By Dan Bernstein-
CBSChicago.com Senior Columnist
(CBS) The first half was a bad football game. The second half turned into a Bears practice.
Amazing how quickly unsightly can become adorable, sometimes. One moment you’re looking at Tilda Swinton, the next she’s Marisa Miller. It’s like my TV got drunk at halftime and decided to give me beer-goggled NFL football.
It started with Charles Tillman’s pick-six, his second in two games. Lance Briggs scored again, too, not wanting to be outdone. It was the first time since 1950 that the Bears’ defense has put points on the board in three straight games. Tillman now has eight career touchdowns, surpassing Mike Brown as the franchise record-holder.
This all starts with Lovie Smith.
It’s his philosophy, his culture, his kind of players, his results. Beat him up all you want when you feel he deserves it, but you better damn well appreciate it when it looks like he wants it to look. Fortuitous bounces are always nice, but this is far more than dumb luck.
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Anyone who has attended training camp in the scorching summer heat in Bourbonnais has seen what happens when a ball hits the ground. Even mundane incompletions are treated like fumbles: “Pick it up and score!” Voices rise, eyes turn downfield, defenders morph into blockers, looking for people to hit.
When such opportunities are missed – a catchable interception is dropped, a deflected pass tumbles to the ground uncaught, or, god forbid, any ball on the ground is not scooped up in time – the defensive players hear holy hell from Smith and coaches Rod Marinelli, Bob Babich and Jon Hoke. You can almost sense the uneasiness when players casually pass any number of balls lying around after practice ends, as if they’re a twitch away from picking it up and heading for the nearest marked end zone.
That’s how 3-3 becomes 41-3 against a crappy opponent, and that’s how they draw it up.
Tillman is the on-field embodiment of Smith. He’s a Tampa-2 corner, built to jam and drop, then drive to the ball. Only he, Brian Dawkins and Charles Woodson are 30/30 guys in picks and forced fumbles, and it is no coincidence that he has played nine of his ten years for Smith. Similarly, Briggs is a system prototype for weak-side linebacker, ruling his assigned gap that so often is the place where plays go to die.
This may be the best defense Smith has had in Chicago, and that discussion will have room to breathe during the bye week, like those regarding Tillman’s status as the best corner in Bears history and Briggs’ appearance, now, on the edges of the Hall-of-Fame radar screen.
Truth be told, Jay Cutler’s recent on-field behavior has kept us from the more serious focus on how good the Bears may be, even as they rely on so many older players on defense. It all starts with Julius Peppers, who influences every play regardless of what it says next to him on the stat sheet. He’s the opposing coordinator’s primary concern every week, and the primary reason why the defensive line has played so well.
And keep in mind that Brian Urlacher – a legend created in part by his ability to play a Smith-defense spot – can barely run, seemingly, unless in one direction in a short area. Nobody believed that his side of the ball could withstand his absence, but guess what? He’s all but absent, and it’s thriving.
Pressure the quarterback with the front four. Secure the tackle. Create turnovers. Pick it up and score. Same stuff we’ve been hearing since 2004.
Lovie Smith’s ripe old defense, newly successful. And it can happen just like that.