While Sunday night's victory over the Giants gave the 8-1 Bears a two-game lead over the competition in the NFC and a four-game bulge in the NFC North, it did nothing to ease the concern that one of the NFL's best defenses isn't very good at stopping the run.
"If there's a negative, of course, it's us defending the running game," coach Lovie Smith said. "And it's been that way for the last three weeks."
Sunday night Tiki Barber slashed through the Bears for 141 yards on 19 carries, an unacceptable average of 7.4 yards per carry, even for the NFL's leading rusher. A week earlier, the Dolphins Ronnie Brown pounded the Bears for 157 yards, and the game before that, the 49ers' Frank Gore picked up 111 yards on just 12 carries.
In Sunday's second straight trip to the Meadowlands, the Bears have an opportunity to get back to the form they showed earlier in the season, when they face a 5-4 Jets team that is No. 15 in rushing yards and just 26th in average gain per rush.
In their last three games, the Bears have permitted an average of 146 rushing yards. In the five games before that, the defense allowed an average of 66.8 rushing yards per game. But none of those three opponents managed even 300 yards of total offense, and the Bears are the NFL's No. 1 defense in total yards allowed, with an average yield of just 250.4, almost 27 yards better than the second-place Dolphins.
The Bears' pass defense is the best in the league in yards allowed, tied for second in interceptions and fewest touchdown passes permitted and fourth in completion percentage allowed.
But the defense has slipped down to 11th in rushing yards allowed, 21st in average gain allowed per rush and has permitted nine runs of 20 yards or longer. Only four teams have allowed more.
"We just didn't tackle well early," Pro Bowl linebacker Brian Urlacher said. "We want to work at being consistent."
It would be easy but simplistic to blame the Bears' highly rated defensive line for the shortcomings in the run defense and for some of the gaping holes that Barber slipped through Sunday night.
"With what Tiki was doing, we can't put that all on the defensive line," Smith said. "There's a lot that goes into playing run defense. Defensive line is a part of it, but linebackers and secondary are all a part of it."
"We have a free safety (rookie Danieal Manning) in the middle of the field the majority of the time, and you should never have a long run any game, as far as I'm concerned. It wasn't just defensive line; it was everyone. We all need to tighten it up just a little bit more."
It's probably not a coincidence that the current stretch of 100-yard rushers began immediately after Pro Bowl strong safety Mike Brown suffered a season-ending foot injury. The last time the Bears allowed such a streak came in October of 2004, shortly after Brown suffered a season-ending Achilles injury.
Todd Johnson has started the past three games in place of Brown, as he did 10 times in 2004; and Chris Harris, who started 13 games at free safety last year as a rookie, also got some quality time there on Sunday night. Both bring a physical presence to the game, and Harris sealed the verdict against the Giants with a late interception. But neither provides the leadership or experience of Brown, who was adept at making sure everyone in the secondary was in the right place at the right time.
"We don't take it personally," he said. "It definitely (stinks). We don't like it. But those guys get paid too, millions of dollars, and if they make a good play against us, then kudos to them. As long as we can kind of keep in perspective that we're not getting killed with the run game ... but we definitely need to get better this week."
The 49ers' Frank Gore (111 yards on 12 carries), the Dolphins' Ronnie Brown (157 yards on 29 carries) and the Giants' Tiki Barber (141 yards on 19 carries) have dented the Bears in consecutive games, but the defensive philosophy won't change.
"Every week we try to stop the run," Johnson said. "If they break one on us, then we've got to figure out what we did wrong. But it doesn't concern us because if it concerns you, then you're going to be worried about it, and you're going to play slower. You've got to go out there and play hard. If guys break a run, we've just got to hustle to him and stop him."
"I went to (offensive line coach) Harry Hiestand, and I said, ‘Hey, I think some shotgun might help Rex,'" Turner said. "So we did it. And, you know, it was no big deal, really. We worked on it in camp, and we said, ‘Let's just take a look at it.'"
The Bears snapped the ball in shotgun formation four times but two were negated by penalties.
"It's no big deal for me either way," quarterback Grossman said. "I'm kind of fascinated with everyone's fascination with the shotgun — like it's a play in itself. It's not, it's a way to get the ball in my hands and it's really no big deal either way."
The Bears have the ball that Hester toted on his third return touchdown of the season, but they might not have it for long.
"A rumor's flying around saying that the Hall of Fame might take it," Hester said. "I'm just hoping I'll be able to keep it."
