The defense was supposed to be the backbone of the 2008 Bears, but that hasn't always been the case through the first seven games.
The defense has been dominant at times but disastrous at others, often coming up small at crunch time.
"We've had ups and downs," defensive coordinator Bob Babich said. "At times, we look very good. Then there are times we don't; so consistency is a big thing we need to take care of."
It all starts up front on the defensive line for the Bears defense, and that's also where the problems start and where improvement must be made starting next Monday when players return from the off weekend, which began after Thursday's light practice.
"At times we've played well, and at times we feel like we could play a little better," coach Lovie Smith said of the defensive line. "When you're in a heavyweight fight, most of the time the champion doesn't win seven straight rounds; it's more like 4-3, and you see who can take another step. We expect our defensive line to take another step the second half of the season."
If the defensive line doesn't take at least a couple steps forward, the Bears could be knocked out of the playoffs before they travel to Houston for the final regular-season game against the Texans. It's possible the Bears' only way into the playoffs will be as champions of the NFC North, where they are currently tied with the Packers at 4-3, a game ahead of the 3-4 Vikings.
Wild-card possibilities don't appear promising, considering that 10 NFC teams, including the Bears, could be 4-3 or better after this weekend. Subtract four division winners, and that leaves six teams vying for two wild-card berths.
Smith is hopeful of having all hands on deck before the Bears host the Lions next Sunday.
"The next time we practice, Monday, we should have the majority of the players back, and by the time we play our next game, it's looking good for all of our players," Smith said. "We know what's at stake the second half of the season. We've gotten ourselves in position to make a serious playoff run."
Without increased production up front, it'll be a tough race, but improved play from the d-line could kick the Bears' playoff run into a sprint.
Kyle Orton has been the Bears' most pleasant surprise in the first part of the season, avoiding mistakes, making big plays and making opponents pay for overplaying the run.
In fact, the entire offense has performed better than expected in helping the Bears to a 4-3 record and a share of first place in the NFC North.
Orton has done an exceptional job of spreading the ball around to multiple receivers. In seven games, six different players have led the team in receiving yards. He is sixth in the NFL with 1,669 yards and has a 10-4 TD-interception ratio and a 91.4 passer rating. Orton has not been intercepted in his last 116 passes and has been entrusted with making calls at the line of scrimmage and running some no-huddle offense.
Rookie running back Matt Forte demonstrated to opponents after just two games that he warranted special attention, and that has slowed him some after an impressive start (215 yards on 46 carries in his first two games). But the threat of Forte's running has helped open up the passing game, to which he's also contributed a team-best 29 receptions, although his average yards per carry has dropped to a mediocre 3.5.
Heading into the season, the wide receivers got no respect outside their own locker room, but they're starting to make believers out of their critics. Rashied Davis has already matched his career high with 22 catches. Devin Hester has taken major strides as a receiver, and Marty Booker is starting to become a factor after a slow start and is averaging 16.6 yards per catch. Before he suffered a sprained knee in Week Four, Brandon Lloyd gave every indication of becoming a go-to receiver and was on pace for a 996-yard season. He has missed the past three games but should return after the bye.
TE Greg Olsen is starting to emerge as a difference maker with 16 catches for 237 yards in the past four games, and TE Desmond Clark (17 catches, 205 yards) still provides a valuable safety net for Orton and the occasional big play. The two have combined for 39 catches and 501 yards. Olsen's 296 yards (on 22 catches) are the most on the club.
While the defensive line has contributed to the Bears' superb work in stopping the run, it has not supplied the pass-rush pressure that was expected. The Bears are No. 26 in sacks, and the team leader, Alex Brown, has just three.
No player on the team has more room for growth than defensive tackle Tommie Harris, whose performance last week was his first of the season that resembled the Pro Bowl level he played at the previous three seasons. Harris, who had eight sacks last year, got his first last week.
"Tommie's a great player," Smith said. "He makes our entire defensive line better. The best game he played this year was (against the Vikings). We saw signs of the old Tommie coming back. We expect to see that and more the next time we play."
The secondary is also a mess, but that situation should improve with a weekend off. Starting corners Charles Tillman (shoulder) and Nate Vasher (wrist) and nickel back Danieal Manning (hamstring) all missed the last game and did not participate in this week's scaled-back practices on Wednesday and Thursday. Neither did No. 3 cornerback Corey Graham (concussion), who may have already moved ahead of Vasher into a full-time starting job.
For the first time since Ford Field opened in 2002, a Lions home game will be blacked out on local television.
So when the Lions host Washington on Sunday, viewers in the Detroit area will miss only three catches by wide receiver Calvin Johnson, if his average over the past four games holds up.
The Lions still had about 5,000 tickets left as of 1 p.m. Thursday, the deadline for teams to sell out and be televised locally. Fans are finally fed up, and this might be one of the reasons.
Johnson was the second overall pick of last year's draft. He has been paid millions upon millions. He is not supposed to be a decoy.
"Well, heck no," offensive coordinator Jim Colletto said. "I mean, you find a home to put me in."
So why aren't the Lions giving Johnson the ball more often?
Colletto tried to give Johnson the ball more often Sunday at Houston. He even called a reverse for him. But Johnson was stuffed for a 2-yard loss on that play, and some passes didn't go to Johnson because of the coverage.
"Sometimes they're smart, too," Colletto said. "They're going to take him away, but when they do that, there are some other guys available."
