Short-handed, under-performing front seven has to be better

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Cowboys rookie quarterback Dak Prescott leaves the Bears defense in his wake on a 17-yard run in the Cowboys’ 31-17 victory at AT&T Stadium. (Ron Jenkins/AP)

Like every good NFL defense, it was supposed to start up front for the Bears. But …

“We’re not playing up to our ability,” Bears defensive end Mitch Unrein said when asked about the early season performance of the defensive front. “Even if we were 3-0 there would be things to improve on. But we’re not 3-0. We’re 0-3, so there’s a lot of stuff we need to improve on.”

On a team rife with x-factors, question marks and unknowns from the top of the roster to the bottom entering training camp this season, the Bears’ defensive front seven looked like the closest thing to an anchor John Fox and Vic Fangio could count on.

Even Jay Cutler and Alshon Jeffery were at the mercy of a makeshift offensive line and unproven running game. But the front seven had proven additions. Danny Trevathan came with a Super Bowl ring. Jerrell Freeman was a productive starter for four years in Indianapolis. Pernell McPhee had all offseason to recover from knee surgery. Willie Young and Lamarr Houston combined for 14 1/2 sacks in comeback seasons after major surgery. Second-year nose tackle Eddie Goldman was coming off a strong finish to his rookie year. Rookie linebacker Leonard Floyd was a work-in-progress, but as the ninth overall pick in the draft, the potential for big impact.

But like everything else regarding the Bears in John Fox’s second season, the front seven has been a disappointment. Injuries are the biggest culprit — McPhee has yet to practice and won’t return until Week 7 at the earliest. Houston suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 2 against the Eagles.

And the absence of Trevathan (sprained thumb ligament) and Goldman (high ankle sprain) was obvious from the very first snap against the Cowboys last week. The Bears had no sacks, one quarterback hit and one tackle-for loss in a 31-17 loss.

“[Injuries are] a factor, but everybody’s got them at this point of the season,” Fangio said when asked about the front seven. “I thought the first two games [against the Texans and Eagles] were pretty solid overall — I’m not going to say great or meeting everybody’s expectations. But this last game wasn’t. Every week’s a new week. Hopefully we’ll play better this week.”

Unfortunately, even the expected strength of the Bears has been reduced to lamenting lost players, being so close and hoping things will get better. At least they haven’t lost that.

“We see what we can become,” Unrein said. “There’s little things that we need to improve on. And if we improve on those, we’re going to be a really tough team. We’re going to win a lot of games.”

It starts with the basics — stopping the run and getting the opposing offense into third-and-long situations where they can put pressure onthe offense instead of the other way around. The Cowboys averaged 6.6 yards on first down and 7.6 yards on second down. They didn’t even need a third down to get 14 of their 19 first downs in taking a 24-3 first-half lead. Eight of their third-down situations for the game were three yards or shorter. That’s asking for trouble.

“We need to get more pressure on the quarterback,” Unrein said. “But the No. 1 thing is getting them in third-and-long and make ‘em pass the ball. The only way to get them in third-and-long is to stop the run.”

Therein lies the challenge for the Bears’ front seven against a Lions running game that is not exactly formidable. You have to start somewhere.

“I think we showed instances where we can be a top defense in this league,” Unrein said. “Last week we took a major step back. But we know the guys we have here — a lot of tough guys, smart guys. As long as we keep working and take care of our end of the deal, I think we’re going to be all right.”

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