Despite new management, Bears' once-proud defense still a disaster
Throughout its 96-year history, the Bears franchise has been synonymous with great defense. From the Bill George era into the immortal tenure of Dick Butkus, through the Buddy Ryan defenses of the early 1980s to the Lovie Smith iterations in recent years, Chicago's NFL team has generally been able to rely on stout, fundamentally sound, punishing defense even if the other side of the ball wasn't quite up to snuff.
These days, that seems like a very distant memory. The Bears now sit at 0-2, after a 48-23 Week 2 loss to the Cardinals, and though Jay Cutler left that game with an injury, the continued decline of their defense remains the biggest problem.
Everything fell apart for the former Monsters of the Midway in 2014, as a group of injured and underperforming veterans combined with the passive schemes implemented by former defensive coordinator Mel Tucker made defense this team's Achilles' heel. The Bears finished 28th overall in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted defensive rankings, the franchise's lowest ranking in the 25-year history of FO's metrics. And that was just one year after the team finished first in those same stats, in the last year before former head coach Lovie Smith's departure.
The Bears fired Tucker after the 2014 season and replaced him with former 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, who had done a marvelous job with San Francisco's defense for years—especially in 2014, when the 49ers ranked fifth in those same FO defensive metrics despite a host of injuries and off-field issues. It was thought that Fangio's hire, along with the hire of defensive-minded head coach John Fox, would turn things around in short order.
Through two weeks, that hasn't happened. If anything, the 2015 Bears defense looks even more porous and liable than the 2014 version. The season opener, a 31-23 loss to the Packers, featured a typically efficient Aaron Rodgers performance: 18 completions in 23 attempts for 189 yards, three touchdowns and no picks. Expecting Rodgers to be good against any defense is a no-brainer, but the extent to which the Bears let Rodgers do his thing was distressing to say the least. Chicago hurried Rodgers nine times, according to Pro Football Focus' metrics, but never hit him and never sacked him. And if you give Rodgers time, you might as well head back home before the game even starts.
Chicago's Week 2 loss to the Cardinals, a 48-23 shellacking (the most points the Bears have ever allowed at home in franchise history), featured four touchdown passes from Arizona quarterback Carson Palmer and the benching of 2014 first-round cornerback Kyle Fuller after one too many deep throws were allowed. Palmer completed 17 of 24 passes for 185 yards for four scores and one interception. The sackless streak continued. Chicago was also charged with 14 penalties for 170 yards, the most in one game for the franchise since 1944. When Fox was asked about Fuller's benching after the game, the coach was succinct.
“I just know we gave up 170 yards in penalties on downfield throws, and it wasn't a mystery we were going to see some of those.”
Fuller allowed a 42-yard pass interference penalty in the first quarter, and fellow cornerback Alan Ball, who was undressed for a touchdown against the Packers, allowed a 38-yarder of his own with 5:30 left in the first half.
This regression is especially disconcerting given the fact that during his time in San Francisco, Fangio schemed against Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians and his vertical passing game twice a season. In this case, prior knowledge didn't help at all.
“Obviously the most improvement we can make is just improving our pass rush and winning our one-on-one battles a little bit more than we did,” Fangio said of his defense's performance against the Packers in the week leading up to the Cardinals game. “I thought we competed well, we executed the defense, you didn't see people running free and that were obvious errors to the naked eye, to anybody. We were there.”
Well, they weren't. And they aren't.
It's easy to blame Fox and Fangio. But here's the thing: Chicago's defensive regression goes far beyond whoever's in charge. Per ESPN, the Bears have allowed 40 or more points for the eighth time in the last three seasons, an ignoble total that leads the league. They had allowed 40 or more points eight times total in the previous 15 seasons. So, even when Smith's defense was living high on the hog in the last year of his tenure, things were starting to slip. The team's front office was never able to replace aging stars like Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs, Julius Peppers and Charles Tillman. Tucker's schemes didn't help at all, but when you hire one of the NFL's best defensive game-planners as the Bears did in Fangio, and you still have major issues, it looks more and more like a talent drain that goes far beyond whoever has the headset and the chalk. It's the main reason the team has an 0-2 mark for the first time since the 2003 season that was head coach Dick Jauron's last year.
Free-agent acquisition Pernell McPhee has struggled with injuries. Veteran end Jared Allen, who had a tip-drill pick against Palmer, is still adapting to his role as a stand-up rusher. Former Raiders star lineman Lamarr Houston didn't do much in his first season in Chicago due to injuries, and he's not done much so far this season. Fuller looked like a star early in the 2014 season, but injuries and ineffectiveness have limited his potential. The team's formerly intimidating linebacker corps has been reduced to very little, and the safety group may still be the biggest overall weakness.
Most of the attention after the loss to Arizona will be on Cutler's hamstring injury, but the real concern should be a defense that doesn't look anything close to world-beater status, and may take more than a few years to get there.