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Bears coach to be hands-on with defense

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foxsports admin

 
   
 

DANA POINT, Calif.

Two seasons after their defense took the Chicago Bears to the Super Bowl, that same defense kept them out of the playoffs. That sent coach Lovie Smith searching for a solution, and he found it without looking too far ... in his own mirror. Smith, who was an excellent defensive coach before he got the Chicago job, will take a hands-on approach with the Bears' defense this year, in effect demoting defensive coordinator Bob Babich. He is taking his cue from some of the offensive-minded coaches around the league who call their own plays, although that number has been significantly diminished by the firings of Mike Shanahan and Jon Gruden, and the retirement of Mike Holmgren.
"Bob's still our coordinator, but just like some of the offensive head coaches that are a little bit more involved in their expertise, I'm going to do that," Smith said Wednesday at the NFC coaches' breakfast during the league's annual meeting. "Most defensive coaches don't do it, but there's no reason you can't. I feel pretty comfortable doing it." It does seem odd. After all, Chicago is a franchise that seemingly forever has been identified by its strong defense and its problem at quarterback. Yet, last season, the Bears ranked 21st in the league on defense while quarterback Kyle Orton, in his first season as the team's starter, did a decent job leading an offense that had significant issues along the line. In three different games, the Bears blew leads of at least 10 points.
  • They allowed Tampa Bay's Brian Griese to throw 67 passes without once sacking him and lost in overtime after leading, 24-14, with four minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.
  • They led, Carolina, 17-3, late in the third quarter, before losing, 20-17.
  • On the season's final weekend, a victory at Houston would have clinched a playoff spot but instead the defense blew another 10-point lead and the Texans won, Matt Schaub completing 27 of 36 passes, again without a sack. "Can't do that," Smith said. "Can't happen. As a defense, no matter what else happens in the game, you get a lead ... you can't let it happen." In another game, against Atlanta, the Bears trailed most of the way until Orton led the offense downfield and passed for a go-ahead touchdown with 11 seconds remaining, but the defense allowed a long pass completion after the kickoff and the Falcons won the game with a field goal on the final play. "It was a shame we didn't win that Atlanta game," Smith said. That the Bears did not win that game, or some of the others in which their defense let them down, was cause for considerable consternation in Chicago since the organization had paid big dollars to keep the core of the defense together following the Super Bowl run. A key to improving the defense will be the health and play of middle linebacker Brian Urlacher, who has been troubled by back issues the last couple of years. The Bears also must find a replacement for safety Mike Brown, a key playmaker who has struggled through the years with injuries and, although he made it through last season, is an unrestricted free agent unlikely to return to the team. Smith is a perpetually optimistic coach, saying that "My glass is always half-full," but his emphasis on the bright side — the Bears ranked second in the NFL in takeaways and fifth in third-down defense last season — doesn't mask the bigger problems. One of them, obviously, was the lack of a pass rush. Only eight teams had fewer sacks than Chicago. Without a pass rush, the Bears were unable to protect leads, and that's why they finished 9-7 instead of, perhaps 11-5 or 12-4. "We did a lot of things well ... but we just (have to be) consistent," Smith said. "We know what we do works. We don't have to wonder whether it works or not. We just have to tighten up some things ... and we should be OK." Oddly, the more promising developments the Bears take into 2009 came on their offense last season:
  • Orton, until he twisted an ankle that hampered him late in the year, showed significant promise.
  • Rookie running back Matt Forte was the league's No. 7 rusher.
  • And Devin Hester, the great kick returner, made terrific strides as a full-time wide receiver. By the end of the year, the Bears also had returned Hester to his accustomed punt-return role although they turned kickoff returns over to Danieal Manning, who did it good enough to lead the league. But give Smith credit for this. He knows that's not what drives the Bears. "Our defense and special teams have to be among the league's best in order to be successful," he said. So he's putting at least one of those in his own hands. Ira Miller is an award-winning sportswriter who has covered the National Football League for more than three decades and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee. He is a national columnist for The Sports Xchange.
  • Tagged: Falcons, Bears, Buccaneers, Texans, Mike Brown, Brian Urlacher, Brian Griese, Matt Schaub, Kyle Orton, Danieal Manning, Devin Hester, Matt Forte

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