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Bears at the bye: Defense is slipping

At the midway point of the NFL season, they rank in the bottom half of the league in most major defensive categories. The 348.9 yards per game they allow is 13th-best in the NFL, but even that is misleading; they allow 5.64 yards per play, which ranks 20th.

Steelers running back Najee Harris runs for a touchdown against the Bears on Monday.
Steelers running back Najee Harris runs for a touchdown against the Bears on Monday.
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

The Steelers took over possession with 1:46 to play Monday night needing to drive about 40 yards — from their 25 to the Bears’ 35 or so — to set up a game-winning field goal for Chris Boswell, who’s yet to miss a kick from 50-plus yards all season.

Bears coach Matt Nagy didn’t have a long conversation with first-year defensive coordinator Sean Desai beforehand. Both knew what had to be done.

“Sean knows we were really excited going into that drive,” Nagy said. “Very confident. Felt good about, ‘Hey, man, here’s where they’re at. They’ve got the one timeout, they’ve got to get a field goal to win it.’

“Schematically, with what we do, we want to make sure that we keep them inbounds and wrap up.”

The Bears didn’t. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who at 39 labors to throw the ball deep, was rarely in danger. He completed passes of 4, 12 and 22 yards on the first three plays — the Bears were offside twice, and the Steelers accepted the penalty once — and, after a Steelers false start, threw a 13-yard completion to tight end Pat Freiermuth.

By the time Roethlisberger spiked the ball to stop the clock, the Steelers had the ball at the Bears’ 23. They didn’t even have to burn a timeout. They soon kicked the game-winner.

“Those are moments that we’ve got to understand where we’re at,” Nagy said. “You get a quarterback like Ben Roethlisberger, he can make you pay,”

Maybe so. But it’s been years since Roethlisberger has been among the league’s elite.

The Bears can say the same thing about their defense.

At the midway point of the NFL season, they rank in the bottom half of the league in most major defensive categories. The 348.9 yards per game they allow is 13th-best in the NFL, but even that is misleading; they allow 5.64 yards per play, which ranks 20th. Their per-game number is buoyed by a run-first Bears offense that drains the clock.

The Steelers averaged only 4.2 yards per play Monday, the fewest the Bears allowed all season. Still, they scored three touchdowns and three field goals over 12 possessions — and only turned the ball over once, on a punt return.

“We didn’t get the takeaways,” Nagy said. “We had not a lot of yards — but gave up points and lost the game. ... In the end, we didn’t finish, and gave them the chance to make that field goal in the end and win it.”

The four-game losing streak has brought out the worst in the Bears defense — albeit against a slate of opposing quarterbacks that include Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Roethlisberger.

During the skid, the Bears have given up 14 touchdowns — the third-most in the NFL, behind the Jets and Texans. They’ve given up nine field goals, the third-most.

They’ve allowed a passer rating of 110.7, the fourth-worst mark in the league; in Games 1-5, they ranked 19th with a 95.8 passer rating allowed.

They haven’t taken the ball away, either. After totaling seven takeaways over the first five games — which resulted in two touchdowns and two field goals on the ensuing drives — they have two on defense over the last four games. DeAndre Houston-Carson claims both — one interception and one fumble recovery — though he also returned a fumble for a touchdown in punt coverage Monday.

The Bears are worn down. In Games 1-5, their defense allowed 3.93 rushing yards per attempt, the eighth-best mark in the league; in the four since, their 4.86 rushing yards ranks 29th. In Games 1-5, they allowed 1,143 passing yards, the 12th-fewest in the NFL. Since then, their 892 yards al lowed ranks 21st.

The last two weeks have been particularly egregious. In Week 8, the 49ers had eight possessions, not counting kneeldowns, and scored on seven of them.

Last week, safety Tashaun Gipson called that effort “tougher than Rams week.” In the season opener, the Rams did exactly what the 49ers did, scoring on all but one possession that didn’t end in a kneeldown. They hung 34 points on the Bears — one more than the 49ers.

“Rams week was just more like brain farts, things that guys probably normally wouldn’t do, that we did,” Gipson said. “This was more of us going out there, putting it on tape — [not running] to the ball, guys doing uncharacteristic things in terms of just a technique standpoint.

“Those are things you can control.”

It’s no coincidence that the Bears have played the last two games without star outside linebacker Khalil Mack, who has a foot injury, and all but two snaps during that span without safety Eddie Jackson, who hurt his hamstring against the 49ers.

“Certain people are irreplaceable, obviously,” Gipson said. “When you lose guys like Khalil — I think any defense would suffer if you lose a guy like 52. You lose another playmaker in a guy like Eddie, that’s tough. Obviously we’ve got guys on the back end that can come in and play, but you’re losing two of your better players on defense ...

“Mack, he brings so much to the game. Not even just what he brings physically, what he can do, but just the aura of his presence being out there. So obviously, you lose that, it’s tough.”

Both could return to face the Ravens after the bye. Even if they do, though, the Bears defense is trending in the wrong direction.

The second half of the season could create the possibility of a Bizarro Bears team — one in which the defensive effort disappoints the team’s offensive players. That’s how inside linebacker Roquan Smith felt after Boswell made his game-winning touchdown.

“Honestly and truly, we let those guys down,” he said.