There were times Monday night when it appeared the Bears sorely missed injured Pro Bowl defensive tackle Tommie Harris. But there were also indications during the 42-27 victory that the defense might still have enough depth and talent to withstand Harris' loss and propel the 11-2 team to a Super Bowl run.
The Rams rolled up 433 yards Monday night, 81 more than the Bears had given up in a game all season and 165 more than their average. But 226 of those yards came in the first half and another 176 came in the fourth quarter when the Bears were in a prevent defense, sitting on a 22-point lead.
Expect the Bears' pass defense to perform much more impressively Sunday at Soldier Field against the Buccaneers, not only because Tampa is 29th in passing yards, but the Bears should be closer to full strength, and backups who assumed greater roles last week in Harris' absence will have an extra game's worth of experience.
The Bears expect to perform as they did in the pivotal first 17 minutes of the second half Monday night. While the offense was scoring touchdowns on three consecutive possessions and taking control of the game, the defense allowed just 31 yards on 10 plays and just one first down.
"The guys responded and played a tremendous third quarter," defensive coordinator Ron Rivera said. "That, to me, was the difference. I know they got some yards in the fourth quarter, but at that point we weren't concerned with that. That was inconsequential."
The Bears also played without Pro Bowl cornerback Nate Vasher (hamstring) and strong safety Todd Johnson (ankle), both of whom have a good chance to be back Sunday against the Bucs at Soldier Field. That forced nickel corner Ricky Manning Jr. into the starting lineup and record-setting return specialist onto the field as the third corner for much more playing time than he's had in any previous NFL game. Chris Harris played well in place of Johnson for the second straight week.
"We challenged them at halftime," defensive coordinator Ron Rivera said. "I know the defensive backs took it upon themselves in the third quarter to step it up."
Tommie Harris' absence is much more critical because he's out for the remainder of the season, including the playoffs. And he was the Bears player who most frequently demanded double-team attention from opponents, which created opportunities for his teammates. But that's history now.
"You can't think about it during the game," said linebacker Brian Urlacher, who led the Bears with 10 tackles, including one that bent running back Steve Jackson backward. "You just fight with the guys who are in there, who are going to be in there the rest of the season. It's a big loss for our team, and we're going to miss Tommie. He's a great player, the best tackle in the league, but you have to move on. We're sad, we feel bad for him and for our team, but we can't mope about it. The guys who played (Monday night) did a good job, and they stepped it up."
While the Rams' Marc Bulger threw for 356 yards, he needed 55 passes to do it, 36 of them in the second half when St. Louis was playing catch up.
"Defensively we didn't get off to a good start," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "But in the second half, the guys really picked it up then and shut them down until the end there when we were in a prevent situation and they got a few yards."
While Ian Scott and Alfonso Boone received increased playing time in the Bears' defensive tackle rotation, rookie backup defensive end Mark Anderson stepped up with a pair of sacks, giving him a team rookie record of 10. Left end Adewale Ogunleye had his third sack in the last two games and had another wiped out by a false start penalty. The Bears have 8 sacks in the past two games after getting jut 4 in the previous four games. Bulger was under consistent pressure much of the second half, as Ogunleye, Anderson and Alex Brown each added a pair of QB hurries after the Rams were forced to throw to get back in the game.
That's the good news. The bad news is that they had slipped to No. 12 in rushing yards allowed and No. 17 in average gain per run play allowed,
"The fact that we've been getting all those turnovers, and we've been playing well in terms of making big plays, hides the fact that somebody's been able to get six to eight yards a carries," linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer said, "and in the playoffs, we're going to be in a bad spot.
"I think we've proved that we're a really good team by winning games when we're not playing our best, but to make it all the way you have to play your best. We've still been making big plays on defense, but especially against the run, we've been giving up a lot more yards than we would like to."
Through their first 10 games the Bears didn't allow any opponent 300 total yards, but they had permitted 348 and 352 total yards the past two weeks and 192 on the ground last week.
The Bears forced just 1 turnover Monday night, the first time all year they didn't have at least 2, and they allowed a season-worst 433 yards, but much of that was after they had built a 35-13 lead. They also sacked quarterback Marc Bulger three times for minus-24 yards.
