For the Bears to beat the Rams, Khalil Mack and the defense need to raise their game
A wounded Lions team should have been a nice, easy meal for the Bears’ ‘‘D’’ on Sunday. Instead, a backup quarterback gave them trouble.
Has anybody seen the Bears’ defense? The one we used to know and love? The one that was everywhere and bothered everybody? There are times now when you need a private detective and a psychic to find it.
The defense was so skilled, so opportunistic and so menacing last season that it didn’t matter what quarterback Mitch Trubisky and the Bears’ offense did. You just knew that, by the time the ‘‘D’’ was done, stadium workers with trash pickers had to remove what was left of that day’s opponent.
On Sunday, the Bears faced Lions quarterback Jeff Driskel, whose existence many of us were unaware of until news broke that he was starting in place of injured star Matthew Stafford. I’m not sure Driskel knew he existed before Sunday dawned. Anyway, the man who had five career NFL starts completed 27 of 46 passes for 269 yards and a touchdown. And the Lions were 25 yards from tying the score with seven seconds left. The Bears tiptoed away with a 20-13 victory.
A wounded Lions team should have been a nice, easy meal for the Bears’ defense. Instead, Driskel — am I spelling that correctly? — was good enough to make Soldier Field extremely nervous. And he’s not that good. He rushed five times for 37 yards, and, if the Lions had been smart, they would have had the speedy quarterback run a few more times.
For the Bears to beat the Rams on Sunday, their defense has to play much better. That’s it. End of story. You figure Trubisky, who threw three touchdown passes against the Lions, will revert to being his old self against the Rams. That means the Bears’ defense has to raise its game. Good news: It’s not as though the 5-4 Rams are playing exceptionally well right now. The Bears might not even need the dominant defensive performance they got against the Rams last season. Remember? Intercepting Jared Goff four times. Holding Todd Gurley to 2.5 yards per carry. Those were the days.
One of the self-evident truths heading into this season was that the Bears always could count on their defense. Always. Khalil Mack. Akiem Hicks. Eddie Jackson. Roquan Smith. Danny Trevathan. Kyle Fuller. Eddie Goldman. What other team had that kind of firepower?
Always has been downgraded to sometimes. Hicks hurt his elbow against the Raiders in early October, and the wall that had been the Bears’ middle suddenly became much more accommodating to opponents. Last season, Hicks sometimes got testy when reporters asked about how strong the defense had become with the arrival of Mack. He wanted everyone to know it was good before Mack came on the scene. He was right.
And he’s looking more and more like the most important piece of the defense. It took his absence to reveal that.
Mack hasn’t been nearly the force this season that he was in 2018. The big, disruptive plays aren’t as frequent. Opposing teams have double-teamed him regularly. Then again, they double-teamed him a lot last season, too. Is he hurt? Besides the obvious — getting double- and sometimes triple-teamed — why does he look gassed so often? So many questions.
He has had a total of one sack in the last five games. He hasn’t forced a fumble since Week 4. He didn’t a have a quarterback hit Sunday for the first time since the opener. Where have he and Joe DiMaggio gone?
To point to Mack as the sole issue would be silly. With all the attention opponents give him, the Bears need the players who aren’t blocked — looking at you, Leonard Floyd — to get to the quarterback.
Anybody seen Jackson? Last season, he had six interceptions and returned two for touchdowns. He has no picks this season.
The Bears are fourth in the NFL in fewest points allowed, which is very, very good. But the team that was so good at taking the ball away last season is tied for 16th in interceptions this season. It was first last season.
It was a given that the Bears weren’t going to be as good at forcing turnovers this season. Turnovers are unpredictable. Up one year usually means a drop-off the next. A new defensive scheme under Chuck Pagano was going to lead to some transition issues. But there are things a defense can control. One is that you don’t allow a backup quarterback to jam the ball down your throats on the first drive of the game, which is what Driskel did Sunday. That the 13-play, 72-yard drive ended in a 22-yard field goal is a tribute to the Bears’ resilience. It’s also a reminder that they were supremely lucky Stafford sat out the game.
It doesn’t help that Trevathan figures to be out for a long time. The linebacker and leader was injured in gruesome fashion in the first quarter. A medical degree isn’t necessary to know that the human elbow isn’t built to bend the way his did against the Lions.
Trevathan probably isn’t going to get well soon, but the defense has a chance to make a lot of people feel better Sunday. All it needs to do is pretend it’s 2018.