Reporting Adam Hoge
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By Adam Hoge-
SOLDIER FIELD (CBS) The defense isn’t ready to let the window close just yet.
Sure, Sunday’s 23-6 win over the St. Louis Rams won’t go down as one of the top Bears performances in history, but defensively, Rod Marinelli’s unit proved it still has its swagger.
Yes, the defense is getting older. And yes, Brian Urlacher is clearly entering the twilight of his career. And yes, there are still concerns at the safety position.
But through three games of the 2012 season, the Bears defense is proving that it’s still good enough to win this year and, maybe more importantly, the future might not be as dire as it seems.
Granted, two of the Bears’ three games so far were against the Colts and Rams, but when tested at Lambeau Field, the Bears only allowed the explosive Packers offense into the end zone once.
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The unit continues to do what it always has under Lovie Smith, make key stops, turn the opponent over, and, most importantly, score points themselves.
Before Brian Urlacher’s knee started to dominate the headlines in training camp, there were already deep concerns about the defensive line providing pressure and whether or not there was even one capable safety on the roster. Through three games, it’s looking like Bears fans can ease up on those concerns a little bit.
For one, cornerback Tim Jennings is one of the biggest stories in the NFL this season. The coaches started hyping up his offseason back in OTAs and for once, that hype turned out to be warranted. He now has four interceptions and has caused at least two others, one of which was returned for a touchdown by safety Major Wright Sunday.
“I just know that if you want a player to get better and you ask him to and give him things to work on and you have the ability to do it, I think it’s a commitment you have to make,” Lovie Smith said Sunday. “Tim (Jennings) made a commitment to improve his game.”
It’s not often a 28-year-old, 5-8 cornerback bursts onto the scene in his seventh NFL season, but that appears to be the case with Jennings. Lovie Smith believes lack of size is overrated and he challenged Jennings use the abilities he has and make a renewed commitment in the offseason. That’s exactly he has done and not only has it turned him into a great cornerback, but it has eased the pressure on an aging Charles Tillman and a questionable safety group.
Then there’s the defensive line, which has been nothing short of dominant through three games.
Last year, the Bears finished 29th in the NFL in sacks. This year, they already have 14 sacks as a team, 13 by the defensive line. More specifically, the defensive tackles have been great, racking up five sacks and playing a part in almost all the others.
“I’ve probably already said it 50 times already, but we have a little bit more depth,” Julius Peppers said. “Guys got better since last year. We have a good rotation that keeps us fresh and the end result is seen in the stats.”
Lovie Smith believes that depth is creating extra competition in practice and the rewards of that are emerging during games.
“We have 10 (defensive linemen) on the roster and they know it’s still about when we go back to practice,” Smith said. “We are going to dress seven defensive linemen normally and we base it a lot on how they practice each week. They realize that so you have to have your ‘A’ game every day to get in position to play these games and maybe it’s just as simple as that.”
The end-result have been younger players stepping their game up this season. Henry Melton has been great in the all-important three-technique and Stephen Paea — finally healthy — is showing why the Bears traded up to grab him in the second round last year.
“I’m not the rookie anymore like last year,” Paea said. “There’s no excuses for me not to get better. Watching film in the offseason, getting tips from coaches, my bad plays from last year, learn from my mistakes. As long as I fix that, I’ll help the team win.”
It’s guys like Paea who are providing a glimmer of hope for a defense with three potential Hall-of-Famers — Brian Urlacher, Julius Peppers and Lance Briggs — getting up there in age. And this year’s first-round pick Shea McClellin hardly looks like a bust.
Paea singled out himself, McClellin and Corey Wootton — also playing better now that he’s healthy — as the future of the Bears defense.
“I feel like those three are the future of our team and in like six or seven years, we just have to play together and we’re young right now,” Paea said. “What we can do is learn from each other, learn from Peppers, learn from Israel Idonije, all those guys because when they go, all this is going to be on us. And we go to play as a team and we see that. They are doing a great job — the older guys — leading the pack.”
It’s doubtful Paea, McClellin and Wootton will be enough to keep the defense as competitive as it has been in the Lovie Smith era, but it’s at least a start for general manager Phil Emery to work with. And in the meantime, those younger guys are providing a much needed spark this season, which right now is the most important development.
Of course, this is a Lovie Smith coached team and the players don’t think anyone should be surprised by their play.
“That’s expected. That’s nothing to be patting anybody on the back about,” Peppers said. “We should be playing like that. We’re going to continue to play like that throughout the season.”
Bears fans will continue to hope so, because no, many did not expect this.
Adam is the Sports Editor for CBSChicago.com and specializes in coverage of the Bears, White Sox and college sports. He was born and raised in Lincoln Park and attended St. Ignatius College Prep before going off to the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he earned a Journalism degree. Follow him on Twitter @AdamHogeCBS and read more of his columns here.