BY Doug Farrar 08:26PM 01/12/2011

Bears defense proved atypical against Seahawks

Chicago features a dominant front seven (23 sacks last 9 weeks)

Russell Okung (76) was a force in the first Bears game; the Seahawks will need him to be that type of player again. (Rod Mar/Seattle Seahawks)

Through an 11-5 season in which they won the NFC North and wound up as the conference’s second-seeded playoff team, the Chicago Bears relied on a typical formula of smart, punishing defense. Jay Cutler may be the best quarterback the Bears have seen since Sid Luckman some 60 years ago, but the same defensive mindset that propelled Chicago to NFL titles in the 1960s and 1980s, and gave them another Super Bowl berth at the end of the 2006 season, are as intact as they’ve always been.

Led by a dominant (when healthy) front seven, this year’s Bears rank fifth overall in Football Outsiders’ opponent-adjusted defensive metrics, fifth against the run, and seventh against the pass. They also finished the regular season with 34 sacks, but that league-average stat is deceiving in that they put up 23 of those in the last nine weeks, tied with New England, Green Bay, and Oakland for fourth-best in the NFL over that period of time.

But in the Week 6 matchup at Soldier Field, that same Bears squad didn’t pick up a sack or force a turnover; in fact, their defense logged just one quarterback hit on Hasselbeck the whole day in Seattle’s 23-20 win. And on offense, Chicago failed to convert each of an amazing 12 third-down opportunities. Matt Hasselbeck completed 25 of 40 passes for 242 yards and a touchdown, receiver Mike Williams caught 10 balls for 123 yards, running backs Justin Forsett and Marshawn Lynch (who was appearing in his Seahawks debut) each scored touchdowns on the ground, and the Seahawks probably put forth their best example of power football all year away from the friendly confines of Qwest Field.

In Chicago’s case, it was the low point for a team that is now trending up.

“I’m just going to say we didn’t do a lot well that day,” Bears head coach Lovie Smith said on Wednesday of the team’s struggles in that first game. “And I’m not trying to make it sound like the Seahawks (didn’t play well) … they just wanted it more than we did that day. They played better than we did. For whatever reason, they played better than we did that day. We jumped out to an early lead, they matched it right away, had a good tempo going. Of course, Mike Williams had a career day against us, Matt Hasselbeck – a great quarterback anyway – but you know, I could go on and on about the things they did to us that day.”

One primary aspect of the Seahawks’ ability to get things done in that game was the absence of linebacker Lance Briggs, who missed that contest with an ankle injury. On Monday, Hasselbeck said the difference in the Bears’ defense was huge without him. “Going into that game, we fully expected him to play. He didn’t play and that was a big deal. For us to sit back and say, ‘Oh, hey we beat them at their place, we can do it again,’ that would be a dangerous way to feel because Lance Briggs did not play in that game. He is a big, big time difference-maker and a great football player. So as hard as this game is going to be, the fact that he’s back up takes it to a whole another level.”

Carroll, for his part, couldn’t wait to talk up Briggs’ battery-mate, middle linebacker Brian Urlacher. “He’s perfect,” Carroll said. “You just don’t find guys with defensive back skills that are as big as he is and can run so fast. He’s mastered how to play the defense, the Tampa-2 defense – it’s called the Chicago-2 defense for their sake – with a linebacker that can play deep middle and hit you in the back if you don’t have a running game.

“It’s amazing that he can do it so well. He’s allowed them, because of his range of ability and his experience doing it, he’s as good as you can get doing that. To stick in that defense and make it a real base, fundamental concept that they play that everybody admires. We all would like to line up and play football like they do it, you know, where you don’t have to do all of the stuff, your players can just go ahead and handle everything. They’re great at it and he’s a big factor in it because that position calls for him to do so many things that are challenging, and he’s the best.”

Greatness or not, Seattle’s offensive line remained defiant that a repeat of their excellent performance was not out of the question. As much as Chicago’s front seven has come together, Seattle’s line has recently benefited from the first real strains of positional cohesion all season. “I don’t think we did anything different; it was just one of those days when we could run the ball,” right tackle Sean Locklear said of that day. “And when you can run the ball some, you can set up play action and things like that. We had a lot of slide protection, three-step drops, getting the ball out of (Hasselbeck’s) hands, things like that. All of that played a key part in how we were able to protect him.”

The real star of the game was rookie left tackle Russell Okung, who kept super-end Julius Peppers on “mute” all day. According to the charting statistics of Brian McIntyre at Mac’s Football Blog, Okung was beaten on just three of the 42 plays in which he single-blocked overall, and just twice in the 26 times when he blocked Peppers one-on-one without help. It was a bravura performance, especially for a young player who missed early time due to contract and injury issues, but Carroll stopped short of saying that it was Okung’s best game. To Carroll, the Bears on recent film present a more difficult challenge.

The Seahawks may go into this game as inexplicable double-digit underdogs, but they’re more easily able to explain why this matchup feels a lot more like a “pick-em” than the win over the New Orleans Saints did last Saturday. In this case, they’ve been there before – both literally and figuratively.


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