The second-half defensive collapse in Sunday's 34-31 overtime escape against the 3-11 Bucs raises the question of whether the Bears have lost too much from a unit that was dominant earlier in the season but has fallen on hard times.
Pro Bowl tackle Tommie Harris and safety Mike Brown are on injured reserve and won't be back. Pro Bowl cornerback Nate Vasher missed his second straight game with a hamstring injury but could return Sunday in Detroit against the Lions, along with strong safety Todd Johnson, who missed his third straight game with a sprained ankle.
Starting nose tackle Tank Johnson? Who knows?
He was deactivated for the Bucs game after being arrested last Thursday for the third time in 18 months, apologizing on Friday and then 12 hours later partying in a nightclub where his live-in bodyguard was murdered. The Bears desperately need his play on the field but could decide as early as today that they can't live with his off-the-field problems.
"I've talked to Tank briefly," Smith said. "In upcoming days we'll get on that a little bit more but there's nothing new to report. Is he still a part of our football team? Yes, he is. We'll just be evaluating those things a little bit later on."
The evaluators may want to take into account that an outmanned Bears defense was blitzed for 260 yards — just in the second half — by a team that came in averaging 255.5 yards per game, second to last in the league.
Defensive coordinator Ron Rivera didn't need to pause when asked if he was beginning to feel short-handed.
"Very much so," he said. "You're going to miss a Tommie, especially up front. He's a tremendous player, and we know it. We missed Nate the last couple weeks, and I think getting him back will help us with our pass defense because Ricky (Manning) will get back to his normal position in terms of playing the nickel for us."
With Vasher out, Manning is pushed into the starting lineup, forcing inexperienced rookie Devin Hester onto the field as the third corner in passing situations. And with Harris and Tank Johnson — their two best interior defensive linemen — gone, the pass rush suffers in addition to the depth of the unit.
The watered-down Bears defense allowed Bucs quarterback Tim Rattay, who relieved ineffective rookie Bruce Gradkowski late in the second quarter, to throw for 268 yards and three touchdowns. That included a 64-yarder to Joey Galloway and a 44-yarder to Ike Hilliard within two minutes and 29 seconds of each other late in the fourth quarter to tie the game at 31-all with 3:44 remaining in regulation.
"The thing that was most disappointing was to give up the big plays," Rivera said. "That's the first time we've given up big pass plays for touchdowns."
Prior to Sunday, the Bears hadn't given up a touchdown pass longer than 26 yards all season.
Ian Scot, who started for Tank Johnson, had 4 solo tackles, batted down 3 passes and recovered a Bucs fumble on the second play of overtime that set up Gould's miss, his third in two games after making 24 in a row through the first 12 games.
Scott relishes the opportunity to contribute more than he has been since losing his job to Johnson in Week Four, but he said the defense is suffering from attrition.
"Anytime you come into a year with a certain amount of defensive players and now they're not playing, you don't have every option," Scott said. "So we're a little short-handed, and everybody's got to step up and pull their own weight. Everybody has to play a bigger role."
At this stage of the season, all the Lions are looking for are a few signs of encouragement.
A few more catches for Mike Williams, who has spent most of the season in Mike Martz's doghouse for being overweight or not working hard enough in practice or being too slow.
Some playing time for guard Stephen Peterman, who wasn't even on the roster until a few days ago.
A chance for quarterback Jon Kitna to cement his leadership role with a couple of game-changing plays before he goes home for the winter.
Of course, the Lions would like to finish the season with a couple of wins — at home against Chicago on Christmas Eve and at Dallas on New Year's Eve — but even wins against two probable playoff teams wouldn't save them from another lost season.
At 2-12, they are already slotted to have an early pick in the first round of the draft next April and they are already assured of the indignity of a sixth consecutive season of double-digit losses.
Whether it's 2-14 or 3-13 or 4-12 makes little difference except, perhaps, in the mind of coach Rod Marinelli, who is still trying to hammer home the idea that hard work and a commitment to doing things the right way will eventually pay dividends.
So it becomes a topic of conversation when Williams, who came into the game with just one reception for seven yards in the first 14 games, makes three catches for 42 yards (and lost a nine-yarder to a pass interference call against Green Bay cornerback Charles Woodson) in the 17-9 loss to the Packers.
"About the last four weeks, I thought each week in practice he's been getting better," Marinelli said. "How he's doing and how he's performing. As he grows you can see the impact he can have for us.
"I mean, that's a positive today. I just want to keep encouraging him to get better, to do things right every day, how he practices and prepares. As he can see, we need him ..."
It is the kind of encouraging commentary Williams has heard occasionally from Marinelli or Martz, only to find himself back on the bench after an apparent missed assignment in an infrequent game appearance or the suggestion from a coach that he is not able to supply the speed the Lions need from their receivers.
