By Laurence Holmes-
(CBS) Defense wins championships.
Yes, it’s an old platitude, but in the NFC, it’s a reality. And it’s something the Bears should pay attention to.
It’s funny that after years of the Bears being a defense-centric squad, they’ve totally flipped their personality. How dominant was the Chicago defense was before last season? In nine seasons under Lovie Smith, the Bears were No. 1 in takeaways with 310. The second closest team during that period was New England with 283. So the Bears had almost 30 more takeaways than anyone else.
In the 2012 season, the Bears had 44 takeaways and scored nine defensive touchdowns. This isn’t an endorsement of the Lovie Smith era. During his tenure, the Bears were mired in offensive mediocrity, and when you don’t make the playoffs, changes have to be made — but that doesn’t mean that Smith didn’t have some good ideas.
Marc Trestman has come in and has been an offensive innovator. The change in production is striking. The Bears were second in the league in points per game (27.8), trailing Denver, who put up a ridiculous 606 points and 37.9 per game.
I’m a fan of the Aikman Ratings because I think they’re a more complete look at how an offense of defense does. They take more things into account. (If you want to take a look at their methodology go to Aikman.com.) The Bears offense jumped from 20th in 2012 to fifth in 2013. So it’s clear that Trestman has made a difference, and considering that it’s the first year of the system, it’s not silly to think Jay Cutler and crew are just scratching the surface of their potential.
The problem is that the defense’s drop was more severe than the offense’s ascension. In the Aikman ratings, the Bears were No. 1 (and it wasn’t even close) in 2012. In 2013, they dropped to 29th.
Considering how good the Bears offense was, I thought that if they could get a defense ranked between 14-20, they could find themselves to be a Super Bowl contender, but now I’m not sure. Let’s take a look at the rest of the NFC.
You know that Seattle won it all, and it had the best defense in the league, but if you look at the final four teams in the NFC playoffs — the Seahawks, Panthers, Saints and 49ers — you find the four best scoring defenses in the NFL. None of those teams allowed more than 19 points per game. By comparison,the Bears were 31st in the league in points allowed at 29.9 per game. Being average to just below average might not be good enough, even with a great offense.
Let’s go back to the top scoring teams for a minute:
1) Broncos (606 points)
2) Bears (445)
3) Patriots (444)
4) Eagles (442)
5) Cowboys (439)
There were two teams in the Bears and Cowboys that had almost unstoppable offenses but couldn’t make the playoffs because they were also two of the worst defenses in the league. More total team equilibrium will be needed if the Bears want to compete in a conference that’s heavy on D. Outside of the teams that made the final four, the Arizona Cardinals, who were 10-6, missed the playoffs and they had a top-five defense, according to the Aikman Ratings.
There’s a couple of questions that I’ll be looking to get the answers to before September:
1) Can the Bears turn things around like the Saints did?
It’s possible. The Bears decided that they believe in Mel Tucker. From what I’ve been told, Tucker has been incredibly helpful in taking the load off of Trestman. They’ve determined that it wasn’t solely Tucker’s fault that the defense was one of the worst in Bears history. The team did think they needed to upgrade some of the positional coaches (defensive line and linebacker), so we’ll see if they can make a difference.
Phil Emery said last week that the team will stay with the 4-3, while also using multiple fronts. It will be a more flexible defense, similar to what Seattle and New Orleans do. For more on this, you should read Dan Durkin’s excellent breakdown from last week on how it might work:
The Bears want to use disguises and looks to disrupt an offense even before they snap the ball, but that’s not just a by-product of coaching. It has to do plenty to do with who is on the field. Which brings me to my next question.
2) Can general manager Phil Emery identify defensive talent?
The early returns on his draft picks aren’t good. Emery has his two top defensive picks (Shea McClellin and Jon Bostic) changing positions to compete to play the same spot next year (Sam linebacker). I’m all for finding out if guys can play, but this can’t be what they envisioned for both guys when they put them on the draft board. Emery prefers the “athlete” to the “football player,” believing his coaches will be able to bring their raw ability to the forefront, but so far that hasn’t been the case. Now you have a first-round and a second-round pick fighting for a spot, with the other one sitting on the bench? Not good.
The talent evaluation goes beyond the draft. Emery is going to have to find free agents to plug in to the defense to make it work. Here I think he’s done better. D.J. Williams was playing well until he got injured. I thought James Anderson was strong until he lost Williams and Lance Briggs. Jeremiah Ratliff was a productive player once he got healthy, and you’d like to think with a full offseason, he could come back just as strong.
The road isn’t going to be easy, and the clock is ticking. If last year shows us anything, it’s that defense still matters. In the top 12 teams of the overall Aikman Ratings, there’s only one outlier: the Lions. They’re the only team to finish below .500 in the top 12. Statistically, it doesn’t make any sense. They had the No. 14 offense and the No. 7 defense. I think we can all agree, they had some fundamental coaching issues that ended up leading to the demise of Jim Schwartz.
Of the final eight teams left in the playoffs this past season, only one team had a below-average defense. That was the Broncos, and their offense was so far ahead of everyone else, it didn’t matter, at least until Super Bowl Sunday.
Even with the strides the Bears offense has made, their defense can’t just be average. It needs to be better than that. Unless of course Cutler can produce 600 points next season.
Holmes host the Laurence Holmes Show for 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter @LaurenceWHolmes.