Against the St. Louis Rams on Sunday, the Chicago Bears knew that limiting rookie running back Todd Gurley would be the biggest key in picking up a road victory.
Gurley was averaging 5.6 yards per carry coming into the game and had rushed for more than 100 yards in four of his first five NFL starts. He's one of the most dangerous ball carriers to come into the league since Adrian Peterson, one who can explode for a touchdown every time he touches the ball.
Yet the Bears, who had the 24th-ranked rushing defense through nine weeks, held Gurley to just 45 rushing yards on 12 carries. It was, by far, the fewest rushing yards for Gurley in any contest this year.
That's impressive, and even more so when you consider OLB Pernell McPhee, the team's best defensive player, did not play because of a knee injury.
The Bears went into a hostile environment and limited the Rams to just 13 points and 285 total yards, and forced two turnovers.
Granted, the Rams do not have a high-octane offense - they came into the game ranked 31st in total offense and 30th in points scored - but this was just one more in a recent stretch of quality defensive performances about which few folks are discussing.
If you throw out the Week 6 loss to the Lions - during which the Bears allowed 37 points - Chicago has allowed just 18.8 points per game since Week 4. For frame of reference, the best scoring defense in the NFL, the Denver Broncos, give up 17.4 points per contest.
Chicago's defense has allowed just three rushing scores all season, second fewest in the league, and have improved dramatically each week.
Remember, this is a unit that gave up the most points in the league the last two years, one that lacked top-tier talent at nearly every position. It's a unit that dumped dead weight like Ryan Mundy, Tim Jennings, Jared Allen and Jon Bostic, and replaced them with unheralded players like Sam Acho, Adrian Amos, Tracy Porter and Christian Jones. The Bears are starting undrafted free agent Bryce Callahan in the slot, and lost two of their top interior defenders - Jeremiah Ratliff and Ego Ferguson - over the past month.
Still, coordinator Vic Fangio continues to build this defense into a team strength, instead of a team weakness.
ILB Shea McClellin - arguably the most maligned first-round pick in club history not named Curtis Enis - returned today after a two-week absence and made a major difference, picking up a forced fumble and fumble recovery on the same play, which turned the tide in the game. OLB Lamarr Houston, who did nothing the first seven games, has three sacks the past two contests, while OLB Willie Young picked up the first interception of his career.
And don't forget rookie nose tackle Eddie Goldman, who has anchored the defensive line all season and played a big role in keeping Gurley under wraps.
On paper, this is a defense that still needs talent upgrades nearly across the board, yet they're playing at a high level.
This should make Bears fans excited, for what could Fangio - who had the NFL's most dominant defense for four straight years in San Francisco - do with a fresh influx of talent this upcoming offseason?
This was a signature victory for a team that hadn't won a game against an NFC opponent since Week 12 last year. The offense posted 37 points and will get most of the accolades this week but, for my money, it's Chicago's defense whose future is brightest.