After getting torched by Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers for a combined 11 touchdowns and 684 passing yards in back-to-back games, the Bears defense picked on somebody its own size last week.
Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater played like a unsure rookie finding his way in the dark last week. Barely even looking for his wideouts in the first half, Bridgewater never threatened a Bears secondary that didn’t know which was up against the Packers and Patriots.
The Bears held Bridgewater to 158 yards passing and 5.6 yards per attempt. His longest pass plays of 24 and 17 yards didn’t come until after the Bears took a 21-10 lead in the fourth quarter. Greg Jennings, the former Packer who seemed to always be open against the Bears when Rodgers was throwing the ball to him, was targeted twice all day and had one reception for four yards.
The Bears’ defense allowed just 195 total yards when you lop off the 48 yards the Vikings’ Andrew Sendejo gained on a fake punt in the first quarter. That’s the fewest the Bears have allowed in the Mel Tucker era. It’s the fewest since they held the Jaguars to 189 yards in a 41-3 rout in 2012. The Bears’ improved from 26th in the NFL in total defense to 19th in one week.
Was Teddy Bridgewater the best thing to happen to the Bears defense?
“It had nothing to do with Bridgewater. It had to do with what we did,” Bears Pro Bowl cornerback Tim Jennings said. “We got back to playing fast. We were being physical. And our defensive line was getting after it. Regardless of the quarterback we’re facing, if we get that kind of effort we should have a good day.”
We’ll see about that, eventually. The Bears’ defense faces another manageable opponent in the Buccaneers this week. The Bucs are ranked 27th in total offense, 17th in yards per play and 25th in points scored. But they should present a higher degree-of-difficulty for Jennings & Co. with veteran Josh McCown throwing to 6-5, 230-pound Vincent Jackson and 6-5, 231-pound rookie Mike Evans.
McCown is coming off his best game since signing a two-year, $10 million contract with the Buccaneers in the offseason. In a 27-7 victory over the Redskins, McCown was 15-of-23 for 288 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions for a 137.5 passer rating. Evans, the seventh overall pick in the May draft from Texas A&M, had seven receptions for 209 yards and two touchdowns, including a 56-yarder. The 209 yards is the most by an NFL rookie since 1996 (the Rams’ Eddie Kennison, 5-236) and the ninth-most by an NFL rookie since 1960.
That in itself presents a little bit of a different “rush-and-cover” challenge for the Bears.
“If there’s a man open, he’s going to find [him],” Tucker said of McCown. “It’s going to be important to get pressure on him. That’s going to be a big part of the game, whether it’s with four or five or six — whatever it takes — and to have really, really good coverage behind it, whatever we decide to do. He’s a rhythm passer. We have to make sure we disrupt his timing and his rhythm and the receivers as well.”
It remains to be seen just how much of the Bears’ progress last week was real and how much was that Bridgewater was not Rodgers or Brady.
“I think [it was] a little of both,” linebacker Lance Briggs said. “Obviously we were facing a rookie quarterback. But this was a professional team and it was important for us to just really read our keys and be assignment-right.
“Once you start your first three-and-out, that’s where the steps toward getting everything corrected or the process to getting back on the right path begins.”
In other words, the Bears’ beleaguered defense had to get back on its feet first. Regardless of the opponent, Tucker saw signs of real growth.
“We had very few mistakes in that game,” Tucker said. “We tackled well. We were on the same page throughout the entire game. We executed the calls that we made, and we played fast, and we played all the way through for 60 minutes.
“There was some critical situations that we felt like we needed to improve. There was a sudden-change situation [after Harrison Smith’s 52-yard interception return] where we were able to hold the opponent to no points.
“There were a couple backed-up situations where we were able to keep them backed up. Things like that — just situational football where we improved. Regardless of the opponent that you’re playing, those are some of the things you need to do to play well and to win.”
On Tucker’s list of areas of improvement, “we were on the same page throughout the entire game” stands out as something that could be parlayed into greater success against better quarterbacks and better offenses. At the very least, for Tucker’s beleaguered defense, it’s a good place to start.