"I don't talk to the offense," Urlacher said. "I have enough to worry about on defense. So they can take care of their business, and we'll try and take care of ours. I don't know what they're doing; I'm not too worried about it. I just know if we play good on defense, we have a chance to win every week."
When the Bears' fullback collided with the Rams' Tye Hill in front of appreciative teammates on the Bears' bench, the force of the blow sent the cornerback's helmet rolling down the sideline.
"I caught the ball in the flat and turned upfield, and I saw a little DB there trying to tackle me," the 5-foot-11, 243-pound McKie said. "I feel that I am not going to let just one person tackle me, I don't care if it's a DB or linebacker, especially one-on-one. I just tried to break a tackle and stay in-bounds."
The play will make McKie's personal highlight film.
"I've hit some guys pretty good," he said, "but that was the best one."
BY THE NUMBERS: RS-CB Devin Hester has 10 kickoff returns for 351 yards, including touchdowns of 96 and 94 yards.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We might kick to him once or twice in pregame warm-ups." — Bucs coach Jon Gruden when asked if he would kick the ball to Bears RS Devin Hester
The last time the Lions won a football game on Wisconsin soil, they were being quarterbacked by Erik Kramer, Mel Gray was returning kicks and Barry Sanders was in only his third NFL season.
Brett Favre was spending an uneventful rookie season as a backup quarterback with the Atlanta Falcons, the Packers were limping in with a 4-12 record and the Lions were one of the NFL's elite teams at 12-4.
That's how much things have changed since the Lions' 21-17 victory over Green Bay at Lambeau Field on Dec. 15, 1991.
Now, 15 years and two days later, they will try to break the 14-game road losing streak to the Packers and the prospects aren't a whole lot brighter than they have been at any other time in recent years.
The Lions arrive with a 2-11 record, a makeshift offensive line missing three starters, a defense incapable of stopping the run and among the worst at getting to the quarterback, and, furthermore, Kevin Jones, their best running back, is fresh off surgery for a Lisfranc injury suffered in last Sunday's loss to Minnesota.
Although Jones' 689 yards didn't put him among the NFL rushing leaders, his 520 yards as a receiver coming out of the backfield made him an extremely valuable weapon in the offense Mike Martz is running with the Lions.
"He's had a great year up until this point," said quarterback Jon Kitna, "so I feel bad for him. We'll certainly miss him, being the dual threat that he is.
"I really felt like he was just coming into his stride, too. He's had a good year all along but the last couple games especially his receiving out of the backfield has been unbelievable."
Coach Rod Marinelli was asked the value of a running back with Jones' versatility.
"Oh, I think in this league it's everything," he said. "Especially the way we've been able to use ours.
"He's one of those guys who can catch a ball with force right now and make people miss. He'll catch (and then) run, (and get) yardage after the catch. He's been really good all year."
Arlen Harris, a four-year NFL veteran who was a backup running back the past three years under Martz at St. Louis, is likely to get the bulk of the work in Jones' absence. Although he is familiar with the system and is capable of catching passes, Harris was cut by the Lions at the end of training camp and wasn't re-signed until mid-October.
His experience this season consists of 20 carries for 67 yards and four receptions for 35.
"Arlen's going to do fine," Kitna said. "Arlen's a guy that's been in this system. He's a guy that we trust and a guy that we know. The biggest thing for him is just going to be getting up to speed and getting used to playing a whole game and being that guy, that's all. We have trust in Arlen; Arlen will be fine."
If Harris needs help, it will probably be from Aveion Cason. The Lions also signed Ran Carthon, who played in three games with Indianapolis earlier in the season.
With Jones out, the Lions have their work cut out for them, even against another team that has been struggling most of the season.
Of course, the struggle is nothing new for the Lions when they're playing in Green Bay. How else would you explain their 14-game losing streak in Lambeau Field?
"I haven't been here, so I don't know," Kitna said in response to a question regarding the Lions' inability to win at Lambeau Field. "The one time I went there I won."
Kitna's only previous visit to the historic stadium was in 1999 when he was playing under former Packers coach Mike Holmgren for the Seattle Seahawks. He completed 12 of 19 passes for 109 yards and two touchdowns in Seattle's 27-7 Monday night victory.
