Thursday, November 8, 2012

Halftime in Chicago: The Defense

The midseason review rolls on with the defense. I could waste a ton of time throwing out superlatives to describe the play of the Bears defense this year. They're doing things right now that are just beyond what anyone could have imagined. 28 takeaways. 25 sacks. 7 interceptions for TDs. 2nd in scoring defense. A 7 TD: 17 INT ratio on defense, with an opposing QB rating of 62.9. They're allowing just 88 yards per game rushing, which drops to 78 ypg if you throw out Chris Johnson's 80 yard scamper against the second-stringers in last week's blowout.

The comparisons to the 1985 or even the 2006 team (even though the 2005 defense was actually better) will continue to come at a nauseating pace, but even those teams didn't take the ball away and score at this year's absurd pace. Naturally, the critics will say that they can't keep this up, and perhaps they can't, but the "turnovers are random" axiom often fails to apply to Lovie Smith's teams, since they've led the league in it for nearly a decade now. While the schedule is undoubtedly tougher in the second half, that's got more to do with the opposing defenses left on the docket, rather than the elite offenses, so I'd expect more of the same from these guys going forward. The only question is how many games they'll play.

DEFENSIVE ENDS:

#90 Julius Peppers: 14 tackles, 5 TFL, 5 sacks, 3 fumble recoveries.
Peppers this year hasn't actually been as dominant as he has been the last two years. It's funny to say that since he's tied for the lead in sacks, on pace for another double-digit sack year, and is still clearly one of the best pass rushers in the league, but he was such a menace the last two years that it's worth noting that he's dropped off just a slight bit this year. Part of the reason is his ailing foot, but the main reason is that he's simply got more help this year. He's playing fewer snaps than he has in each of the last three years and the team is still getting a better pass rush. Pepper's has still dominated in big games against Green Bay and Detroit, and he will be there when they really need him in the second half.

#71 Israel Idonije: 21 tackles, 5 TFL, 4 sacks
I'm not a big believer in grit, hustle, heart, or all of the other recycled crap that gets thrown at us as sports fans, but I'd have a hard time believing there are many people out there who don't like Izzy. He's just a relentless, solid football player who is never the fastest or strongest player out there and yet always seems to make an impact. He's given a lot of playing time away to McClellin and Wootton (although some of his loss of PT at end is mitigated by the snaps he gets at DT in sub-packages), but he's still one of their best run-stopping defensive lineman and his pass-rushing productivity is way up from last year. I'm glad we haven't seen the end of Izzy yet.

#98 Corey Wootton: 11 tackles, 2 TFL, 4 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 1 PD, 1 TD
With all due respect to Shea McClellin, the biggest newcomer on defense for the Bears this year has been Wootton. After missing much of his first two seasons with injury, Wootton appears to have recovered all of the burst that made him a potential first rounder before his knee injury his last year at Northwestern, and he's been a holy terror despite his limited reps at DE.

#99 Shea McClellin: 9 tackles, 3 TFL, 2.5 sacks
Despite what Hub Arkush would have you believe, Shea's been a pretty good player this year. Fortunately for the Bears, Izzy's resurgence and Corey Wootton's development have allowed them to pick their spots and avoid having to put too much on McClellin's shoulders, but he's been very effective on 3rd down and on obvious passing downs, racking up over 10 hurries and pressures in addition to his 2.5 sacks and 3 tackles for loss, despite just barely over 40% of the snaps. I'm not sure how to deal with a first round pick actually making an impact in year one. Frankly, I didn't know that was allowed.

DEFENSIVE TACKLES:

#69 Henry Melton: 26 tackles, 5 TFL, 5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles.
Henry Melton is a monster of a man. Last year he was an inconsistent pass-rusher who racked up gaudy sack totals while struggling against the run and disappearing for long stretches. This year he's evolved into the most disruptive interior defensive lineman in the conference, with only Geno Atkins of the Bengals keeping him from claiming the top spot for the NFL. If you ever hear someone try to talk about Ndamukong Suh like he'd be anything other than Henry's backup, punch them. He's not even succeeding in Pepper's wake anymore, as he's done much of his damage with Julius rotating off the field. Hopefully he gets his extension soon and avoids a Tommie Harris-style injury, because we're seeing a guy develop into a pretty special player.

#92 Stephen Paea: 13 tackles, 3 TFL, 1.5 sacks
Stephen Paea is also a guy who is turning out to be quite the football player. While he'll never put up the gaudy pass-rushing statistics of Melton, he's a better pass-rusher than most of the nose guards that have played the position in Lovie's tenure and is just as effective against the rush. Paea's kept Matt Toeiana, a very solid player, on the inactive list most of the year and hopefully he can stay healthy and continue to progress, because the early returns are very promising.

#93 Nate Collins: 6 tackles, 1 PD
Collins gets the third spot in the recap since he's managed to play his way into that spot in the rotation. This is somewhat surprising, considering he was suspended for the first game of the season and Amobi Okoye has performed well as a Bear, but Collins has certainly made the most of his opportunity. It's good for Lovie to have a guy like Nate that he can point to as an example of someone who earned his spot in the lineup simply through his hard work in practice.

#91 Amobi Okoye: 6 tackles, 2 TFL, 1 sack
Again, it's not like Amobi Okoye was under-performing. Just like last year, he's been a very effective rotational DT, but Lovie felt Collins gave them more and was playing better, and he's proven Lovie correct so far. You have to love that this unit, which for so long was just the Julius Peppers Show, now has so much depth and talent that a guy like Okoye can't even dress on Sundays.

