One of the many joys of watching Walter Payton, especially in his early years with the Bears, was marveling at the way Payton could wear down a defense with a seemingly indefatigable physical and mental toughness.
Payton’s relentless aggressiveness just wore people out— an effect that never was more evident than in back-to-back games against the Chiefs and Vikings in 1977 that sparked a miraculous run to the playoffs. That spectacular 18-yard run where Payton avoided or broke seven tackles — the definitive Payton run that is part of any Payton highlight package? It happened in the third quarter of the 28-27 victory against the Chiefs and help set up the first of Payton’s three second-half touchdowns that day, two in the fourth quarter.
Payton had 33 carries in that game, but outdid himself the next week, when he had 40 carries for an NFL-record 275 yards in a 10-7 victory over the Vikings. The 58-yard run that put Payton on the brink of the record came with three minutes to play in the game.
But you don’t need one of the greatest running backs in NFL history to wear down a defense. Sometimes all it takes is time — like when the Bears’ defense was on the field for nearly 40 minutes Sunday (39:34) against the Browns. With an inept offense held to just 42 plays, the Bears’ defense was out there for 78 plays.
And it took a toll. The Bears’ defense held the Browns to 4.8 yards per play (53 plays, 252 yards) and had sacked Baker Mayfield five times deep into the third quarter, with the Bears trailing just 13-6 despite a miserable offensive performance. But in the final 16:43 of the game, the Bears’ defense weakened and allowed 7.3 yards per play (23-168) as the Browns had the ball for 11:45 in the fourth quarter and coasted home to a 26-6 victory.
The Bears need to establish an NFL-quality offense against the Lions on Sunday not just to save Matt Nagy and itself, but also a defense that still has considerable bite but can’t run a marathon every week.
The Bears’ defense carrying Nagy’s offense was one of many broken-record themes at Halas Hall this week. It put defensive players and coaches on the spot — having to tip-toe around the reality that the defense wore down because it was on the field too long.
“I don’t think so,” defensive coordinator Sean Desai said. “I’ve got to do a better job of putting the guys in position to make plays, and then we’ve got to make plays.”
That’s a common, almost autonomic response from defensive players and coaches who want to avoid pitting the offense vs. the defense — a threat to the stability of any football team. It seems to defy human nature — the reality is pretty clear. But not to Desai. The Bears’ defensive unit not only says it, but believes it. Lives it.
“Human nature is a little bit different from football players to fans,” Desai said. “These guys understand what their jobs and their roles are, and our job on defense is to get the ball back to the offense and to stop scores.
“Maybe the media and fans have a different feeling towards that, and that’s OK — that’s their right to have those feelings. But when these guys are in the grind every day and going through it, they understand what it is. We know our standard on defense and we’re going to try and uphold that standard for as long as we can.”
That’s an admirable mentality on a team like the Bears that has been defense-heavy throughout Matt Nagy’s tenure. But every team, every defense has its breaking point. The solution to the defensive breakdowns is not stamina and focus, but first downs and touchdowns on the other side of the ball.