The Lions entered the season planning to run the ball more to open up the field for Johnson and wide receiver Roy Williams. Now Williams has been traded to Dallas, making it easier for opponents to key on Johnson and even more important for others to make plays.
"In basketball, when they double-down in the post, you've got to hit open jump shots," quarterback Dan Orlovsky said. "They're going to double-down until you do."
The problem is, the Lions aren't hitting their open jump shots.
Shaun McDonald was supposed to fill some of the void after the Williams trade, and he finished the Houston game with one of the strangest stat lines you'll ever see: no catches for minus-seven yards. On the last play of the game, he caught a lateral. He tried to pitch the ball to a teammate, and it went out of bounds.
"I never started and played a whole game without even getting a catch, so that was weird for me," McDonald said. "I had some chances, didn't make some plays. I'm disappointed in myself. I expect to go out there and play a good game."
Mike Furrey, another smaller wide receiver, picked up more of the slack. Furrey had six catches for 89 yards at Houston, after catching only eight passes for 52 yards in the first five games combined.
"We've kind of geared some of the things to them that fit their skills," Colletto said. "And if they want to double (Johnson), those little smurfs as you call them, they're tough to handle."
Colletto said it starts with the Lions' running game, though. The Lions rank third worst in the NFL in rushing. They need to draw a safety into the box.
"If they can stop your running game with seven guys," Colletto said, "you've got a problem."
GREEN BAY PACKERS
Veteran cornerback Al Harris, sidelined the last four games because of a lacerated spleen, has a lot of catching up to do.
While Harris felt he would quickly get back into the swing of things in his anticipated return to practice this week and be ready to play next Sunday at the Tennessee Titans, the bar was raised in his prolonged absence.
The Packers defense stormed into the team's bye week with a league-high 13 interceptions — all by defensive backs.
"We're going to get up after guys on the line of scrimmage, not allow them to just run down the field," cornerback Charles Woodson said. "If we do that and we're successful at that, we do a great job as a defense."
Woodson and free safety Nick Collins have been at the heart of Green Bay's ball-hawking ways on the back end of the defense.
The 32-year-old Woodson is off to the best start of an 11-year career that has included four Pro Bowl invitations. Playing on a broken toe he sustained in the season opener, Woodson had four interceptions — returning two for touchdowns — in the first seven games.
"His performance level has been so high, and he's consistently kept it up there," Packers head coach Mike McCarthy said. "He's been able to fight through the injury and do it with hardly any practice.
"He's always been a smart, tough football player. I think just the way he plays, particularly at his position, the way he throws his body in there, he's as physical a corner that I've ever been around."
Collins also has four interceptions and two touchdown returns, which is a highly welcomed departure from an interception-less 2007 season for the promising fourth-year player.
"I think Nick has kind of grown up in this defense, as far as the understanding of the scheme," McCarthy said. "The maturity of recognizing the opponent is definitely an asset that he's gained through film study. Nick is off to a great start."
An aggressive, opportunistic attitude embraced by the Packers secondary has yielded tremendous results even with Harris and strong safety Atari Bigby out of action most of the season so far. Bigby suffered a hamstring injury in Week 2 and is hoping to resume playing this weekend.
Harris' young replacement, Tramon Williams, has three interceptions.
Second-year pro Aaron Rouse, filling in for Bigby, tied a franchise record with a 99-yard interception return for a touchdown to cap Green Bay's 34-14 rout of Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts in its last game.
Woodson can't help but wonder that bigger things are in store for the Packers defense, which has five touchdowns, when the secondary is at full strength.
"The one good thing about (the absences of Harris and Bigby) is that the young guys have gotten a lot of repetitions as far as practice is concerned and also games," Woodson said. "When Al's back in and we go to our nickel packages, we know our guys have had a lot of time in there in game situations, gained a lot of experience."
The outcries from many Packers fans who felt the club would rue the August day it parted ways with franchise quarterback Brett Favre, who unretired and was traded to the New York Jets, have subsided.
Favre's heir, Aaron Rodgers, has been remarkably productive while making few mistakes (four interceptions) in his first year as a starter. Rodgers ranked among the league leaders after the first seven games in passer rating (98.8), completion percentage (65.6), passing yards (1,668) and touchdown throws (12).
Greg Jennings has flourished as Rodgers' go-to target, leading the league entering the bye week with 685 receiving yards and snaring a team-high four touchdowns.
Green Bay's pass defense, even without the injured duo of cornerback Al Harris and safety Atari Bigby since early in the season, has provided a scoring punch by returning five of the team's league-best 13 interceptions for touchdowns.
As well as the Packers have been defending and picking off the pass, their run defense has been a letdown in the first half of the season. Poor alignment and tackling factored into teams gashing Green Bay for an average of 141.9 rushing yards per game.
Similarly, Rodgers and the effective passing game haven't been helped by a listless running attack. Ryan Grant, the top run producer in the league the second half of last season and into the playoffs, has averaged only 3.4 yards per carry and didn't notch his first 100-yard game until Week 7.
Although the Packers rebounded before the bye with two straight wins to get to 4-3 and tie the Chicago Bears for first place in the NFC North, their earlier three-game losing streak could prove costly. All three defeats came against conference opponents outside of the division — Dallas, Tampa Bay and Atlanta — and might have implications for playoff tiebreakers.
Plus, Green Bay comes out of the bye with a daunting stretch of two straight road games, starting Sunday at the Tennessee Titans, and three of its next four away from Lambeau Field. The lone home game is Nov. 16 against the Bears, who have won the teams' last four meetings in Green Bay.