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Resilient Bears defense falters in the end — again

Playing without three starters, including All-Pro linebacker Roquan Smith, the Bears’ defense held the Saints to seven points deep into the third quarter. But missed tackles, penalties and missed opportunities spelled the end.

Saints wide receiver Lil’ Jordan Humphrey (84) gained 14 yards on a third-and-11 play in the fourth quarter against the Bears on Sunday. It led to Alvin Kamara’s three-yard touchdown run that gave the Saints a 21-3 lead.
Saints wide receiver Lil’ Jordan Humphrey (84) gained 14 yards on a third-and-11 play in the fourth quarter against the Bears on Sunday. It led to Alvin Kamara’s three-yard touchdown run that gave the Saints a 21-3 lead.
Tyler Kaufman/AP

The Bears asked their defense to win a playoff game Sunday, and the result was predictable: A hearty effort and admirable resilience, but missed opportunities, more mistakes than they’re used to making and ultimately, vulnerability and withering at the end.

With injuries sidelining three starters, including All-Pro linebacker Roquan Smith, the Bears’ defense hung tough with a workmanlike performance. They held a high-powered Saints offense that was fortified by the return of running back Alvin Kamara and wide receiver Michael Thomas to seven points deep into the third quarter.

But continually outplayed and outfoxed on third down, the Bears faltered in the second half, allowing back-to-back touchdown drives that used up 16:20 of the clock that settled the matter in a 21-9 loss in a wild-card playoff game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

The Saints drove 85 yards on 12 plays, with Drew Brees’ six-yard touchdown pass to Latavius Murray giving them a 14-3 lead with 4:08 left in the third quarter. After a Bears three-and-out, a fatigued Bears defense allowed a 15-play, 64-yard touchdown drive, with Kamara’s three-yard run giving the Saints a 21-3 lead.

“We played a good game for most of the game,” Bears defensive end Akiem Hicks said. “[For] 85 percent of the game I felt like we were right there on the cusp of switching the momentum and making another big play for us to come out on top. But unfortunately, the moment never came.”

The two drives typified the Bears’ issues on defense throughout the second half of the season — they couldn’t catch a break or make a break. When Kamara botched a handoff early in the first drive and lost the ball, Hicks had a shot at it but was unable to get it.

On third-and-14 from the Bears’ 24-yard line, linebacker Danny Trevathan was picked and tight end Jared Cook gained 11 yards. That enticed the Saints to go for the first down, and Bears safety Eddie Jackson jumped the snap and was called for a neutral-zone infraction to give the Saints a first-and-goal. The Saints scored two plays later.

The fourth-quarter drive was more of the same. On a third-and-11 play from the Bears’ 40, Brees threw a short pass to wide receiver Lil’Jordan Humphrey, who broke two tackles and weaved around four Bears defenders for a 14-yard gain. On second-and-goal from the Bears’ 5, Khalil Mack sacked Brees for a 14-yard loss, but rookie cornerback Kindle Vildor was called for holding, nullifying the sack.

The Saints always seemed to have the right play-call when they needed it — a big reason they were 11 of 17 on third-down conversions.

“There’s a reason why Drew Brees and Sean Payton have been doing their thing here in New Orleans for a long time,” said Hicks, who started his nine-year career with the Saints. “They played good ball today. Sean coached a good game. Much respect to them.

“But I believe in my team. I believe in the fact that our defense plays to the end of the game, plays to the end of the whistle. It’s unfortunate we didn’t [win], but I still have a strong belief in my team, in my defense.”

It remains to be seen how much belief Bears coach Matt Nagy has in that defense. While still a talented group with only one starter over 30, the Bears’ defense has declined steadily in two seasons under Chuck Pagano — from first in the NFL in points in 2018 under Vic Fangio to fourth in 2019 and 14th in 2020.

After another 8-8 season, there has been speculation that Nagy might look for a coordinator who can regain the bite Fangio’s defense once had — while this defense still is in its prime.