By Adam Hoge-
SOLDIER FIELD (CBS) — The signs were there in Bourbonnais.
An aging Bears defense looked like it had one more good run — with one important stipulation: it had to stay healthy.
That may seem like an obvious declaration — injuries are crucial to every team’s success — but for an organization in transition from defense to offense, the health of Lovie Smith’s leftovers was imperative. The starters had not yet spoiled, but the depth had been gobbled up.
The loss of that depth was completely understandable too. The salary cap exists for a reason and if a general manager is going to do whatever is necessary to improve a failing offense, another area of the team has to take a hit. Phil Emery did what he could to restock through the draft — three of his six picks were on the defensive side of the ball — but the offensive line had priority with the pick of Kyle Long in the first round.
- Bernstein: Bears Better Than Bad
- Durkin’s Rapid Reaction: Bears Capitalize on Giants’ Mistakes
- Hoge’s Notes: Offense Stays Clean, But Is Far From Perfect
- Bears Stop Skid, Beat Winless Giants 27-21
- Photo Gallery
Meanwhile, some veterans had to be cut loose. The decision to let Brian Urlacher, Nick Roach, D.J. Moore and Israel Idonije go was necessary but also impactful, as it had a ripple effect on the depth. D.J. Williams and James Anderson were creative pickups to give rookies Jon Bostic and Khaseem Greene time to develop, but there was only so much Emery could do with the defensive line and the secondary.
The preseason didn’t help. The late addition of defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis looked promising, but he never showed up to Bourbonnais. Then cornerback Kelvin Hayden went down with a torn hamstring, throwing former practice squader Isaiah Frey into the nickelback role and Zack Bowman into the important swing-corner role.
Still, the Bears were surviving. Barely. Tillman was banged up Week 1 and playing hurt, but playing nonetheless.
Then Henry Melton tore his ACL in Pittsburgh.
A week later, Stephen Paea suffered a turf toe injury.
A week after that, Nate Collins also went down with an ACL tear.
Then Thursday came, and it became apparent that Tillman wasn’t going to be able to push through his knee injury with only three days off in between games.
So there the Bears were late in the game Thursday night on a short week against the Giants with five backups playing with the No. 1 unit. And that doesn’t even count defensive end Corey Wootton playing out of position at defensive tackle.
Naturally, defensive coordinator Mel Tucker had to get creative. On the Giants’ first drive, Shea McClellin — yes, that Shea McClellin — was lined up in a two-point stance over the right guard on third down. Later, undrafted rookie Zach Minter saw the first playing time of his career. There were even sequences where four defensive ends made up the entire front-four at the same time.
But what else was Tucker supposed to do?
And it only got worse from a health standpoint. D.J. Williams left the game with a chest injury, forcing Bostic into the game. Then James Anderson left with a back injury and special teamer Blake Costanzo had to fill in.
Considering all that, it’s understandable that the Giants were able to move the football and keep the game relatively close before ultimately falling 27-21.
But that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be alarms going off at Halas Hall. The Giants came into the game dead last in rushing, averaging just 56.8 yards per game. Backup Brandon Jacobs topped that by the end of the first quarter and finished with 106 on the night.
Gaps were not filled. Tackles were missed. Coverages were blown.
And if it hadn’t been the now 0-6 Giants visiting Soldier Field Thursday night, there’s a good chance the Bears would be sitting at 3-3, not 4-2.
“We missed some tackles,” head coach Marc Trestman said. “We didn’t make some plays that we certainly need to make down the road, but we stuck our hats in there and it was a physical game.”
Fortunately, the defense still executed the one part of its game that hasn’t dipped: the creation of takeaways. Cornerback Tim Jennings came up with two Eli Manning interceptions and returned one for a touchdown. Zack Bowman came up with an interception as well.
But six weeks into the season, the same problems exist and there’s not much help on the way.
The defensive line continues to struggle to generate pressure and it’s losing at the line scrimmage more than it’s winning on run plays. Meanwhile, linebackers have been pushed out of their gaps and everyone seems to be guilty of missed tackles.
“We got some new guys in there,” Wootton said. “We’re trying to fight and claw, but they get paid too. We try to be in our gap every play, but sometimes they’re going to win.”
The problem is, the Giants won a lot Thursday — especially on third down. They converted 7-of-11 third down tries.
“We got to get off on third down,” Lance Briggs said. “Third down is more important than anything else.”
The good news is that the Bears only play one game in the next 24 days, so Tillman, Paea, Anderson and Williams have some time to get well for a second-half push. But Melton and Collins aren’t walking back out onto the field this season. This defense relies on pressure generated from the front-four and when it doesn’t get it, there are going to be breakdowns in the secondary.
And you saw what a Tillman-less secondary looked like Thursday night.
By now, there’s a large enough sample size to conclude that the heart of the Chicago Bears is no longer the defense. It’s the offense.
So the question is, do you trust Marc Trestman to get this offense ready to carry the Bears to the postseason?
He’s got his work cut out for him.
Adam Hoge covers the Bears for CBSChicago.com and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter at @AdamHoge.