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Defense failed when Bears needed it most

Staked to their only lead of the game, the Bears needed their once-vaunted defense to make a stop on the Steelers’ last possession.

Chicago Bears v Pittsburgh Steelers
Bears linebacker Roquan Smith and cornerback Kindle Vildor try to tackle Steelers running back Najee Harris.
Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

Trying to protect their only lead of the game Nov. 7, the Bears needed their once-vaunted defense to make a stop on the Steelers’ last possession.

Instead, they let the Steelers, who were down by one, travel 51 yards before they even faced a third down. After the Bears finally got a stop, Chris Boswell kicked an easy 40-yard field goal to put the Steelers back ahead with 26 seconds to play.

“We played a good defensive game for 3 ½ quarters, but this is a 60-minute game,” safety Tashaun Gipson said. “Obviously, [there were] two plays in that last drive, simple mistakes that probably won’t ever happen again. It happened, and it happened at the worst time, and they were able to capitalize on it. . . .

“That’s tough, though. That win would’ve been huge for us.”

Especially for the defense. Despite operating without outside linebacker Khalil Mack and safety Eddie Jackson, and with defensive lineman Akiem Hicks hampered after hurting his ankle during the game, the Bears needed only to keep an offense that was averaging 4.2 yards per play from marching down the field — not a tough ask.

Instead, the defense failed when the Bears needed it most.

That’s a disturbing development for a team entering Sunday’s home game against the Ravens with a slim margin for error. The Bears’ defense ranks No. 23 in points allowed per game. It has had so few takeaways (four against the Bengals, four the rest of the season combined) that Gipson was asked this week whether the “Takeaway Bucket” — a blue bucket introduced in camp for dunking the ball after takeaways — was even still on the sideline.

“It’s always easy to look at the most immediate thing that happens in a game and the last thing that happened,” defensive coor-d-inator Sean Desai said Thursday. “It’s a collection of a lot of things that happened in a game, and the way a game goes.”

Contrary to what many Bears fans may believe, the game didn’t end the moment outside linebacker Cassius Marsh stared down the opposing bench with 3:40 to play, drawing a taunting penalty. Thirteen more points were scored. In fact, three plays after Marsh was flagged, the defense seemed poised to make one of the biggest stops of the season.

Najee Harris’ run for three yards was followed by defensive end Bilal Nichols’ sack for a loss of nine, putting the Steelers out of field-goal range. Up by three, the Steelers faced third-and-16 from the Bears’ 45. Ben Roethlisberger took a shotgun snap and threw an out route to Diontae Johnson, who was lined up in the left slot. Johnson caught the pass at the 44 and planted his left foot. When cornerback Jaylon Johnson slipped, Johnson cut inside and gained 11 yards.

On fourth down, the Steelers hit a 52-yard field goal to go up by six.

“We were a little bit softer in the coverage and lost the leverage fast, and he got some yards after he caught the ball,” Desai said of Johnson. “The yards after catch are important, especially when you’ve got a really good kicker on that side whose range is really long. . . . We’ve got to make ’em [try a] 60-yarder — or even out of that range.”

Boswell made three kicks — two from 50 or more yards — in the fourth quarter. The Bears needed to play defense accordingly — and will need to again Sunday against the Ravens’ Justin Tucker, one of the NFL’s best.

“It wasn’t nothing that Pittsburgh did,” Gipson said. “And it’s no shade to those guys. It was solely based on us on the defensive end.”

That’s concerning.

“We can’t dwell on it,” Gipson said. “I thought about it long enough over the bye week, man.”