By Steve Silverman
(CBS) — A couple of years ago, it looked like the only thing that mattered in the NFL was having a dynamic passing game.
The 2011 regular season was dominated by three teams. The Green Bay Packers, New Orleans Saints and the New England Patriots all threw the ball in a dynamic fashion and pulverized their opponents most weeks.
When the schedule turned from November to December that season, it seemed obvious that the undefeated Packers were on their way to a Super Bowl title. It didn’t matter that the Packers could not run the ball and they barely played any defense at all. Aaron Rodgers was throwing the ball all over the lot to Jordy Nelson, Greg Jennings, Jermichael Finley and James Jones.
Opponents simply could not stop all of them. The Packers finished the season with a 15-1 record.
The Saints and Drew Brees followed a similar script and so did the Patriots and Tom Brady. Both teams forgot about the running games and had little to offer on defense. The Saints and Pats were both 13-3.
Despite their lofty regular-season records, none of those teams won the Super Bowl. The New York Giants rode a late-season hot streak and defeated the Packers in the divisional playoffs. The Saints were beaten by the San Francisco, and the Giants outlasted the 49ers to earn their spot in the title game.
Even though they were significant underdogs to the Patriots, they defeated New England in the Super Bowl.
The Giants did not have much of a running game in the regular season as they ranked 32nd in that category. However, the running game was vital for them in the postseason in wins over Atlanta, Green Bay, San Francisco and New England.
They also played dominant, bone-jarring defense. When the balloons and confetti came down at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis after Super Bowl XLVI, the NFL changed.
It was still about the passing game, but the running game and defense could no longer be ignored.
It seems the Bears have still not gotten at least half of that message. The Bears have a dynamic passing game and a solid running game with Matt Forte. But the defense has fallen apart.
That fact has nothing to do with Brian Urlacher, who simply could not run any more when he took off his pads for the last time. It has everything to do with Lance Briggs, who has been out since injuring his shoulder in Week Seven vs. the Redskins.
Briggs was the player who knew how to turn the game into a winnable street fight. He had all the skills needed to dominate from the weakside linebacker position, but it was not merely about technique with Briggs.
It was about an attitude that he could back up on the field. “You’re not going to beat me,” he would figuratively say every time he stepped onto the field.
He learned some of that from Urlacher, but he had plenty of it on his own. When you play weakside linebacker, you must go sideline-to-sideline to make plays and put your imprint on the game.
Briggs has done that as well as any linebacker in the league. However, since he has been on the sidelines, the Bears have had nobody who could fulfill that role.
That’s why the Bears are in trouble right now. Even though Briggs has been out since mid-October, he is still the Bears’ third-leading tackler. Major Wright has a team-leading 76 tackles from the strong safety position, while backup linebacker James Anderson has 72 tackles. Briggs is next with 64 tackles, one ahead of troubled free safety Chris Conte.
It’s not just about the numbers. Anderson is not a ferocious hitter. He is a drag down tackler who seems desperate to make a play. When Briggs is healthy, he is a knockdown hitter who puts his imprint on the game.
That’s the point. Teams that play good defense in the NFL have nasty and powerful tacklers that impart fear into the best running backs and receivers in the game. When Briggs is not on the field, none of the Bears have that characteristic.
That’s not going to change until free agency or the draft next spring.
It’s not about numbers when it comes to defense. It’s about punishing your opponent and that’s why Phil Emery will have to find the biggest and baddest butt-kickers in the valley when he puts together the personnel on the Bears’ defense next year.
Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman was with Pro Football Weekly for 10 years and his byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, NFL.com and The Sporting News. He is the author of four books, including Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Football — The Top 60 Players of All-Time. Follow him on Twitter (@profootballboy) and read more of his CBS Chicago columns here.