Improvement needed on defense

Chicago's defense has played well of late, especially in forcing game-changing turnovers, but when you break down the numbers you find they are from the dominant unit most believe them to be.

All the talk about the Bears' defense picking up the slack left by the injury to quarterback Jay Cutler sounds great in theory. But in reality, the numbers paint a picture of a defense that is far from dominant.

The defense has managed to create nine turnovers in the past two games, which is exceptional, but it has a long way to go before it can be considered an elite unit, one that's capable of carrying an entire football team on its shoulders.

In his Wednesday conference call with Raiders media, Bears coach Lovie Smith scoffed at the notion that his defense was "approaching" championship level.

"We think we are a championship-level defense, and we've been that way for a long time," Smith said. "Approaching? I don't think if you'd talk to many guys around here they would say that. I'd be disappointed if they say otherwise. We have some players on our defense that people know their name."

Even casual football fans know the names Julius Peppers, Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs, and all three have flashed Pro Bowl-type talent this season. But it remains to be seen if any of the three will add to their collective total of 19 Pro Bowls.

The Bears are 24th in yards allowed, and that is far from championship-caliber defense. A look at several other categories reveals a defense that is mediocre in some areas. The Bears are 29th in average gain allowed per rush, 30th in passing yards allowed and 31st in sack percentage.

In recent weeks, the defense has shown that it could be the tiny acorn that grows into the mighty oak. After allowing more than 380 yards in each of the first five games, the defense permitted 332 yards or less in four of the next five games.

"We're getting better every week," Urlacher said. "We feel like there are still some things we can do better, but we're winning games, that's all that matters. We're getting takeaways at the right time, still giving up a few too many big plays and making a few too many mistakes. But we're making plays, scoring on defense, which is what you want to do."

The defense had been doing a superb job of eliminating the big plays that played a major role in their disappointing 2-3 start. In the four games after the season-opening victory over the Falcons, the Bears allowed six plays of more than 30 yards. In the first four games of the current five-game win streak, opponents had three plays longer than 30 yards. But last week, Chargers wide receiver Vincent Jackson gashed the secondary for receptions of 32, 39 and 47 yards.

A big reason for that is a pass rush that didn't sack quarterback Philip Rivers even once. A week earlier, Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford threw 62 passes and was sacked just twice.

"In the passing game, we've got to get better, and we know that," defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said. "There's no doubt about that. It's kind of been inconsistent. They're giving me a great effort, but we have to get better. And they know that. Believe me, I brought it to their attention."

But the Raiders have relied more heavily on the run than the pass this season, even though starter Darren McFadden has been out since Week 7 with a sprained foot. McFadden, who was averaging 5.4 yards per carry, is questionable at best this week. Michael Bush has stepped in and played well, averaging 4.3 yards per carry.

The Bears' No. 29 ranking in average gain allowed per rush has a lot to do with their early failures, but in the past six weeks, they've improved from No. 28 to No. 10 in rushing yards allowed. They've held four of their last five opponents to 80 yards or less on the ground.

That doesn't mean the Raiders won't try to pound the ball Sunday, especially with four wide receivers on the injury report.

"They're pretty effective in the run, and they do a lot of different runs," Bears nose tackle Anthony Adams said. "They're physical and to complement the run, they're going to play-action (pass) a lot and try to throw a lot of deep passes, so we're definitely going to have our hands full."

If the Bears' defense is as good as it thinks it is, that shouldn't be a problem.

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