Lovie’s defense returns in Lovie’s return

Lovie Smith returned to Soldier Field today, and the Chicago Bears defense played like he was still in charge, forcing four Buccaneers turnovers and making life miserable for Josh McCown.

During his nine years as head coach of the Chicago Bears, Lovie Smith’s defenses were turnover factories. Game after game, Smith’s units created critical turnovers that led to victories.

Since his departure following the 2012 season, Chicago’s turnover well has run dry. In the Bears’ last four games, they had forced just two total turnovers, one of which was an interception last week on a desperation pass in the game’s waning moments.

Smith is now the head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers yet his presence on the opposing sidelines apparently lit a fire under the Bears defense, which forced four turnovers, three during a game-changing the third quarter. The third-quarter takeaways led to two quick touchdowns, which was all the Bears needed to secure a 21-13 home victory.

“That was huge. Getting those takeaways on that side of the field and being able to give our offense a chance to put some points on the board, that was huge,” Tim Jennings said after the game. “A quick turnaround [in scores]. That’s what we need from the young guys and our veterans.”

The turnover frenzy began with David Bass, whose strip sack of Buccaneers quarterback Josh McCown led to the Chicago’s second score.

“He had [the ball] low and was running,” Bass said. “I figured since he was running, I was at a disadvantage, so I was going to have a disadvantage tackle, so I figured I’d hit the ball away.”

Bass’ turnover was followed by a Matt Forte touchdown run just one play later, which gave the Bears a 14-7 lead they’d never relinquish.

On Tampa Bay’s next play from scrimmage, Ryan Mundy intercepted an errant McCown pass that was turned into a touchdown four plays later. Jennings then capped off the third quarter by recovering a fumble caused by Demontre Hurst, which buried the Buccaneers.

The key in all three turnovers was pressure from a defensive line that sacked McCown five times and hit him 13 times.

“Every week we’ve got to hit the quarterback and make him feel uncomfortable in the pocket. I think that’s what we did in the first quarter, second quarter, and it paid off in the second half,” said Stephen Paea. “We had some five-man stunts up front that created the one-on-ones with the O-line. Those guys stepped up today, David Bass and Cornelius Washington. I’m proud of them.”

Paea had the best game of any Bears defender, finishing the contest with three tackles, 2.0 sacks, two tackles for loss, three quarterback hits and a forced fumble.

“His effort level was good today,” Marc Trestman said. “He created some havoc inside, amidst the other guys. But it was really the four, five, six guys working together in the pass rush. We got better at it today. We’re moving forward and I think that was a big part of creating those turnovers was just the pressure we put on Josh.”

Washington, last year’s sixth-round pick, earned the first sack of his career today, a fourth-quarter takedown of McCown that helped stymie the Bucs, who were driving for a potential game-tying score.

Washington was one of a handful of young Bears defenders that contributed today. Hurst performed well out of the slot, cornerback Al Louis-Jean filled in admirably after Kyle Fuller’s knee injury, linebacker Christian Jones made plays in place of Lance Briggs and recovered a fumble, while safety Brock Vereeen rotated with the starters.

“It shows that the coaches have trust in us, and that’s all we need. If you’re comfortable with us playing then we’re going to be comfortable playing for you,” said Washington. “I had a pretty decent game. I had a tackle on a kickoff, almost blocked a punt, had the sack, a tackle for a loss, so I did pretty well today. It should open up more than a few eyes.”

Lovie hasn’t been in Chicago for nearly two years but his presence on the opposing sideline today turned a struggling defensive unit – the Bears came into the league with the most points allowed in the NFL – into a mirror image of those he used to coach.

The Bears are now 5-6 and just two games behind the Detroit Lions, who currently hold the NFC Wildcard spot. Chicago has two games left against the Lions, the first of which comes this Thursday. If all goes well, the Bears will emerge from Thanksgiving a 6-6 team and will be right in the mix for a playoff spot.

For that to happen, Chicago’s defense will need repeat performances like today, one in which they propped up a struggling offense and carried the team to victory.

“I can’t say enough about the way they played, the way they performed,” Jay Cutler said. “They had pressure on Josh from the first snap to the last snap. [They] forced some turnovers, gave us some short fields. Defense won the game today.”

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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.

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