Have teams figured out how to beat this Chicago Bears defense?
So, here’s a deep, dark secret I’ve never told anyone: for each of the last nine years, I’ve watched the Chicago Bears play football, with the same song in my head. Perhaps you’ve heard it before — a Magic Uno song entitled “Cutty Come Back,” in 2011, when Jay Cutler tore his thumb and missed the final six games of the season, and a parody of the 1977 hit, “Baby Come Back.”
There’s one part of the song where Lovie Smith is “telling” the defense that they can’t give up any more than three(!) points. For if they do, defeat is almost a guarantee.
There isn’t a single player remaining from that vaunted defense in 2011. Despite the roster turnover, one thing has just never changed: the amount of pressure on the Chicago Bears’ defense to play a perfect game. Or else.
At times this season, the Chicago Bears have played the role they’ve always been typecast as — a bend-but-don’t-break defense that ranks among the top of the league. If the last two games have taught anything, we’re beginning to see a bit more break.
Monday Night Football’s loss to the Los Angeles Rams was certainly the more sobering of the two; almost right away, the Rams punched Chicago in the mouth with quick, decisive “5” routes (or out routes), and crossers that stretched the Bears’ across the field horizontally, and exposed Chicago’s lack of speed at outside linebacker and within the slot corner position.
A quick look at Goff’s passing chart on NFL Next Gen Statistics confirms as much.
In that game, Goff went 20-of-23 for 171 yards and two touchdowns when he kept the ball within 10-yards of intended air yards. And whether it was a well-known receiver like Cooper Kupp, or an up-and-comer like Josh Reynolds, the end result was the same, whenever they ran a short route towards the sidelines: completion, move the chains.
As expected, Drew Brees and the Saints blew the top off that philosophy. Brees, predictably, relied heavily on those short, left-side passes to Alvin Kamara. But he connected on short, first-read passes all afternoon long.
There wasn’t a single pass thrown beyond 20-or-more yards for Brees; nevertheless, the Saints had seven drives of 7+ plays, and stayed efficient. Here’s a look at his chart.
Don’t mistake this for me being intensely critical of the Bears’ defense. There’s not a single loss you can pin mainly on them this season. But, we knew what the philosophy would be heading in. Only four teams league-wide — the Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, Baltimore Ravens, and Kansas City Chiefs — allocate more money to their defense than the Chicago Bears do ($91 million, per Spotrac).
Can we have optimism in the Bears rectifying this short, outside-route problem? Perhaps, but it feels like a longshot right now. If Chicago were ravaged by injuries, that would be one thing. But they’re tied for the third-healthiest team in the NFL, only behind the Pittsburgh Steelers and Miami Dolphins, with only 13 games lost to injuries to account for.
In July, we talked about how the Chicago Bears would be among the teams benefitting from the preseason cancellation, since they had the around-the-block players that knew how to mentally prepare for a regular season, with or without exhibitions. But how will having an aging defense … age as the season progresses?
For reference, the Bears’ 26.7 average age is the second-oldest in the league.
Statistics aren’t available for the 2020 season, but one has to imagine that they look a bit similar, if not worse.
Defense on out routes, Chicago Bears over the last three seasons
— 2018: -33.4% DVOA (No. 3-rank) | 76 targets (second-most) | 68% comp. percentage
— 2019: -8.2% DVOA (No. 11-rank) | 72 targets (9th-most) | 64% comp. percentage
More than likely, the reasoning lies in the Fangio-Pagano change. Defenses are still fearful of testing Eddie Jackson too often, which puts the onus on linebackers, and even more importantly, Buster Skrine, and those defending inside.
A Sunday date with the Titans and Ryan Tannehill, one of the NFL’s best out-breaking route throwers, isn’t exactly what the doctor would prescribe, even for a defense as great as the Chicago Bears are. That Lovie Smith lyric holds true, nearly a decade later.