"He was OK last week," Smith said. "He started telling me that Wednesday. (but) he's our franchise, (and) halfway through the season, with some of the hits he's had, I thought his shoulders could use a little bit of rest, too. It's not all bad for a guy like that to take a few days off from time to time."
Urlacher practiced Wednesday and was not listed on the injury report.
BY THE NUMBERS: The Bears have an all-time regular-season record of 6-1 at the Meadowlands, 4-0 against the Giants and 2-1 vs. the Jets. ... Since 2000, the Bears are 3-9 on the road against the AFC.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I just remember the first time I got my name in the paper, I was like a freshman in high school, it was like the coolest thing. But now I really don't care, I'm sorry. I try not to get excited either way." — Bears QB Rex Grossman
The Detroit Lions have been the worst team in football during Matt Millen's tenure at the top, losing at least 10 games in all five of his seasons, and looking like a sixth is on its way.
Luckily for Millen and the Lions, they get to play the Arizona Cardinals every year.
The Lions have played the Cardinals in each of Millen's five seasons, going 3-2, including wins at Ford Field in each of the last three seasons. Detroit has only beaten one other team that many times since Millen took over in 2001, going 4-7 against the Chicago Bears.
That doesn't mean much to Lions coach Rod Marinelli, though. Marinelli's "just play the next snap" mantra means he doesn't want the team thinking about last week's loss to the 49ers, much less victories over Arizona from last year and beyond.
"You learn from games — good or bad — and then you put it aside and move forward," he said. "You focus on the next game."
Detroit has struggled defensively during its 2-7 start, and will now have to face Arizona's top-flight receiving duo — Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald. Both have good histories against the Lions — Boldin had 10 catches for 217 yards and two touchdowns against the Lions in 2003 — the first game of his career — and Fitzgerald had nine receptions for 141 yards and a touchdown last year.
"Larry Fitzgerald has really become a threat and Anquan has always been the big threat — we've seen that from both of them," said Lions safety Terrence Holt. "And Matt Leinart is getting better every day."
Holt, though, couldn't bring himself to anoint Fitzgerald and Boldin as the NFL's best tandem.
"I'm too biased," he said. "I'll still take my brother Torry and Isaac Bruce. But these two are good."
With the Cardinals posing a potent scoring threat, the Lions know they will need more offense they managed in Sunday's six-point loss to San Francisco.
"I'm not worried about what their offense does, I can only worry about what we do," said Jon Kitna. "I just know we have to score more than 13 points."
Kitna, though, isn't too concerned about the weak performance against the 49ers.
"We can't let one bad game discourage us, because we had four or five good games before that," he said. "We have to build on those."
In 1996, his first year as a defensive line coach for Tampa Bay, the Buccaneers started 1-8. They finished with five wins in their final seven games, then went to the playoffs in 1997.
"That was exactly the same thing," he said. "It's all about discipline, and sometimes people aren't comfortable until they've created the habits. You go back and you re-teach and re-teach and you just keep doing it. Eventually, it changes."
Williams has become unpopular with the Detroit brain trust because of a poor work ethic, and while Leinart wasn't about to confirm that, he didn't quite deny it, either.
"Mike showed up on Saturday and won games for us," he said. "That's all we needed him to do."
"It's always exciting to play in a new stadium," QB Jon Kitna said. "The last few years, it has been awesome to see all of the new places. They've been great."
BY THE NUMBERS: 0 — Number of sacks by Lions starting defensive ends Kalimba Edwards and Jared DeVries this season. With DE James Hall (five sacks) out for the year with a shoulder injury and DT Shaun Rogers (two) still having one game to go on his drug suspensions, Detroit's active defensive linemen have combined for 5 1/2 sacks, all but two of them by DT Cory Redding.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We've made some mistakes, just like everyone else makes mistakes at their job. We just have more people watching us that the average person." — Roy Williams.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
Rookie Tony Moll, bracing for his first pro start at right tackle, paid a high compliment to one sect of New England's defense Wednesday.
"Their linebacker corps is pretty amazing," Moll said.
He just as well could have been referring to his teammates on the other side of the Lambeau Field locker room. For all of the accolades, superlatives and fresh bouquets tossed in the direction of Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, Junior Seau and Rosevelt Colvin, the Packers come into an important home matchup with New England on Sunday with their own none-too-shabby linebacker group.
The collection of Nick Barnett in the middle, rookie A.J. Hawk on the weak side and second-year Brady Poppinga on the strong side in the 4-3 base scheme perhaps is without peer based on their body of work the last few weeks. If nothing else, the building blocks are in place for the Packers to have one of the more dominant linebacker corps, if not the cream of the league crop, in the coming years.