And, unlike some NFL players, he was not awestruck by his first visit to Lambeau.
"It was over-hyped to me because it was coach Holmgren's first game back there and all that stuff," he said. "That's all anybody talked about. I kind of expected to go in there and see some ghosts hanging around.
"That wasn't the case but it's definitely a special place, there's no question. But, again, I've been there (only) one time."
"He's the same guy, as competitive as ever," Holt said. "It seems like he's 22 years old. We just looked at a clip on him a few minutes ago. It was a run play and the ball carrier was running. It seemed like he was going to break away but he needed one extra block and Brett tried to get two guys instead of just getting one. He laid out and tried to cut two defensive linemen. Then he got up and was sprinting, and was almost running with the running back.
"That's just the type of player he is, the type of effort he gives. I think the way he goes is the way that team goes. They definitely rally around his efforts. They see him competing like that at his age with all of his accomplishments and they try to help him out as best they can. And they're playing at a high level now."
With the loss of running back Kevin Jones for the season with a Lisfranc injury to his left foot, the Lions were thin at the running back position and called Carthon, son of former New York Giants and New England Patriots fullback Maurice Carthon.
"It's so weird," Carthon explained. "I had just come back from Indianapolis to my home in Miami, brought all my stuff down and I was unpacking my truck, saw I had a missed call and I have a friend who lives here in Detroit so I thought it was him."
As it turned out, it was the Lions personnel department telling him they had a free agent contract waiting for him. Two hours later he was on a flight to Detroit to join the team that had employed his father just a few years ago.
"He loved it here," Carthon said. "Here was his first actual offensive coordinating job so he was very appreciative of that and he speaks very highly of Matt Millen."
BY THE NUMBERS: 5-20 — The Lions record in December in the Matt Millen era, from 2001 through last Sunday's loss to Minnesota.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I told him if he could, when we have a receiver out there the receiver is going to initially try to duck away from him, so once he does that, please try to get his hat on the receiver rather than us. Often the receiver is ducking and he ends up hitting us, and all kinds of things happen after that." — Lions free safety Terrence Holt on rookie linebacker Ernie Sims' tendency to hit opposing receivers or backs at full speed, frequently smashing into one of his own teammates.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
If a downtrodden Detroit team that can't attract so much as a half-hearted boo from any of its disinterested fans is willing, Green Bay will gladly give the Lions the run of its spacious locker room at Lambeau Field.
Given how they've won four of seven games on the road but are a mind-boggling 1-5 at their shrine of a stadium, the Packers would rather dress the part of visitors when the NFC North rivals meet Sunday.
"We can't get comfortable (playing) here," linebacker Nick Barnett said Wednesday.
Head coach Mike McCarthy, perhaps willing to try anything at this point, has wondered whether allowing the players to transport themselves from the team's Green Bay hotel to the stadium on the morning of the game is such a good idea.
"It's been recommended to put ‘em on the bus before the game, drive around the parking lot and pull in," McCarthy quipped. "But, I don't think that's going to do it."
Barnett jokingly says why not.
"We'll all go get in that little (visitors') locker room back there," Barnett said. "When we go to away (games), they've got the little locker room and we're all close together. So, just get in the bus, take the bus here and then go in the little locker room and get dressed. Maybe that'll help."
The arrival of the meek Lions just might cure the Packers' allergic-like reaction to their once-venerable venue. Detroit has lost 15 straight games to the Packers in Wisconsin, last returning home with a win in 1991.
The Packers will have to win one of their final two games at Lambeau to avoid equaling the 1986 team's 1-7 mark for most futile home record in club annals since the league expanded the schedule to 16 games in 1978. Green Bay hosts Minnesota on Dec. 21.
Without revealing if he's a superstitious type, McCarthy indicated Wednesday that some changes might be made to the team's itinerary during the weekend in an attempt to finally save face on the home front. The Packers have been outscored 73-10 in their last two outings at Lambeau. They sent thousands of disgruntled fans to the exits when they trailed 31-0 at halftime against the Jets in the most recent home game Dec. 3.
