Arkush: Bears defense the real issue, not QB
Argue all you want about whether Jay Cutler or Josh McCown should be starting at quarterback this week or the rest of the season for the Bears, it doesn’t matter.
Either player is more than capable of executing Marc Trestman’s offense well enough to earn the Bears victories over the Cleveland Browns, Philadelphia Eagles and Green Bay Packers.
As for the future, worry about that tomorrow. If we’ve learned anything about the NFL in recent years, it’s all about getting into the playoffs. Wild cards and six seeds are as, or more, likely to go to, and even win, Super Bowls these days as anybody else.
The problem right now is it’s going to take a small miracle for the Bears to make the playoffs, no matter who the quarterback is.
The problem is the run defense.
The Bears are 32nd in the NFL defending the run, allowing 157 yards a game on the ground.
The New England Patriots are 31st, allowing 135.8 yards a game.
That’s a problem. Dating to 1990, when the NFL went to the 12-team playoff format, of the 276 teams that have made the playoffs, only one, the 2006 Indianapolis Colts, have finished last in the league in run defense. More on them in a moment.
When you can’t stop the run, you can’t control the clock. When you can’t control the clock, your opponent has more time on the field and a better chance to score points. It’s a pretty simple formula.
So what can the Bears do about it? Over the next three months, I’m afraid not much.
Trestman and defensive coordinator Mel Tucker have discussed the Bears’ run defense woes at length, but the realities of their positions prohibit them from acknowledging the scary truth. The players they’re putting on the field right now just aren’t good enough to get it done.
Trestman and Tucker talk first about run fits. The basic explanation is each defensive player is assigned a gap, which they are expected to occupy, and when all the gaps are clogged, there is nowhere for the runners to go. That is sometimes described as gap integrity.
A big part of the Bears’ problem is some of the players on defense still aren’t always sure which gaps they’re supposed to be in. At other times, they get there but don’t stay, or they’re defeated by blockers in their gaps.
Trestman and Tucker have said in recent weeks the run fits have gotten much better. The players are in the right gaps more and more. The fair question to ask is why these players still are learning which gaps they belong in.
It’s one thing to be able to defeat blocks and make tackles in the gap, and another thing to know when the play has moved past your gap and be able to move with the ballcarrier and make a play.
Those are traits that come with experience and it does take rookies and other young players some time on the field, playing at the increased speed of the NFL, to get it down. Rarely do they become so proficient you end up with a Lance Briggs or Charles Tillman.
But the fact that some Bears defenders still are learning which gaps to occupy is alarming. It suggests that, at some point, some of the Bears defenders aren’t going to get it down.
In fairness to Phil Emery and Trestman, another offseason to add more players is not unreasonable.
But, in the meantime, it leaves this season’s Bears as a 276-to-1 shot, based on their run defense, to make the playoffs.
One piece of good news is that the only other team to defeat those odds, the ’06 Colts, won the Super Bowl. Of course, there’s bad news there, too. They beat the Bears to win those rings.
• Hub Arkush covers the Bears for Shaw Media and HubArkush.com. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.