Maybe there's hope yet for the Bears' defense.
The most disappointing aspect of an underachieving unit was the nonexistent pass rush provided by an injury-depleted defensive line. But that changed dramatically Monday night in Green Bay. The defensive line, which had produced just 4 sacks in the first seven games, got 5 against the Packers, 3 of them by defensive end Shea McClellin, who had just one-half of a sack coming in.
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"I try to just get better every game, not worry about sacks," McClellin said. "I'm just trying to get pressures and do my job and eventually sacks will come. We needed a game like this where we stepped up."
It's worth noting that 4 of the sacks came against Packers backup quarterback Seneca Wallace. But the D-line brought the pressure from the first snap of the game, when Aaron Rodgers had to scramble away from the rush for a nine-yard gain. Six plays later, Rodgers' night ended when he suffered a fractured collarbone on the first of McClellin's sacks.
McClellin's Monday night sack total equaled the production of his first 23 games in the NFL. But it wasn't just the 2012 first-round pick who finally made an impact after seven games of marginal contributions.
"He's just worked so hard in practice, and he's been close in a lot of games, but close only gets you so far," said Bears defensive lineman Corey Wootton, who picked up his second sack of the season. "He came through; he was rushing exceptional all game."
Eight-time Pro Bowl defensive end Julius Peppers, 33, a shell of the player who had 11½ sacks last season, finally showed up. Peppers picked up his second sack of the season, and he tipped 2 passes at the line of scrimmage, 1 of which he intercepted.
The hope is that the linemen can feed off each other's newfound pass-rushing success. A second-half surge by Peppers will create opportunities for everyone else, and if McClellin can build off his best game as a pro, it will prevent opponents from fixating on Peppers.
Wootton, who was moved to tackle from end because of the season-ending injuries suffered by tackles Henry Melton and Nate Collins, is getting more comfortable inside, where his quickness could create mismatches in nickel situations.
If recently signed tackle Jay "Jeremiah" Ratliff can return to the field soon at anything close to his former Pro Bowl form, the Bears could have the kind of D-line they need to run an effective Cover-2 defense.
Despite the euphoria over the first Bears victory at Lambeau Field since 2007, there is still much improvement needed on defense.
After getting gashed by the Packers for 199 yards on the ground, the Bears are 29th in the league, permitting an average of 127.5 rushing yards per game. But the Bears held the Packers to their lowest output of the season, 312 total yards. That was also the lowest yield this season for defensive coordinator Mel Tucker's group, which permitted 499 yards the previous game.
But tackling is clearly still a concern, as evidenced by rookie Eddie Lacy's 150 rushing yards and almost that many missed tackles by the Bears.
"He's big and strong," Wootton said. "The biggest thing is we were arm tackling a little bit, and a guy like that, you can't arm tackle. And we were out of our gaps a little bit, so that's why he was successful."
That's been a recurring problem for a defense that has yet to hold an opponent under 20 points.
But the bottom line is this: at the halfway point, the 5-3 Bears are in a three-way tie for first place in the NFC North with the Packers and the Lions, who they host Sunday.
"We have a long road ahead," coach Marc Trestman said. "It doesn't mean much right now. It will mean a lot more down the road. We still need to get better. There are things that we have to do better in certain areas."
But the Bears don't have as many areas in need of improvement as they did before Monday night's victory.
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