"It's the most consistent (unit) I've been a part of," said Barnett, a starter since the first game of his rookie season in 2003. "We've had a lot of talented linebackers come through here. But, all of them (this season) have been consistent. A.J. has been consistent since he's been here, and Brady as well. You know what to expect out of those guys. Just playing with those guys, you just go out there and play football."
The position group was projected to be the strong suit of the defense this season after Hawk was taken with the fifth overall pick in the draft and anointed a starter from Day 1. Poppinga was the wild card because he was coming off surgery for a late-season knee injury as a rookie last year, and there was no telling whether he would be fully recovered for the start of this season. Poppinga, though, defied the timetable for recovery and was given the green light to be on the field and in the starting lineup in Week 1.
Two months of growing and flourishing together later, the trio appears to be scratching the surface of being a big-play operation. All three could finish the season with 100-plus tackles.
Hawk just might get there Sunday. He has a team-high 90 tackles, including a season-best 17 in the 23-17 win at Minnesota last Sunday.
Barnett, who is the first Green Bay player to lead the team in tackles three straight seasons and had a franchise-record 194 last year, has notched 78 to this point to rank second on the club.
Poppinga, a fourth-round draft pick who was a defensive end in college until his final year, is sixth on the team with 47 tackles.
They've been particularly active the last four games, three of them victories, as first-year defensive coordinator Bob Sanders hasn't hesitated to call their numbers in a variety of blitzes.
"We're giving them more opportunities to make plays," head coach Mike McCarthy said. "They're a young group, and they're getting better each week, and we need to continue to put them in position to make plays."
As proof, the triumvirate has combined for seven sacks, led by Hawk's four, which is the most by a Green Bay linebacker since Nate Wayne had 5.5 in 2001. Barnett is tied for the team lead with two interceptions, while Poppinga has one. Poppinga forced a key fumble with a sack of the Vikings' Brad Johnson in the last game. Barnett has nine pass breakups — eight in the last four games — to tie for third on the team.
So, when Hawk took a step out of his game-preparation box Wednesday and said of his New England position counterparts, "They have a lot of big-name guys that make plays when they need to," the assertion just might be relevant in-house.
SERIES HISTORY: 9th meeting. The Packers lead the series 5-3 and have won the last three meetings. The streak began with the teams' only postseason matchup, a 35-21 Green Bay victory in Super Bowl XXXI on Jan. 26, 1997, in New Orleans. The teams are playing in Green Bay for only the second time — the first was in 1979, a 27-14 Packers win.
They listed 16 players on the initial injury report ahead of Sunday's game against the Patriots, who had 11 on the report. Head coach Mike McCarthy, though, insisted the team wasn't pulling any shenanigans, as others are occasionally inclined to do for the sake of gaining a competitive advantage.
He attributed the season-high casualty count to a physical game last Sunday at division rival Minnesota, a 23-17 Packers win.
"As far as playing games with (the injury report), I do not, and as far as how other people use that, I frankly don't have an opinion or interest in it. That's the health of our football team," McCarthy said. "Our practice was adjusted (Wednesday) based on the health of our football team. We practiced in shells only. We had a number of guys nicked, and we did extensive walkthroughs and things like that."
From Oct. 7 to Nov. 10, 2002, he also didn't have an interception in four of five games and had only one interception in that span. Included in that near-flawless stretch was a three-touchdown, zero-interception performance in a 28-10 win at New England. It's the last time the teams met before Sunday.
Favre has only seven interceptions in nine games this season and is on pace to finish with a career-low 12, a season after he had a career- and league-high 29.
He was 14-of-27 passing for 246 yards and two touchdowns in the Super Bowl meeting.
The Patriots actually made a more recent regular-season visit to Wisconsin in 1988, but the game was played at Milwaukee, with the Packers' inflicting a 45-3 rout.
BY THE NUMBERS: 38 — Players on the Packers' 53-man roster who weren't born when Green Bay last played New England at Lambeau Field, on Oct. 1, 1979.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I think this team has already — up to this point — proven what we're capable of doing. You know, 4-5 is a far cry from where we were in the late ‘90s, but there's some competitive guys in this room, and I think that the sky's the limit. So, that does make it easier to think about coming back and the positives and things like that. But, I really haven't thought much past that. I like (first-year head coach) Mike (McCarthy) and his direction — I think he's already proven what he's capable of — but I haven't really put much thought into what's happening after tomorrow." — Quarterback Brett Favre responding Wednesday to an indirect question regarding speculation that he will return for at least another season.