The Chicago Bears defense went through an extremely tough stretch in last week's game against the Detroit Lions. During the first and second periods, the Lions scored on six straight possessions, piling up 30 first-half points in a little more than 17 minutes of game time.
Much of the damage was done on the ground, where Reggie Bush repeatedly gashed Chicago's front seven. Defensive linemen were pushed off the point of attack, linebackers filled the wrong gaps and safeties missed tackles in support. And much of the damage was done against eight-man fronts. It was as ugly a half of defensive football as the Bears have played the past decade.
"It was a combination of fits and tackling," said coach Marc Trestman. "I mean, Chris [Conte] made a good fit, just missed a tackle. There were a couple times where we had two players in one gap and left one gap open. So things like that really accounted for it: not wrapping up, not wrapping up in the hole, and missed tackles."
Don't fret though Bears fans, defensive coordinator Mel Tucker believes the problems that have suddenly cropped up this season are fixable.
"We had some mis-fits, and those are some things we have to get cleaned up," Tucker said today. "Typically, when you see something like that, it is a mis-fit or a missed tackle, or something like that, because pretty much everything we do is sound and solid, and every run is accounted for, every gap is accounted for. Typically, those are things you can fix. Because there's no mystery to it, you know, this is where we need to be this is how we execute it. And then you learn from it and move on."
But when teams don't practice tackling, how can a defense get better at form and technique during the week?
"You know, I think that that's something that grows," Trestman said. "We don't tackle during training camp and we're not going to. A lot of teams don't. We're not the only ones. And it's something that we've just got to get better at. We're going to go back to work on it and just continue to work through it. We didn't expect to be the best tackling team at the end of Week 4 but we've got to get better as we move along and we're going to go do that."
OK, but how do you actually, physically teach the guys to tackle better when you refuse to do it in practice?
"We're not the only team going through this," said Trestman. "This is something that is really universal throughout the league early in the season and teams do get better as we move along. I think we've tackled well. But we still want to get better at it."
Maybe Tucker can help us out. Mel, how can you get better at something if you never do it?
"Obviously we're not hitting our guys and knocking them to the ground but you can put yourself in a hitting position and simulate a tackle and have the intent to tackle, proper pad level, angle and leverage and fit to simulate the tackle," Tucker said. "We did some extra tackling drills in ‘individual' because you get what you emphasize. Whether it's third down a couple weeks ago or tackling now, it's going to be a constant, week in and week out, regardless of how you're playing, you're going to be trying to plug the dam in some way. That's just the nature of the thing."
To Lance Briggs, the problems are more mental than physical.
"You've just got to be disciplined. We have to be disciplined and we have to be fundamentally sound. Just going back to the drawing board and just like in OTAs, just like in training camp, guys have got to get in their gaps and do their job," Briggs said. "It's that simple. When you talk about an eight-man front it means that somebody wasn't in their gap or something happened for somebody to not be in their gap."
For Corey Wootton, the answer is increased hustle.
"The biggest thing we have to do is rally to the football," said Wootton. "On any team, people are going to miss tackles at some point. But the big thing is getting those population tackles, getting people to the ball. So then when one guy misses the tackle, the next guy will be there."
For Tim Jennings, it's a combination of all those things but he's confident the defense can make it happen. And tackling will be key against a New Orleans Saints offense that ranks third best in the league.
"It's an easy fix," Jennings said. "I just think we have to get back to the fundamentals, the basics, everybody getting to the football, ready to break down. And make tackles. That's one thing that we started off with, drills today. Coach [John] Hoke, the first drill we did was tackling drills. We had way too many [missed] tackles in the Detroit game. I think it hurt us a lot. We're going to face the same kind of back in Darren Sproles. So we definitely have to come in and come to balance and be able to break down and make the tackle on a shifty back."
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his third season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.