonna play well. So we’ve gotta eliminate those, and just do what we’ve been doing: run to the football, make plays, and have fun.’’

‘‘That whole first quarter [of the season] was a wake-up call,’’ linebacker Lance Briggs said. ‘‘A lot of tough teams, a lot of tough losses, a lot of things that happened that we didn’t like. The last three games have been ... we’re making progress.’’

That they are. Whether it was the demotion of safeties Brandon Meriweather and Chris Harris, it’s pretty clear that Smith got his players’ attention. In three games since they played the Lions, the biggest plays the Bears have allowed are a 31-yard pass from the Eagles’ Michael Vick to Jeremy Maclin and LeSean McCoy’s 33-yard touchdown run.

And it’s making a difference. The Bears allowed 6.5 yards per play in their first five games; they’ve allowed 4.7 yards per play in the last three. The Bears have held their last three opponents below their season average in yards. The Eagles came in with the No. 1-ranked offense in the NFL: (449 yards per game), but gained only 330 against the Bears.

What’s the difference?

‘‘No changes. Just executing better,’’ Briggs said. ‘‘It’s really nothing more to it. We haven’t done anything different since Lovie’s gotten here.’’

‘‘It’s just emphasis on doing our jobs,” Bears defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said. ‘‘We kind of just took a step back with them and we kind of had an OTA mentality. Just make sure we’re doing things exactly right, and just repeat it over and over and over again, until we start doing things right again.’’

The Bears have improved from 29th to 23rd in yards allowed and from 17th to 14th in points. While those are modest improvements on paper, it’s a little misleading. The Bears have played four of the top offensive five teams in the NFL in total yards and seven of the top 15. The Vikings — the lowest-ranked offense the Bears have faced — are 18th. So there haven’t been any easy touches.

The difficult early schedule and the lack of offseason workouts because of the lockout seemed to throw the defense off kilter. With so many veterans, the Bears’ defense habitually coasts through the preseason with a ‘‘vanilla’’ approach. They’ve caught up now.

‘‘I wish we all knew [what the problem was], so we could have fixed it earlier,’’ Urlacher said. ‘‘We didn’t have OTAs, we didn’t have all that stuff, which in our defense, it’s all about repetition, doing things over and over.

‘‘But now we’ve seen them all, we’re doing a bunch of walk-throughs again, and maybe that has something to do with it, I don’t know. We didn’t play well, that’s all there is to it.

“Somehow we figured it out, and hopefully in the nick of time so we have a chance to do a little better this season.’’

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