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Bears’ defense steals show, but offense must improve vs. tougher foes

Julius Peppers pleads his case referee Jerry Hughes after being called for unsportsmanlike conduct third quarter. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

Julius Peppers pleads his case to referee Jerry Hughes after being called for unsportsmanlike conduct in the third quarter. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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Updated: October 25, 2012 6:22AM

With the Bears clinging to a seven-point lead over the St. Louis Rams in the fourth quarter, defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli addressed his linemen:

“We got to make a statement. Everyone finish.’’

The defensive line took Marinelli’s message to heart, continuing its gamelong domination. It applied steady pressure on Sam Bradford, who entered the game with the third-highest passer rating (112.4) in the NFL, and prevented even garbage-time yardage.

The defense’s statement: Six sacks; two interceptions, including one returned for a touchdown by safety Major Wright to seal the 23-6 victory; and no red-zone penetration.

The offense, in essence, declined comment.

Or whispered inaudibly.

After asking for silence from fans at Soldier Field, the Bears’ offense hardly made any noise against a defense that had conceded 802 yards in its first two games. The unit’s continued struggles allowed the Rams to hang around into the fourth quarter.

For all the offseason additions on offense, the Bears’ M.O. appears unchanged: Depend on the defense and special teams to keep them in a game or provide a spark.

That has worked against the Indianapolis Colts and Rams, who both went 2-14 in 2011.

But the Green Bay Packers capitalized on penalties, turnovers and missed opportunities, and the upcoming Dallas Cowboys — despite their own shortcomings — have a roster loaded with talented players.

The Rams blew a lead in Detroit and eked out a victory over the Washington Redskins, but their growing pains were on full display against the Bears.

After the Rams broke up a third-down pass just past midfield, linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar made contact with punter Adam Podlesh, giving the Bears a first down.

But the Bears gained only three more yards and settled for a 54-yard field goal from Robbie Gould in the first quarter.

After cornerback Cortland Finnegan intercepted a Jay Cutler pass and returned it 34 yards into Bears territory late in the first quarter, the Rams’ offense responded with a three-and-out.

After the Bears went three-and-out for a second consecutive series in the third quarter, the Rams were handed a gift.

Linebacker Lance Briggs made the stop on a third-and-24 running play, but defensive end Julius Peppers shoved running back Daryl Richardson to the ground and was flagged for a personal foul.

The Rams lost five yards over the next three plays, then mercifully punted.

Playoff teams don’t squander such opportunities.

Meanwhile, the Bears’ offense keeps doing just that.

For a second consecutive game, Cutler couldn’t connect with a wide-open receiver in the end zone.

Against the Packers, it was Brandon Marshall. Against the Rams, it was Devin Hester.

Were they drops or poor throws?

It doesn’t matter because playoff-caliber teams make those plays.

“It was hit-or-miss,” said Cutler, who was 17-for-31 for 183 yards with no touchdowns and one interception. “Offensively, there were some things we could make better, but the idea is to win.

“It’s not a one-on-one tennis match.”

But football is about one-on-one matchups, and the Bears’ offensive players are on the losing end of far too many of those. Against a Rams defense that had only two sacks entering the game, the Bears allowed two more sacks, six pressures and five tackles for loss.

The numbers could’ve been much worse if Clay Matthews or DeMarcus Ware had been on the field.

Coach Lovie Smith suggested this was a bounce-back game and insisted the Rams deserve some credit.

But if the Bears are going to assert themselves among the league’s best teams, they’ll need a better collective effort — particularly from the offense — if they want to leave Cowboys Stadium next Monday night with a victory over the 2-1 Cowboys.

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