Coming into today's contest against the St. Louis Rams, the Chicago Bears were second worst in the NFL defending against the run. After St. Louis rolled up 258 yards on the ground in this afternoon's 42-21 defeat, Chicago's run defense will surely drop to the cellar of the league.
My how the mighty have fallen.
The Rams had rushed for 500 yards combined the previous three contests and started backup quarterback Kellen Clemens, who had a 10/15 career TD/INT ratio coming into the game. So everyone in the Edward Jones Done – Bears coaches, Bears players and Bears fans – knew that St. Louis was going to pound the ball on the ground. The Rams did exactly that, running the ball on 29 of the team's 51 offensive snaps, and Chicago had no answer.
First up was rookie receiver Tavon Austin, who took an end around 65 yards to pay dirt on St. Louis' first drive up the game. Next came Zac Stacy, a fifth-round rookie, who piled up 87 yards on 12 carries (7.3 average) and a touchdown before leaving at halftime with a concussion. To finish the game the Rams inserted Benny Cunningham, an undrafted rookie out of Middle Tennessee State, who rushed 13 times in the second half for 109 yards (8.4 average) and a TD. All together the Rams averaged 8.9 yards on the ground, with three rushing scores.
The Rams' final offensive drive was a nail in the coffin. Chicago's offense had cut the lead to just six points with a little more than seven minutes to play. The Bears' defense had to get one stop to give its team a chance at victory. Instead, the Rams pounded the ball on the ground six of the next eight plays, including a nine-yard TD run by Cunningham to seal the game.
The 258 rushing yards are the most Chicago's defense has allowed all season, surpassing the 209 they gave up to the Washington Redskin in Week 7.
Most concerning is that there is no obvious solution to the problem. Today, every single player on the defense struggled. The defensive line was consistently destroyed at the point of attack, the linebackers missed their gaps all game and the safeties took horrible tackling angles, turning short gains into big ones.
We can blame this on injuries if we want. Of the four defensive tackles with whom the Bears opened training camp – Henry Melton, Nate Collins, Stephen Paea and Sedrick Ellis – none were on the field today, and only Paea is still on the active roster. The team is also without seven-time Pro Bowl linebacker Lance Briggs, as well as starting middle linebacker D.J. Williams, and just lost two-time Pro Bowl cornerback Charles Tillman. Few defensive coordinators could weather losing every defensive tackle, two-thirds of his linebacker corps and his top cornerback, who is a turnover machine.
Yet Mel Tucker still deserves a lot of the blame. His group came out absolutely flat, he was out-coached by Rams offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, his blitzes did not finish, his players did not tackle and at the end of the game, his team showed no heart. Coaches can't make plays on their own but when the entire group is a collective disappointment, the DC must accept much of the responsibility. If he somehow figures out a way to right the ship going forward, it will be a downright miracle.
But it wasn't just the run defense that did the Bears in, as penalties continuously derailed the team's ability to score points. After being called for 13 penalties for 111 last week, Chicago incurred 11 more infractions for 84 yards today. Three of those penalties called back touchdowns. The offense was able to get two of those TDs back but the third one was the dagger. After Devin Hester returned a fourth-quarter punt 62 yards for the score – one that would have given him the all-time NFL record in return touchdowns and pulled the Bears within six points – was nullified due to a questionable holding call on Craig Steltz.
The Bears were one of the least penalized teams two weeks ago but have had complete mental meltdowns the last two games, which shows a team unraveling. Luckily for Chicago fans, the Detroit Lions also lost today, so the Bears (6-5) remain in a tie for first place in the NFC North. But if they are going to have any shot at making the playoffs this year, somehow, some way, Chicago's coaches must figure out a way to get the players to play with passion and intelligence for 48 minutes, otherwise this will turn into the third straight lost season for the Monsters of the Midway.
"Just the tradition of what we've been able to do defensively, this year is just unacceptable," Corey Wootton said after the game.
You got that right Corey.
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.