Is it too much to ask Jake Arrieta to pitch a shutout in the playoffs, or at least keep the game tied into the seventh or eighth inning so the struggling Cubs offense can scratch out a run and win a critical game?
Every so often a team’s strongsuit has to reach a new level in difficult moments. That’s kind of where the Bears are heading into Thursday night’s game against the Packers, followed by the Vikings on Monday Night Football on Halloween night — needing their defense, which has been pretty good this season, to step up with a huge effort to avoid a 1-7 start.
Brian Hoyer might or might not find the end zone against a Packers defense ranked 10th in the NFL in yards and 19th in points allowed. But until Jay Cutler returns — probably even after he returns — Vic Fangio’s defense is going to have to take the next step. As Fangio put it, the defense “played pretty damn good” against the Jaguars last week. But giving the offense a chance to win the game obviously isn’t enough. They might have to take matters into their own hands. The Bears, for what it’s worth, haven’t scored a defensive touchdown since Week 3 of the 2014 season.
“That’s what you want to do as a defense. Especially scoring,” linebacker Jerrell Freeman said. “Being close is not good enough. You’ve got to take that next step. I know were 10th, 11th in all the categories. We want to be better.”
And they’re going to have to make the improvement short-handed. Nose tackle Eddie Goldman is still out with a high ankle sprain. Rookie linebacker Leonard Floyd has missed the last two games with a calf injury. Starting cornerbacks Tracy Porter (knee) and Bryce Callahan (hamstring) both were injured last week against the Jaguars and are questionable. .
Rookie cornerback Deiondre Hall, who showed promise in the preseason and early going, is out with an ankle injury. Jacoby Glenn, another young cornerback expected to learn from his mistakes, appears to be regressing. Linebacker Pernell McPhee, out all season with a knee injury, can’t come back soon enough. Maybe against the Packers, possibly against the Vikings and more likely after the bye.
“We know we’ve got some young guys in,” Freeman said. “We’ve got guys filling in. But we’ve got some five-star guys. We just got Danny [Trevathan] back. We’re getting Pernell back. We’ve just got to keep playing, understanding what you’ve got to do and go back to work.”
Fangio likes where his defense is headed. “The big picture is we didn’t win [last week] — that’s really all that matters,” he said. “But there are some good things going. There are some guys growing. The unit’s growing. You take that and lean on it.”
Leaning on their defense is likely the Bears’ best chance against the Packers and Vikings. Last year on Thanksgiving night, the Bears stunningly stifled Aaron Rodgers — who came in as the fourth-ranked passer in the NFL (101.8, 23 touchdowns, three interceptions). Rodgers’ 62.4 rating that night (202 yards, one touchdown, one interception) is the second-lowest in his last 79 games. Bears fans are still trying to figure out how Aaron Rodgers had four shots at a game-winning touchdown from the Bears’ 8-yard line in the final minute and failed.
It was Fangio’s finest moment with the Bears. Now he has to ratchet it up a notch against an even more mortal Rodgers — who has an 83.0 rating (18 touchdowns, nine interceptions) in his last 11 games, starting with that game against the Bears last year.
“You gotta play good,” Fangio said when asked how the Bears did it last year. “I know that sounds like a generic, nothing answer, but you gotta be able to win your one-on-one battles. You gotta be able to deal with this guy scrambling and creating. He’s going to do that. You just have to play good.”
Even short-handed, the Bears’ defense has done that for the most part this season, but breakdowns in the fourth quarter cost them against the Colts and Jaguars — leaving them on tilt at 1-5. Simply put, the Bears have to be closer to perfect than they’ve been.
“We’ve done enough talking. It’s time to get out there and play,” Freeman said. “It’s just that simple. Everybody has the want-to. The give-a-damn factor is there. But when it comes to being on the little things and executing, you just have to go out there and execute.
“Vic’s made some great calls in the right situation. I can’t say anything about the offense — I don’t know. But [on defense] guys aren’t executing the call. We’ve got to be better at that.”