"We've talked about all the potential distractions, reasons (for playing lousy at home), but frankly, we need to play better," McCarthy said. "I think you can make too big of a deal of a problem, and that's what you're potentially going to have as much as we're talking about it.
"The bottom line is how you play. If there's anxiety, whatever all the potential problems are, it still comes down to playing football. And, we need to do a much better job of playing at home."
The Packers' home-field woes started before they suffered the ignominy of two losses by shutout this season. They have won only 14 of their last 33 games at Lambeau, extending back to a 27-7 loss to Atlanta in the first round of the NFC playoffs in the 2002 season. It was the first postseason home defeat for the Packers, who were 8-0 at Lambeau during the regular season.
After eking out a 16-13 win over the Lions late in the 2004 season, Green Bay has gone a reprehensible 4-12 at home. The Packers were 3-5 last season, when they were just 1-7 on the road.
"We're not about excuses. There really is no excuse. We're playing at home; we've got to win games here," Barnett said.
Jagodzinski, 43, was Boston College's offensive coordinator and offensive line coach in 1997 and ‘98 under Tom O'Brien, who resigned last week to take a similar job at North Carolina State.
Two other NFL assistants also are in the running — Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride and Steelers quarterbacks coach Mark Whipple.
Packers head coach Mike McCarthy said Wednesday that Jagodzinski, in his first year as a pro coordinator, is worthy of consideration. Yet, McCarthy stressed that Jagodzinski's outside interests wouldn't take away from what the team wants to accomplish the last three weeks of the season.
"We're all professionals, and we're all paid to do a job for the Green Bay Packers, and that needs to be our priority and our focus," McCarthy said. "I'm pro career advancement and will support him and help him. But, he knows and everybody else knows I'm not here to talk about other job searches and things like that and create distractions to our football team. We're about winning this week and beating the Detroit Lions."
Wolf's name is in a separate area from the names of the former Green Bay players who are enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Wolf was the GM from 1991 to 2001 and the personnel architect of the small-city team's return to prominence in the league after several lean years, highlighted by a Super Bowl title in the 1996 season.
"Ron Wolf is a person that is vitally important in the history of this franchise, a select few that includes Curly Lambeau and Vince Lombardi," club chairman/CEO Bob Harlan said. "We wanted to honor him in such a way that allows all our fans to know we appreciate the contributions he made to the organization. His name forever will be included with the all-time greats. It's a new tradition for Lambeau Field, and he deserves it."
Wolf called the honor "the best thing that's happened to me in my service in the National Football League."
"To have the opportunity to work with a franchise that was one of the founding fathers of the NFL was outstanding. There aren't many jewels in the crown; Green Bay is one of those jewels."
Favre also is within striking distance, perhaps this season yet, of Marino's hallowed mark of 420 touchdown passes. Favre has 413.
Favre had his most efficient performance of the season to date with a 127.1 passer rating. He was 25-of-36 throwing for 340 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions.
From that point forward, Green hasn't fumbled in 160 touches (145 carries, 14 receptions, one fumble recovery).
Green needs only 238 yards to supplant Jim Taylor (8,207) as the Packers' all-time rushing leader.
Tomlinson's production this season has come from 26 touchdown runs and three touchdown catches. He's also thrown two TD passes that aren't included in the scoring.
Hornung's body of work included 15 touchdowns, 15 field goals and 41 point-after kicks.
BY THE NUMBERS: 1 — Number of players on the current 53-man rosters of Green Bay and Detroit who were in the league the last time the Packers lost to the Lions in Wisconsin, on Dec. 15, 1991. Quarterback Brett Favre was a rookie with Atlanta, which traded him to Green Bay for a first-round draft pick following the 1991 season.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "He's 8 feet, 12 inches, and his arms are 36 feet long. He's so strong with those long arms; the arms drag the floor. So, whenever he puts those arms on you, you're not going anywhere. It's really like a boxing match. You really have to fight; both of you are using your hands. He's so skinny, yet so strong, and that's what makes him so good." — Lions wide receiver Roy Williams talking to Wisconsin reporters Wednesday about the Packers' Al Harris, whom Williams calls the best cornerback in the league.