By Dan Durkin-
(CBS) Playing the NFL’s third-rated offense is a tough enough task on its own, let alone without your top four linebackers.
That’s exactly the situation the Bears found themselves in against the Falcons on Sunday, yet they somehow they persevered, limiting Atlanta to 13 points at home for the first time since Week 12 of the 2013 season. The defense kept the Chicago offense in the game long enough to break it open in the end in a 27-13 victory.
During Wednesday’s practice, coach Marc Trestman said the Bears lined up with Khaseem Greene, Darryl Sharpton and Christian Jones at linebacker. Never did anyone anticipate that trio would actually start Sunday, but the quartet of Lance Briggs (ribs), Shea McClellin (hand), D.J. Williams (neck) and Jon Bostic (back) couldn’t go.
Yet there they were, a second-year player who was inactive for the first two games of the season (Greene), a guy who was signed on Sept. 24 to play special teams (Sharpton) and a rookie undrafted free agent (Jones).
Injuries are unavoidable in the NFL, and the Bears have had some unfortunate luck to start the season. Consequently, the coaching staff has employed a next-play mentality for every player in the locker room, regardless of where they fall on the roster hierarchy.
“It was something that was unexpected, but the coaches do a great job of coaching you up and treating you like a starter all the time regardless of everything,” Sharpton said. “That’s one thing I love about this organization, everybody is treated in practice like a starter. Everybody is constantly reminded that you can play at anytime.”
Trestman was equally complimentary of the job his defensive staff did this week amidst difficult circumstances.
“These guys (Greene, Sharpton and Jones) did great,” Trestman says. “It starts with (defensive coordinator) Mel (Tucker) and our staff with (linebackers coach) Reggie Herring getting those guys ready. The guys on the defensive line came back and really wrapped their arms around these young linebackers. They played hard, and they were in the right place. We asked them to just do your job and not do anything more than that.”
In total, the Bears defensive line sacked Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan four times and hit him seven times. While the young linebackers didn’t record any sacks, they were used to apply pressure — particularly Sharpton and Jones – so it wasn’t like the coaching staff tried to hide their inexperienced trio.
Sharpton — who led the Texans in tackles last season — was frequently used in the Bears’ pressure packages. It was assumed the Bears would sit back in coverage to simplify things for their new group, but they flipped the script and turned up the heat on Ryan to disrupt his timing and get him off his spot.
“We’re coached to run in there like a bat out of hell and go in there with rage and go after the quarterback,” Sharpton said. “When you blitz, it’s a blessing, it’s a great opportunity to just shut your mind off and run in there and get after the quarterback.”
In the end, the three new linebackers finished among Chicago’s top four tacklers. Greene led the team with eight tackles, Sharpton had five with a pass defended and Jones had four. The Bears defense limited the Falcons to 42 rushing yards and, most importantly, shut them out in the final quarter of the game.
Slot cornerback Demontre Hurst, who was also a fill-in, had an interception to salt the game away and put the exclamation point on a gutsy effort by the patchwork defense.
For the first time this season, the Bears played a complete game in which every phase contributed. It was far from perfect, but given the adversity they had to overcome — particularly on defense — it was an admirable effort to get the team back to .500 on the season.
Dan Durkin covers the Bears for CBSChicago.com and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter at @djdurkin.