The Chicago Bears' defense was given coach treatment heading into Monday Night Football, as most media talking heads were doing first-class fawning over the Dallas Cowboys' defense. After all, the Cowboys ranked first in overall defense heading into last night's matchup, while the Bears were "just" the league's sixth-best group.
Yet when the smoke cleared, it was Chicago's defenders that stood atop a hill made of blue and gray carcasses.
On a night when they pressured Tony Romo into five interceptions, the Bears proved once again that, despite being taken for granted each year, the defense is still one of the best in the NFL.
The group returned two of those five picks for touchdowns, which was just too much for Dallas to overcome. The Bears are now 17-2 since 2005 when the defense scores a touchdown. The team currently leads the NFL in interceptions (11) and total takeaways (14).
"Our guys came out ready to play," coach Lovie Smith said after the game. "Defense, when you talk about taking the ball away, always. Normally, when you score a couple of defensive touchdowns, you have a chance to win. And when you get five takeaways, you're headed in the right direction. So just outstanding play by our defense."
Charles Tillman got the ball rolling in the second quarter. With the Bears up 3-0, Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant ran a go pattern, yet Romo thought he was running a hitch and threw the ball to that spot. With Bryant streaking down field, the only player in the vicinity of the pass was Tillman, who almost dropped the pick.
"I think when quarterbacks throw the ball like that, that's probably one of the hardest plays in football because it takes so long," Tillman said, "and you are thinking like, ‘alright, alright, oh, oh, don't drop it! Don't! Okay, I got it. Just run. Out run everybody.' I don't know. I got lucky on that play, I suppose."
Tillman returned the interception 25 yards for Chicago's first TD of the night. It was the 31st interception of his career and the sixth he's returned for a touchdown, extending his own franchise record.
"With Tim, the way he's playing now, he's very confident," said Wright. "He's definitely getting after the ball. You always want to be around him."
The biggest turnover of the game came with the Bears leading 17-7 in the third quarter. After a Jay Cutler fumble, the Cowboys lined up on Chicago's 27-yard line with a lot of momentum.
Romo dropped back to pass but was pressured by Henry Melton, who got his arm around the quarterback, knocking the ball out in the process. The pig skin flew right to Lance Briggs, who made a couple of guys miss before racing 74 yards for the game-clinching touchdown. It was the longest pick returned for a score by a Bears player on the road since the merger in 1970.
"He made those first two guys miss," said Brian Urlacher. "I've seen him before when he gets the ball in his hands. He was a running back in high school, so he knows what to do with it. It was a great play."
D.J. Moore picked up his first interception of the season in the fourth quarter, followed by Wright's second pick of the game, a beautiful play in which he streaked to the sidelines and cut the ball off from the intended receiver. It was Wright's first career multiple-pick game. The last Bears player with at least two picks after halftime was Lance Briggs in 2008 against the St. Louis Rams.
"It is good for our team," Urlacher said. "Getting takeaways is always going to help your team out. Major had two nice ones, saved us in the red zone down there. D.J. had, I mean, I could go on and on. Our guys did a good job all the way through and our D-Line got pressure again."
The defensive line only recorded one sack – although the Briggs pick may get changed to a sack, fumble, fumble return – yet they were able to flush Romo out of the pocket all night, never allowing him to get comfortable and forcing him into some bad throws.
"Rush and cover. Rush and cover," said Tillman. "I think our D-Line did a great job of hassling Tony Romo and the offensive line, and I think our D-Line made him throw some throws that he wasn't set for. And defensively we were in position to make some plays."
Henry Melton's sack gives him 4.0 on the season, second most amongst defensive tackles in the NFL.
What's even better is that the Bears again didn't need to blitz in order to hassle Romo. Four of the five picks came when the Bears sent four or fewer pass rushers, giving them eight interceptions this season with standard pressure, tied for the most in the league.
"It all works together," said Julius Peppers. "When we rush well, [the secondary] plays well. When they cover well, it allows us time to get to the quarterback because he is holding the ball. We work off of each other. It has been good so far."
This was a big win for Chicago. Since 1990, almost 65 percent of teams starting 3-1 have made the playoffs. Over that same span, only 35 percent of the teams that start 2-2 have reached the postseason.
If Chicago's defense continues its high level of play, a postseason appearance will be all but guaranteed.
"It is still a work in progress," Peppers said. "We still have things to learn on [defense] too. We just have to get both sides going at the same time. And that kind of happened tonight. You can kind of see where we are going. Tonight was a little bit of sign where we are headed."
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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.