The Bears felt going into the season, with the addition of Julius Peppers and a healthy Brian Urlacher, that they would be a defense to be reckoned with.
They've been all that and more.
"Going into the season you look at personnel, and we felt pretty good," coach Lovie Smith said. "We had a lot of guys who have played at the highest level. So we thought we would be pretty good, but they're showing it each week. They're playing dominating ball at times. It's early in the season, but I like where the defense is right now, and I like where I think we'll be at the end of the season."
The numbers say Sunday's defensive effort was the best of the season for the Bears.
Not only did the defense force four Brett Favre turnovers, it also held the high-powered Vikings offense to just 240 total yards, their second-lowest output of the season and the Bears' stingiest effort in over a month.
A week earlier the Vikings rolled up 507 total yards on the Cardinals, but they had only 184 yards against the Bears until their final desperation drive that ended with Chris Harris' interception. That effort lifted the Bears to No. 4 in total yards allowed for the season.
"Defensively we had control of the game," Smith said. "Up front we had good pressure, and whenever you can hold a great player like (Adrian) Peterson down like that you have to be pleased with it."
Though somewhat obscured for much of the season by the offense's inconsistencies, the Bears' defense has been solid for the past five games, playing well enough to win even in home losses to the Seahawks and Redskins. The run defense has never been worse than No. 6 all season. It was outstanding again against the Vikings, holding Peterson to just 51 yards on 17 carries and limiting the Vikings to a total of 70 yards on the ground on 23 attempts for a 3.0-yard average.
Throw out the Giants game, when the Bears were gashed for 189 rushing yards, and they're allowing a skimpy 69 rushing yards per game. The NFL average is 112, and even including the Giants game, the Bears are allowing just 82.3 yards per game, second in the NFL.
Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli's crew is tied for No. 2 in the league at preventing third-down conversions after limiting the Vikings to 1-for-9 Sunday.
"We've been one of the better third-down defensive teams just about every year we've been here," Smith said. "That, of course, is big too."
The only major category in which the Bears' defense has been deficient is sacks, where they rank 30th, but they've been bringing enough heat to have helped create 14 interceptions, tied for No. 1 in the league.
"When you're on a good defense, you'll get a lot of them," nickel back D.J. Moore said while discussing his team-best four interceptions. "I'm just happy to be in the middle, around the ball. With me being on the inside, you've got a chance to get to the ball pretty much every play. If you're running hard, getting to the ball, it will probably pop to you."
While all those statistics are significant, the bottom line for any defense is points allowed, and the Bears are No. 2, behind only the Packers, allowing just 15.9 points per game.
"We're right where we want to be," said team sack leader Israel Idonije, who has 5.0. "Momentum's building; we just have to keep this thing going."
Two questions: Why did the Lions stay with the run game so long against the Bills on Sunday when clearly it was like running head-first into a wall, and, going forward, will there be any personnel changes in the offensive line?
"We threw 50 passes in the game," coach Jim Schwartz said. "So it's kind of hard to say we stuck with (the run) too long. We ran it 26 times."
Looking closer at the numbers, though, the Lions threw 14 passes on the last, desperate drive of the game. They threw 21 times after falling behind 14-3 in the third quarter. Thirteen of their 26 runs came on first down. Of the 26 runs, only one was a misdirection play, a 17-yard gain on a reverse by receiver Nate Burleson.
Regardless of the raw numbers, there wasn't much mystery in the ground game.
"The biggest issue was the 2.9 yards per carry," Schwartz said. "Buffalo changed their scheme to stop the run, and we still wanted to try and establish it. We still thought there was something we could do, and we didn't get it done."
The Lions haven't been able to run the ball all season, as evidenced by their ranking (30th) and yards per game (81). The top 11 individual rushers in the NFL have more yards than the Lions do as a team. And make no mistake, it's been a group effort. The blocking has been spotty at times, and even when there are holes, running backs Jahvid Best and Kevin Smith haven't exactly been blasting through.
"The run game always starts up front with the offensive line, and the run game always finishes with the running back," Schwartz said. "And with those end points and all points in between, we haven't done a good enough job."
The line, though, was especially suspect on Sunday, which is puzzling because it's been one of the most consistent position groups this season in terms of experience and health. Center Dominic Raiola, guards Stephen Peterman and Rob Sims, and tackles Jeff Backus and Gosder Cherilus have started every game.
And yet, they have yet to find any kind of rhythm with the run blocking. Against the Bills on Sunday, there were eight offensive penalties (five false starts and three holding calls), all against the offensive linemen and tight ends.
"Just one of those games," Raiola said. "There's no excuses. We get paid a good living to play this game. We have to be better than that."
Schwartz was asked Monday if it was time to make a personnel change on the line.
"That's yet to be seen," he said. "We consider everything every week, and a lot of it is performance-based. But it's one thing to say, hey we're going to make a change, and it's another to have an alternative that makes sense and that doesn't hurt the team. You don't change just to change. That's not going to be our philosophy."
The alternatives are all relatively young players. Dylan Gandy, who can back up at center and guard, is the one exception. He is in his sixth season and has some starting experience. The others are tackles Corey Hilliard (fourth year) and Jason Fox (rookie).
GREEN BAY PACKERS
The Packers returned to work Monday after head coach Mike McCarthy treated his wounded team to a full week off for the bye that he felt was overdue.
"Our football team is healthier," McCarthy said after Green Bay practiced outside.
The Packers limped into their break — the latest they've had the bye — winners of three straight and back atop the NFC North with a 6-3 record. Chicago's win over the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday moved the Bears into a first-place with Green Bay.
Green Bay's roster has been decimated since the start of the season. A league-high 11 players, including six starters, are on injured reserve, and several other key players have been battling injuries in recent weeks.
"To have gone through a season and having a bye week (after) Week 9, in hindsight, that's a challenge," said McCarthy, who feels the ideal time for the bye is after playing six or seven games.
"To play nine straight games before having a bye, I think any team that plays that long without a bye would be beat up, and we definitely fell in that category," he added. "So, our whole football team benefited from it."
The Packers still don't know whether they will have receiver Donald Driver (thigh), defensive end Ryan Pickett (ankle) and rookie tight end Andrew Quarless (shoulder) healthy enough to get back on the field this week and possibly play Sunday. The Packers begin a challenging stretch run of games with a visit to the 3-6 Vikings, who are clinging to faint playoff hopes as they look up at the Packers and Bears in the division.
"Everything we want to accomplish is right in front of us," McCarthy said. "We have to win our division games. The ones on the road are always the toughest, and that will be the case in Minnesota on Sunday."