#75 Matt Toeiana: 3 tackles
Toeiana, like his predecessor Anthony Adams (and his predecessor Ian Scott) was a hard-working gap plugger, but he just lacked the upside that Paea offered and has lost out on the numbers game, being inactive for the last seven games.

LINEBACKERS:

#53 Nick Roach: 17 tackles, 2 TFL, 1 sack, 1 PD
Roach, like every other SAM backer in Lovie's system, will never get the credit he deserves, but he's been very effective this year, hasn't been caught out of position, and has made a few more big plays than he's used to, since he has been asked to do a bit more with Urlacher's range somewhat limited. I appreciate you, Nick. I swear.

#54 Brian Urlacher: 41 tackles, 5 TFL, 1 FF, 2 Fumble Recoveries, 6 PDs, 1 INT, 1 TD
It appears that the reports of Urlacher's demise were somewhat premature. Fortunately the Bears managed to restrain themselves from following Telander's sage advice that they cut Urlacher before the season, since he's rounded into form the last three weeks, culminating in his awesome effort against the Texans. While guys like Dan Bernstein may constantly moan that the Bears will be in trouble once teams "test" "#54's lateral motion, I'm guessing they'll fail if they try. He's on his way back, folks. He'll be there when it counts, like always.

#55 Lance Briggs: 48 tackles, 3 TFL, 2 FF, 1 Sack, 6 PD, 2 INTs, 2 TDs
That said, the torch on defense has clearly been passed to Lance Briggs, who is just playing out of his f*&king mind right now. I never grow tired of opposing runningbacks turning on that second gear as they zoom toward an opening, only for Briggs to swallow them alive in the backfield. Don't f*&k with Lance Briggs.

CORNERBACKS:

#33 Charles Tillman: 43 tackles, 1 TFL, 7 FF, 1 Fumble Recovery, 6 PD, 2 INTs, 2 TDs
I can't add anything new about Charles Tillman that you haven't already heard or seen in recent weeks. One of the most underrated players in Bears history thanks to a zone defense that's always led to meatballs blaming Tillman for every opposing completion ever, Tillman's finally getting national recognition for being a badass, turnover-producing machine. All that's left for him in the second half is to find out if he can make history. He's only 4 forced fumbles away. He just got four of them in one f*&king game. Sorry, this defense just brings out the expletives.

#26 Tim Jennings: 42 tackles, 1 TFL, 15 PDs, 6 INTs, 1 TD
You're always welcome to avoid Charles Tillman if you'd like, so long as you're comfortable throwing at the NFL's leading interceptor. Jennings, like Tillman, has always been an underrated cover corner, but he's finally capitalizing on turnover opportunities and the results have been mind-blowing. 6 INTs is amazing, but 15 pass deflections after just 8 games is probably more impressive. Goddammit, I'm not even wearing pants at this point. I love this defense.

#30 DJ Moore: 25 tackles, 1 TFL, 4 PDs, 2 INTs
So far DJ's done a pretty good job this year of being DJ Moore. He's said whacky shit about Jay Cutler and Matthew Stafford. He's gotten two more interceptions. He's gotten several pressures on his signature "oh f&*k, it's that little pest" nickel-blitz.  He's given away some playing time lately to Kelvin Hayden since he's missed some tackles and got badly burned by Brandon LaFell against the Panthers, but I don't think DJ's going to be down for long.

#24 Kelvin Hayden: 10 tackles, 2 fumble recoveries, 1 PD
It's also possible that Lovie just wants to give Kelvin Hayden some more opportunities, because he's a very good player when he's healthy, which he appears to be this year. He was very effective in the opener when P'nut went out for a bit with an injury, but he's mostly split reps at nickel. This was a very good signing. Can I high five Phil Emery for padding the depth on this defense? I'll put my pants back on for it.

SAFETIES:


#47 Chris Conte: 40 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 fumble recovery, 6 PD, 1 INT
The Bears first started Major Wright and Chris Conte at safety together in week six last year. Since that time, in games where those two have paired up together, the Bears pass defense has a 10 TD: 25 INT ratio. They're always in position, they don't get beat deep, and they can come up quickly despite starting most plays at least 15 yards back from the line. You don't always hear their names called much, which is good, but they're both maturing into good players. Conte had a rough game against the Panthers, but has been very solid for a converted corner with just 17 career starts, and, as PFF noted, his closing speed is incredible as he's been one of the most efficient run-stopping free safeties in the NFL despite starting nearly every play deep.

#21 Major Wright: 32 tackles, 3 TFL, 1 FF, 4 PD, 3 INTs, 1 TD
No single player on the Bears roster has improved more than this year. Pro Football Focus has him on their NFC midseason all-star team, and noted that he's one of the best run-stopping safeties in the NFL this year. While he's not the world's greatest safety in coverage, he's made up for it with big plays, including the first of the seven pick-sixes the Bears have managed this year. Major was undoubtedly my biggest concern on defense going into the season, and he's responded by actually earning some of those comparisons to Mike Brown that people made on draft day.

That's it for now. It's rare to write one of these and not have to criticize someone. I'd feel like a rabid homer for all of the positivity, but there's really nothing about this defense you could criticize right now. Glorious.

Go Bears.