By Greg Gabriel–
(CBS) It wasn’t pretty, but the Bears’ 17-3 win over the Panthers at Soldier Field on Sunday shows us that Chicago is headed in the right direction.
The star of the game was the defense, particularly rookie safety Eddie Jackson, who scored first-half touchdowns on a 75-yard fumble return and a 76-yard interception return. The defense has been solid all season for the Bears, but in the past few weeks, it has starting to show that it can become dominant. If the Bears are going to reach the .500 mark, it will be because of the defense.
Time of possession is usually a telling statistic in most NFL games, but it wasn’t Sunday. Carolina opened with a nine-play drive that used up six minutes before Jackson recovered the fumble and returned it to five Chicago a 7-0 lead. Jackson’s interception in the second quarter came after Carolina held the ball for six plays, and the Panthers followed with a 15-play drive that led to a field goal, their only points of the game.
All told, the Panthers held the ball for 38:35 yet generated only 292 yards of total offense. The Bears defense put consistent pressure on Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, sacking him five times while forcing three turnovers. Carolina only rushed for 108 yards, with Newton being their leader with 50 yards on nine carries. Panthers running backs only amassed 58 yards on 21 carries. That’s a reflection of the Bears defense dominating at the line of scrimmage.
The Bears’ defensive line is quickly becoming one of the best in the league. Defensive end Akiem Hicks and nose tackle Eddie Goldman are playing at a Pro Bowl level. If they want to earn that honor, they have to keep up that strong play for another nine games.
At linebacker, Danny Trevathan is also worthy of Pro Bowl mention, though it might be more difficult to obtain after his one-game suspension earlier this season. In the secondary, Kyle Fuller is playing like a shutdown cornerback. He rarely gives up receptions and has been excellent in run support. If Fuller snags a few interceptions, he has a strong chance of earning a Pro Bowl berth.
As good at the defense has been, the offense has struggled. The Bears are playing with a rookie quarterback in Mitchell Trubisky who only had one year of starting experience while in college, but the offensive coaching staff is also playing into the hands of the opposing defenses.
On Sunday, Carolina’s game plan was geared to stop the run and force Trubisky to pass. As the Panthers succeeded, the Bears didn’t adjust. The Panthers were playing eight and sometimes nine players up close to the line of scrimmage, depending on the Bears formation. This makes it incredibly difficult to run the ball, and the Bears couldn’t as they were consistently off schedule throughout the game.
A way to beat that type of defense is with play-action passes and quick throws. Those types of plays can garner good yardage on first down and help open up the running game. The Bears didn’t utilize that type of play until their second-to-last last drive. It went for 10 yards but was called back because of an illegal formation.
Moving forward, the Bears have to find a way to open up the offense. Two of Trubisky’s first three starts have come against Vikings and Panthers teams that rank in the top five of total defense. The Saints rank 23rd in total defense, so the task shouldn’t be as difficult.
Trubisky clearly has a lot to learn, but it’s time for the coaching staff to give him more responsibility. Even with an unheralded receiving corps, coaches need to create an offense that plays to each player’s strengths and give Trubisky the chance to create some big plays.
If the Bears’ passing offense can just get something going, this team is capable of winning at least eight games with the defense as strong as it is.
Greg Gabriel is a former NFL talent evaluator who’s an on-air contributor for 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter @greggabe.