Are The Chicago Bears Fading Away?

The Chicago Bears have lost three of four and dropped into a tie in the NFC North with the Green Bay Packers. With their hold on the division title slipping, a first-round playoff bye perhaps also disappearing with it, the Bears are now getting bad news on the injury front, with reports that linebacker Brian Urlacher will miss the rest of the regular season. All of which begs the question—is the regular season going to be all there is for the Bears?  Let’s break down Chicago, see where they’ve both succeeded and failed and then look at the final four games on the schedule, in the context of the NFC playoff race.

It won’t be earth-shattering news to start with the premise that Chicago is built on defense. They rank 2nd in the NFL in points allowed. It’s not a unit that’s universally dominant—they rank low in terms of stopping the run and Seattle exploited that with 176 yards on the ground last Sunday, including a good day from Marshawn Lynch.  On the special teams side, the punt coverage is poor. But the Bears do everything else extremely well.

They don’t let opposing quarterbacks get the ball down the field, which then requires long, sustained drives. All it takes is a sack to upset a drive like that and Chicago’s defensive front four gets to the quarterback from all angles. Julius Peppers is still going strong at one end and a tag-team of Israel Idonjie and Cory Wooten is on the opposite flank. Then Henry Melton can get heat up the middle. And should a sack not be in the cards, the Bears lead the NFL in takeaways, with 34. It’s a tough team to drive the field on and that’s what they make you do.

On the offensive side, Chicago isn’t bad—they rank 13th in points scored, so they’re in the top half of the league. But when you look at the offense’s individual components, it’s clear they rely on help from the defense. The running game is below average, and in spite of Jay Cutler’s good day connecting with Brandon Marshall on Sunday, the passing game doesn’t produce big plays. Devin Hester’s glory days in the return game are well behind him, with poor numbers on both kickoffs and punts. Finally, this team does not protect the passer, ranking 27th in sacks allowed. For a quarterback who essentially gets pummeled every Sunday, Cutler has to put up with a lot of ridiculous questions about his toughness. I wouldn’t want the guy’s job.

When we look at the Bears in context, what emerges then as a team that is reliant on forcing turnovers and getting sacks. That’s the classic description of a team that can win the games it’s supposed to win, but have a difficult time against the league’s upper crust. I don’t believe turnovers are flukes—bad teams are bad for a reason, and it’s that they don’t take care of the ball, and while the Bears’ defensive personnel—particularly corner Charles Tillman—deserves tremendous credit for their playmaking skills, it’s much harder to force good offenses into mistakes.

Chicago’s results back that up. Here’s the eight wins—Indianapolis, St. Louis, at Dallas, at Jacksonville, Detroit, Carolina, at Tennessee and Minnesota. Beyond the Colts there are no winning teams in that group, and even that win comes with the huge caveat that it was the first game of the year as Andrew Luck got his feet wet. The losses? They came at Green Bay, Houston, at San Francisco and Seattle. You can say that two of the games were on the road and a game and a half (part of Houston, all of San Francisco) came with Cutler injured. But the Seattle game, played at home with a healthy quarterback, was likely a harbinger of what’s going to happen with the Bears when they play good teams.

The schedule only features one more winning team and it’s the December 16 home game with Green Bay that will likely swing the NFC North. That’s also the only home game though, and the Bears have to beat Minnesota on the road this coming Sunday. They also play the collapsing Cardinals and Lions the final two weeks.

I respect Lovie Smith as a coach, and the way this team plays also brings to mind memories of Marty Schottenheimer’s teams of years past, especially when he coached in Kansas City. As a result of that respect and the historical analogy, I think the Bears will be consistent enough to pick up a couple more wins and get to the playoffs. But they won’t beat Green Bay, won’t win the NFC North and will say a quick goodbye in January, when the .500 and below opponents are nowhere to be found.