By Dan Bernstein-
CBSChicago.com Senior Columnist
(CBS) — Mel Tucker’s defensive game plan smelled like Italian beef and sounded like the fat white cop at O’Hare who’s telling you to move your car out of the loading zone –- doing Dennis Franz doing a Dennis Farina impersonation.
But brands don’t win NFL games.
They sell throwback jerseys and make for great on-field ceremonies at halftime, stories from grandpa and pop-culture references. They spawn media guides so thick you need one for home and one for the office.
And history is just that, despite the desire of too many to believe in magic.
“When you say Steelers-Bears, people go ‘Whoa,’” Al Michaels gushed to the Chicago Tribune last week. “Two of the iconic franchises that go all the way back. In prime-time.”
This Steelers team has nothing to do with any other, obviously, and was in no way powered by some nebulous civic pride enough to overcome the loss of too many of their good players. A trophy case is inert, not magically imbued.
Meanwhile, a Bears franchise that spent a decade in the bend-don’t-break of 2-deep zones suddenly reverted to a defensive form old enough to have your Uncle Gene barking from the barcalounger, splashing beer on you as he tried to remember how to do the fist-pump thing that went with it.
High risk and high reward. Tucker was expected to channel Lovie Smith, not Dick LeBeau –- the septuagenarian zone-blitz pioneer who stood across the field from him.
Blitz after blitz after blitz. D.J. Williams from the middle like a shot, with both the sack/fumble that cracked open the game and a jarring thud of Ben Roethlisberger that toppled the 245-pounder like a rotted oak. Lance Briggs from the weak side to hurry a throw that found Major Wright for yet another defensive score, and then again on the next series for a five-yard loss. James Anderson from the strong side, Isiah Frey from the nickel.
It got burned when Briggs and Wright failed to get home and Chris Conte danced. It let Pittsburgh back in the game by the end of the third quarter. It then took it back when Briggs’s pressure disrupted a third-down throw and forced a field goal at 10:43 of the 4th, and sealed it when Briggs forced the fumble that Julius Peppers trundled in for the decisive touchdown.
Dump this passive two-deep zone, some shouted, for years.
No matter the result, they objected to it. It was Tony Dungy’s when it won a Super Bowl and then Lovie Smith’s when it won the NFC, but it never sat right with them. Never looked right, because of their blurry childhood memories of what is now a longer time ago than anybody really wants to admit, and anything their fathers used to tell them about their days watching a bunch of guys who are now mostly dead.
Even Brian Urlacher wanted more of it, lamenting his primary responsibility of the middle zone drop. He’s headed for the Hall of Fame because of that emphasis, but that’s never gotten in the way.
“Where’s the blitz?!!” they have been bellowing at bars, on phones, at the office and from the couch, loudly enough to wake the kids so they can wonder what’s wrong with dad. They conveniently forget the playoff losses of the 1980s caused by cornerbacks asked to do too much, just wanting more of the blitzes that worked in those games they recall when it did.
Well, there it was, and that’s all of how it can go so gleefully right and excruciatingly wrong. If more such rolling dice are to come for this 3-0 team after three breathless games, get used to not trusting the scoreboard.
One old franchise has had to rely on its heritage to convince a grumbling fan base to keep grabbing at the last vestiges of hope for the season, even as they call for coaches to be fired.
Another decided to return to the strategy of its past, out of a necessity no less troubling.