Since Mel Tucker took over as defensive coordinator of the Chicago Bears, he’s had three games where his starters have been healthy. Since Week 3 of last year, when Henry Melton tore his ACL, Tucker has been playing with less than a full deck in every single contest.
That was no different today, although things seemed exceedingly bleak heading into this afternoon’s contest.
Against the Atlanta Falcons, Tucker was without his top four linebackers – Lance Briggs, D.J. Williams, Shea McClellin, Jon Bostic – his two-time Pro Bowl cornerback Charles Tillman, his third corner Sherrick McManis and his starting safety Chris Conte, who left the game in the first half with a shoulder injury.
Chicago’s defense was facing the third best offense in the league, a unit that had scored the second most points in the NFL coming into the contest.
All signs pointed to a bloodbath, yet the Bears backups had other plans.
Against one of the top offenses in the league on the road in a must-win contest without seven full-time contributors, Tucker’s unit held the Falcons to just 13 points and 287 total yards of offense.
That, my friends, is exceptional.
“Unbelievable job,” Jay Cutler said after the game. “To lose as many guys as we lost toward the end of the week and have these young guys step up, guys that don’t have a lot of NFL experience, and go out there and play as well as they did, it’s a testament to how hard they are working and how well our defensive coaches instructed them.”
At linebacker, the Bears trotted out Darryl Sharpton, signed just last week, last year’s fourth rounder Khaseem Greene and undrafted rookie Christian Jones. In total, the trio had just 20 career starts, compared to the 230 accumulated by the players they replaced.
Yet all three played like seasoned veterans, demonstrating a level of speed and toughness not witnessed in Chicago since the days of Brian Urlacher.
“I think it starts with Mel and our defensive staff, with [linebackers coach] Reggie Herring getting them ready,” Marc Trestman said. “I think the guys on the defensive line and the back end really wrapped their arms around those young linebackers. They played hard. They were in right place. We asked them to do just do your job. Not do anything more than that.”
Greene led the team with eight total tackles. Sharpton had five tackles to go with a pass defended and QB hit, while Jones tallied four tackles of his own. For a starting threesome from whom no one had high expectations, the play of Chicago’s linebackers today was enormous in the success of the defense overall.
“We just went out there and played,” Greene said. “We knew we can’t control nothing but what we do, and that’s what we did. We played with maximum effort. From the DBs, all the way down to the line, we were very physical today.”
The front seven held Atlanta’s ground game to just 42 total yards, while the defensive line hit Matt Ryan seven times and picked up four sacks. Considering the Falcons had allowed just six sacks in the first five games combined, it was an extraordinary pass-rush display.
“We had a great game plan going in,” Jared Allen said. “I thought the pressure all day was huge. Just the disruptions, the batted balls, throwing that rhythm off by forcing him to throw the ball before he wanted to and really making him move off his spot.”
Throughout the nine-year run of former head coach Lovie Smith – which many consider one of the greatest long-term defensive eras in team history – never did he field a team as injured as Tucker did today. The Bears were pulling guys off the street and elevated multiple players off the practice squad this week just to field a full 53-man roster, yet the defense absolutely dominated.
Chicago media and fans alike have consistently barbecued Tucker for a year and a half. With players dropping like flies every week, everyone wanted Tucker to do the impossible, to create something out of nothing. And when he didn’t, folks flew off the handle on a weekly basis.
Yet that’s exactly what Tucker did today, taking a group of rag-tag players, many of whom are borderline NFL players at best, and turning in a powerhouse performance.
One game doesn’t make a coach but Tucker deserves credit for the magic act he pulled off today. If you’re going to tear his head off when the defense fails, you have to praise him when he pulls off the impossible.
One has to wonder, if Tucker ever gets a relatively healthy defense to work with, how good can the Bears be on defense?
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.