By Dan Bernstein-
CBSChicago.com Senior Columnist
(CBS) Fortunately for the Bears, Lovie Smith is wrong.
He declared before the game that the playoffs had essentially begun, since his team was welcoming a conference foe in December that also has designs on the postseason.
And while his team wasn’t eliminated by the Seahawks Sunday, it was beaten and exposed. This one looked bad.
The defense lost the game for the Bears. Then it lost the game again.
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It has to just be killing Smith that the primary reason for the 23-17 overtime defeat was their lack of speed on defense – late to recognize, late to decide, and late to react. Even when there were plays to be made, it seemed that the bodies just couldn’t get where they needed to be.
Some big-name bodies, too.
Speed defines Smith’s defensive identity. His demands that his players be lighter than their counterparts, preferring velocity and acceleration over mass to create force. Upfield-penetration at the line, others getting back to a landmark and exploding to close on the ball, swarming to create turnovers.
So to see a game decided by his defense’s inability to run was a painful reminder of the ravages of age and time, the vicious physical toll of the game, and how the NFL’s salary cap has affected the depth of talent on rosters.
Attrition began early, with safety Chris Conte leaving the game due to illness, and continued late when Henry Melton hurt his shoulder, Tim Jennings left after taking a hard sideline hit, and Brian Urlacher sat with a hamstring strain. Employing their vaunted rotation of competent linemen did not offset obvious fatigue among those with a hand on the ground.
We may not know when Urlacher’s injury occurred, nor do we know just how badly his surgically-repaired knee is ailing, so let’s use the binary definition of health preferred by Smith: up or down, playing or not. And Urlacher must bear much of the blame for letting an inexperienced quarterback run wild. Lance Briggs, too, underperformed coming off an injury. Charles Tillman looked like he can look when he’s not creating magical fumbles, which is to say, a step slow.
Opportunities abounded for all of the linebackers to stop the maddeningly-effective Russell Wilson. The kind of collegiate read-option plays that decided the game on the edges are not supposed to work at this level because the pursuit is overwhelming. By the time the Bears compensated, the unflappable rookie used their commitment against them – sucking them up just enough to find easy completions under the next defensive layer.
Too many tackles had to be made by the linemen coming back downfield, shoving ball-carriers even further forward. Major Wright flat out missed too many chances, including what would have been a clinching interception.
It was exactly the opposite of what should happen against the Bears, and it happened again and again, on the two drives that made the difference.
Here were Jay Cutler, Brandon Marshall and Robbie Gould saving the day after some welcome replay decisions and dumb Seattle penalties were conspiring to help bail out Smith for bypassing an easy, early field goal, and his offensive line for not gaining two feet on fourth down.
The aerial combination was pure brilliance. Cutler not only posted a passer-efficiency rating of 119.6, he picked up first downs with scrambles and dives, even juking defensive backs. His hail-mary completion to Marshall was a display of raw talent from both players.
And for what? Only to live to see Seattle carve them up again with the same formations and calls. No secrets, no tricks, just more extended plays and first downs. Ballgame.
Without speed to burn, this Bears defense could become very ordinary.