Chicago Bears must regain their defensive prowess



Does defense win championships?

Is this axiom, recited more often than an anxious teenager blinks, really as sacrosanct as the frequency with which it is repeated?  The reason we inquire is because, despite their 3-1 start, there are foreboding signs that the Bears’ championship aspirations could be derailed by a suddenly struggling defense.  The defense, which has ranked higher than the offense in fourteen of the team’s fifteen playoff appearances since 1963, is badly lagging behind the offense.

The defense is currently ranked 20th in yards/game, the offense thirteenth.

If the Bears’ defense does not improve, can they still win a championship?  While the correlation between defensive excellence and championship football was once ironclad, there has been some softening in the relationship since the advent of the salary cap in 1994.  But this softening, or the emergence of exceptions to the general rule, should provide Bears’ fans little comfort based on the defense’s performance so far this season.

In the nineteen years before the emergence of the salary cap, from 1975 to 1993, a team’s chances of winning a Super Bowl without a top-rated defense were about as good as getting through medical school by studying from the juke box lights.  Of the nineteen champions crowned during this period, only three finished with defenses ranked outside the top ten in yards/game and zero outside the top twenty.  Thirteen of the nineteen teams were ranked in the top five, and only five of the nineteen defenses had worse rankings than their offenses.  Dominant defense was to a championship what thick crust is to Chicago pizza; you could not have one without the other.

Since the salary cap era dawned in 1994, and probably as a result of the proliferation of league rules designed to generate more offense, the correlation of defensive dominance and championships has become less extreme.  Of the nineteen Super Bowl teams in the salary cap era, six defenses have finished outside the top ten, four even outside the top twenty.  Eight championship defenses have had worse rankings than their teams’ offenses.  Since 2001, the New England Patriots (2001), 21st defensively, the Indianapolis Colts (2006) 21st, the New Orleans Saints (2009) 25th and the New York Giants (2011) 27th have won championships.  However, elite quarterbacks were guiding those teams in Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and Eli Manning, respectively.

So what have we gleaned from this brief overview?  One, it is a good thing this year’s Bears are not playing in the pre-salary cap era, when a 20th ranked defense would be arrested for being caught within 3000 feet of the Lombardi trophy.  Two, teams with substandard defenses in the salary cap era are winning championships with elite quarterbacks, which Jay Cutler still is not.  So the Bears defense is posed with two options to help keep the team on a championship track this season:  1) hope that Cutler’s maturation continues and he evolves into an elite quarterback who can overcome his team’s defensive ineptitude; or 2) ratchet up its quality of play and become a top ten or better ranked defense.

Though four weeks,  the Bears currently rank 20th in the league defensively at 384 yards/game.  Only two teams ranked lower than the Bears have winning records, the 3-1 Miami Dolphins and the 4-0 Denver Broncos.  The Broncos’ defensive numbers, much like those of the 2009 champion Saints, can largely be explained by their potent offense jumping to such huge leads that their defense yields a lot of meaningless second-half yardage.

Nevertheless, the Bears, Broncos and Dolphins are the only teams with winning marks in the bottom fourteen of the defensive rankings.  Yet seven teams ranked higher than the Bears defensively have winning marks.  The Bears are ranked 26th in points/game defensively at 28.5, and not a single team ranked lower has a winning record.  Of the teams ranked in the top seven in this category, six have winning records.  Even at this early juncture of the season, quality defense is correlative of winning.

On the bright side, the Bears are actually on pace to shatter last season’s turnover total of 44.  And with three defensive touchdowns already, they are actually on pace to eclipse last year’s league season record of nine defensive touchdowns.  However, neither the number of turnovers they generate nor touchdowns they score off of those turnovers can overcome the 384.0 yards/game they are yielding.  Last season, the Bears complemented the turnovers by holding opponents to 316 yards/game (fifth ranked) and 17.3 points/game (third ranked). Thus, despite all of the fanfare paid to the turnovers they created and touchdowns they scored, the Bears’ defense was multi-dimensional and not the sieve it has been so far this season.

If the defense does not improve, can the offense overcome the defense’s substandard play?  Through four weeks, the Bears are tied for thirteenth averaging 352.3 yards/game.  Last season, the offense ranked 28th and averaged just 310.5 yards/game.  Through four games, Cutler’s QB rating is 85.1, nominally better than last year’s 81.3.  Excluding defensive scoring, the Bears are averaging 27 points/game, an improvement over last year’s 20.

So while the defense certainly cannot remain in the dregs of the league if the Bears have championship aspirations, it might not have to be a carbon copy of the 1985 Bears or even last year’s version if the improvement offensively is maintained.  However, if the Bears continue to play at their current level defensively, it would take the ’09 Brees-led Saints or ’06 Manning-led Colts to compensate for the defense’s poor play.

Two, Can the defense improve?  Yes.  DE Julius Peppers notched more tackles, four, in the Detroit Lions game on Sunday than he had produced all season in addition to registering his first sack.  Eventually CB Charles Tillman should be healthy.  Their ability to compensate for pro bowl DT Henry Melton’s season-ending knee injury will likely go a long way toward dictating whether the defense can ratchet up its performance.

While Cutler, with the exception of the Lions game, has shown marked improvement, he still has not proven capable of leading a 20th ranked defense to a championship.  His name does not belong, at this point, alongside those of Brady, P. Manning, E. Manning and Brees as quarterbacks who overcame their teams’ defensive weaknesses to lead them to titles.  He might have improved enough to where the Bears’ defense does not need to be comparable to last year’s unit.  But it almost certainly must restore some of last year’s roar if the Bears have any illusions of fulfilling their Super Bowl aspirations.  Otherwise, the 3-0 start will soon look like a mirage.

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