With no less than three starting offensive linemen and three defensive linemen — plus several backup players — on injured reserve, there is an opportunity for inexperienced young players to make a showing for themselves.
Peterman, a second-year guard from LSU who was signed to the Lions' practice squad in mid-October, was one of those young players who got extended playing time at Green Bay.
"We were planning on that," Marinelli said. "He'd been really practicing well ... he's a big, thick guy. He's a good player."
Marinelli has indicated he doesn't consider it experimentation for the 2007 season when he plays young players like Peterman, undrafted guard Frank Davis or defensive linemen Anthony Bryant and Corey Smith. They have earned the playing time, Marinelli says, and — after all the injuries — there is a need for them to step up and play.
For Kitna, the veteran quarterback who is responsible for running the Lions offense, the rewards are fewer and farther between.
Against the Packers, he was sacked six times, intercepted twice, lost a fumble and finished the game with a 42.9 passer rating. He was able to get only one pass to his best receiver — Roy Williams — in part because of the Packers' tactics on Williams and in part because his protection wasn't good enough to allow him to hold the ball long enough for Williams to get open.
With just two games remaining, it's hard to see the Lions overcoming all of their injury problems, correcting all of their mistakes and showing Marinelli they're on the right track toward 2007.
In lieu of all of a major turnaround, they'll have to settle for a few encouraging signs. And just hope they can find some.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
Ahman Green is on pace to become the club's all-time rushing leader by the end of the season.
Green might have squandered his best opportunity to ensure himself of overtaking Jim Taylor down the stretch, however. The Shaun Rogers-less Detroit Lions held Green to 79 yards on 22 carries Sunday, when the Packers eked out a 17-9 victory at home.
Green needs 159 yards — or an average of 79.5 yards in the remaining two games — to break Taylor's 40-year-old record of 8,207 yards.
With 8,049 yards to his credit in his seventh season with the team, Green joined Taylor as the only Packers to reach the 8,000-yard rushing plateau.
Green has made no secret that the record would mean a great deal to him. Minnesota and Chicago, though, stand to provide stiff resistance.
The Vikings come into Thursday night's matchup at Lambeau Field yielding a league-low average of 55.1 yards per game. Green mustered just 55 yards in the Packers' 23-17 win at Minnesota on Nov. 12.
Green Bay ends the season Dec. 31 at Chicago. Although the Bears will have little to play for with home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs secured, they have a top-10 defense against the run, giving up an average of 101.9 yards.
Green managed 110 yards when the teams first met to open the season, but most of those came in garbage time in the Bears' 26-0 win.
If Green were to fall short of the requisite 159 yards before the clock strikes midnight on 2006, the possibility exists that Taylor's record will remain intact for several more years.
General manager Ted Thompson will have a big decision on his hands early in the off-season on whether to bring back Green. The team re-signed him to only a one-year, $1.35 million contract after Green missed the last 10 games in 2005 with a ruptured thigh.
As Green closes in on his sixth 1,000-yard season (he's at 946) since he arrived from Seattle in a trade in 2000, he's expected to fulfill many of the incentives included in the deal.
His strong comeback season will give him leverage in seeking a lucrative, long-term contract from the team, but there's no telling how much the power-running Green has left in his proverbial tank. He turns 30 in February.
Thompson's M.O. his first two years on the job has been to build the team with younger players. He could go that route at running back, where second-year Vernand Morency has shown glimpses of becoming a capable starter.
Morency turned in his second straight efficient outing as Green's understudy with seven carries for 54 yards and his first two-touchdown game as a pro, on impressive runs of 14 and 21 yards.
The shifty, quick Morency, whom Green Bay acquired in an early-season trade with Houston for fellow running back Samkon Gado, is outgaining Green by an average of a half yard per carry — 4.7 to 4.2. Interestingly, Morency has 143 fewer carries than Green.
"He just has an innate ability to make people miss, especially on the second level," head coach Mike McCarthy said of Morency. "Everybody keeps calling him a change-of-pace back. He's a pretty good running back. He takes full advantage of the opportunity he's given week in and week out."
In his most extensive duty of the season, Morency generated 99 yards on 26 carries in relief of an injured Green at Philadelphia in Week 4. Three games later, Morency topped that career high with 101 yards on just 11 rushing attempts against Arizona as a secondary back.
Morency is under contract for one more year, at what is shaping up to be a $435,000 bargain at that. Saying after Sunday's performance that he's benefited greatly from having Green as a teammate, Morency admitted that he wouldn't mind running in the potential record holder's shadow for another season.
"I'm in favor of Ahman being back. He can help our team," Morency said. "As a back, you always want to be a featured back in the National Football League. But, you need two horses in the National Football League to get the job done. It's a long season. Ahman is a great back."