The emphasis for the Chicago Bears this offseason was to get better at stopping opposing rushing attacks. After a 2013 campaign in which the defense finished dead last against the run, GM Phil Emery added a host of new faces to the front seven.
Yet despite the supposed upgrade in talent, very little changed in the regular-season opener against the Buffalo Bills, who rolled up 193 yards on the ground en route to a 23-20 upset win at Soldier Field.
New faces, same results.
“We have to go back and watch the film and figure out where our fits are and we’ve got to play our defense,” Jared Allen said after the game. “Bottom line, guys have got to make plays. If we stop the run today, it’s a totally different game.”
Three Bills players rushed for more than 50 yards: Fred Jackson (61), Anthony Dixon (60) and C.J. Spiller (53). Quarterback E.J. Manuel chipped in 19 yards on the ground, including an eight-yard touchdown run in the first quarter.
“We didn’t play disciplined football,” said Lamarr Houston. “When you play good run teams, you’ve got to play disciplined football. You’ve got do your job, you’ve got to know your job, you’ve got to stay on your job. Disciplined football.”
Things were at their worst when Chicago’s defenses needed to step up the most. Late in the second quarter, the Bears allowed Dixon to scamper 47 yards, setting up a 7-yard touchdown reception from Spiller that put the Bills up 17-7 heading into halftime.
Then, after the Bears had clawed their way back into the game and forced overtime, Chicago’s defense gave up a 38-yard run to Jackson, which brought the ball inside the five-yard line and set up the game-winning field goal.
“I didn’t envision this outcome at all, to be honest with you,” Allen said. “Even at the half, we knew what happened on the one big run and you clean it up and you go. In the second half, we were playing good ball and in overtime, we got a chance to win the game and good defenses have to take it upon themselves to win the game. You have to tackle the run.”
To add insult to injury, safety Chris Conte was literally smacked around by Jackson at the end of his long run. Conte ended the play on his backside as Jackson attempted to dive into the end zone. It was a poignant moment in which the Bills proved they were the tougher team.
For his part, Conte said he was trying to force a fumble, which is why the play ended so badly.
“It’s a play where it’s the end of the game and I’ve got to get the ball out,” said Conte. “If I hit him, it’s a field goal no matter what, so I’ve got to try to get the ball out. It was a desperation play where I’ve got to find a way to punch the ball out.”
After allowing more than 161 rushing yards per game last season, and giving up nearly 200 today, it’s obvious the run defense has some srious fundamental issues. Much of that generates from the linebackers, who played a very poor game collectively.
Overall, Chicago’s four rotational linebackers – Lance Briggs, D.J. Williams, Jon Bostic and Shea McClellin – combined for just eight total tackles. And Williams, the club’s starting middle linebacker, he didn’t even show up on the stat sheet.
Yet there are signs of hope. If you take away Buffalo’s 47- and 38-yard runs, the Bills gained just 108 yards on 31 carries, or 3.48 yards per carry. In reality, the Bears did a very solid job stopping Buffalo’s four-headed rushing attack on all but two plays of the game.
“Up until that big, long run before the half, I think they averaged about 3.3 or 3.4 yards per carry, so we were doing pretty good,” Tillman said. “Maybe in that one play we had a lack of discipline.”
The Bears and coordinator Mel Tucker must now go back to the drawing board to find some way to limit those big runs going forward. Unfortunately for them, their time is limited, as the club will head to San Francisco this week to face the 49ers’ high-powered rushing attack.
If something doesn’t change over the next seven days, Frank Gore and company are going to run roughshod over the Bears in the same fashion as the Bills, which would put the team in a major hole at 0-2.
“Hopefully we’ll look back on this and it’ll be just a game that we lost,” said Allen. “You don’t want to give home games away. We’ll fix the problems and we’ll move on but we better darn well get this run thing figured out.”
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his fourth 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.