Four weeks ago the Bears were No. 4 in the NFL in sack percentage, and they were undefeated after seven games. But after getting a total of just four sacks in the past four games, the defense has plummeted to 14th in sack percentage, and the Bears have lost twice in four games. That's not a coincidence.
Defensive tackle Tommie Harris had five sacks in the first four games, and he was being touted as a potential defensive player of the year. But he has now gone seven consecutive games without a sack and, while his value to the team encompasses much more than his pass-rush skills, that lack of up-the-gut pressure on opposing quarterbacks is a problem.
But Harris isn't the only Bears defensive linemen whose pass-rush productivity has dropped off. Left end Adewale Ogunleye, who led last year's team with 10 sacks, has just two in the past nine games and only 3 1/2 for the season, although he missed Games 5 and 6 with a hamstring injury.
Right end Alex Brown has two sacks in the past six games after getting three in the first five. Nose tackle Tank Johnson has 1 1/2 sacks all season after getting five last year. His shared sack (with rookie Mark Anderson) of the Jets' Chad Pennington on Nov. 19 was his first since Week 2. Anderson began the season with 7 1/2 sacks in the first seven games, but he's got just that one-half in the past four weeks.
And the problem for the Bears is that, if the defensive linemen aren't getting sacks, no one is. Of the team's 25 sacks, 24 have come from the linemen and one from linebacker Lance Briggs.
"Our defense is based on us being able to get pressure from our front four," coach Lovie Smith said when asked about the inability to get to New England's Tom Brady even once. "You have to give (the Patriots) a little bit of credit. Their offensive line did a good job. Brady got the ball out fairly quick. I think it's a combination of those things."
But there were several times Brady had time to wait for tight end Ben Watson and wide receivers Reche Caldwell and Chad Jackson to get downfield before he threw.
"We didn't get good pressure throughout the day," Smith admitted. "They max-protected a few of the times, but we need to get more pressure on the quarterback and make him get the ball out of his hands."
That might not be a critical problem over the next five weeks as the Bears coast into the playoffs and attempt to earn home-field advantage against five teams with losing records. But playoff prospects are bleak unless the pass rush returns. With Pro Bowl strong safety Mike Brown lost for the season following foot surgery, and his replacement Todd Johnson currently dealing with a sprained ankle, the Bears secondary is not strong enough to contain a proficient passing attack if the quarterback is pressured, at least on longer throws. Last season's playoff loss to the Panthers leaps to mind.
"We didn't do things that we normally do," Tank Johnson admitted after the loss to the Patriots. "(Brady) had so much time back there, that I think he could have sat down and got back up a couple of times. It's just really unfortunate. That's on us. We put a lot of stress on the back seven when we do that. If we don't pick it up, it's going to be a long rest of the year."
More important, it would be another short postseason.