MIKE O'HARA

OPPONENT BREAKDOWN: Different Bears coach, same Bears defense

Posted Sep 26, 2013

Protecting the football will be No. 1 against this Bears defense

A change in coaches hasn't made a difference in the mind-set the Chicago Bears have on defense.

They play as though the ball belongs to them as much as it does the opposing team's offense, and that is often the case.

Since the end of last season, the Bears have changed head coaches, from defensive-minded Lovie Smith to offense-oriented Marc Trestman, and overhauled the defensive staff with Mel Tucker in as coordinator in place of Rod Marinelli.

What has remained in place is the Bears' ability to force turnovers and convert them into touchdowns.

In the first three games, the Bears have 11 takeaways – five interceptions and six fumble recoveries – and they are tied with Seattle for second in the NFL with a turnover ratio of plus six.

The Bears already have scored three touchdowns on defense. That puts them on pace to better last season's performance, when they scored a league-high 10 defensive touchdowns.

Protecting the ball is a key for the Lions in this week's Opponent Breakdown. Sunday's game at Ford Field is a key in a key NFC North match-up. The Bears are 3-0, with a one-game lead over the Lions, who are in second place alone at 2-1.

"They're a physical football team," quarterback Matthew Stafford said. "They're getting turnovers off interceptions. They're getting turnovers off forced fumbles.

"They teach it. They practice it. They preach it."

Cornerback Tim Jennings and safety Major Wright both have returned interceptions for touchdowns. Defensive end Julius Peppers, who has terrorized the Lions in the past, has a fumble return for a TD.

Cornerback Charles Tillman, in his 11th season with the Bears and still at the top of his game, leads the Bears with two picks. He hasn't reached the end zone yet this season, but the Lions have to be on high alert anytime they throw in his direction.

At 6-2 and 198 pounds, Tillman has long arms and a knack for creating turnovers. For his career, he has 35 interceptions, 39 forced fumbles, 11 fumble recoveries and nine defensive touchdowns.

"It's just something we work on here on defense," Tillman said Wednesday in a conference call interview when asked about his knack for causing turnovers. "It's something that Mel Tucker preaches – something that all our defensive coaches preach.

"I think it's a combination of hard work, team work, film study, being a veteran, being older, being smarter – being a little bit more wise than I was the year before."

Protection plan:

The plan of Bears GM and Trestman to rebuild the offensive line to give quarterback Jay Cutler better protection is working. Cutler was sacked 38 times in 15 games last year. He's been sacked only three times in the first three games.

Cutler has completed 67.3 percent of his passes. He was at 58 percent in 2011 and 58.8 percent last year.

Center Roberto Garza is the only holdover starter from last year.

Two rookies start on the right side – guard Kyle Long, a first-round draft pick, and tackle Jordan Mills, a fifth-round pick. Left tackle Jermon Bushrod and left guard Matt Slauson were signed as free agents.

"When you're putting an offense together, that's got to start with taking care of the quarterback," Trestman said. "He's the key figure in the whole workings of the football team. You do everything you can to keep him safe. It won't be easy to keep him safe this week with that rush.

"Taking care of the line of scrimmage and pass protection is certainly No. 1."

Stats pack:

On offense the Bears rank in the top 10 in only two categories – No. 2 sacks allowed per play (three total) and ninth in third-down completion percentage (18-41, 43.9 percent).

They are in the top 10 in three defensive categories, with a highest ranking of second in percentage of passes intercepted (five total).

Bears leaders on offense:

Passing -- QB Jay Cutler, 68 of 101 for 693 yards, six TDs, three interceptions and a passer rating of 94.2.

Rushing -- Matt Forte 55 carries, 225 yards, 4.1-average per carry,  two TDs; Cutler 10 carries, 36 yards; Michael Bush, 16 carries, 24 yards, 1.5-yard average, one TD.

Receiving -- Brandon Marshall 20 catches, 269 yards, 13.5-yard average per catch, 2 TD; Forte 18-138; Martellus Bennett 12-135, 3 TDs.

Bears leaders on defense:

Tackles -- LB James Anderson, 29, 2 TFL, 3 pass breakiups; SS Major Wright 26, 1 FF;  LB Lance Briggs 26, 3 TFL, 2 PBU, 1 FF.

Interceptions -- Charles Tillman 2, Wright, Chris Conte, Tim Jennings 1 each.

Sacks -- D.J. Williams 2.

Kick/punt returns -- KOR Devin Hester 8-306 yards, 38.3 average, long 80 yds.; PR Hester, 2-1 yard.

Closing time:

The Bears have been strong finishers on offense and stingy on defense in the fourth quarter. They've outscored opponents 27-9 and have not allowed a TD. The nine points allowed were on field goals.

Cutler's TD pass to Brandon Marshall with 7:58 left beat the Bengals in the opener. A pass to tight end Martellus Bennett with 10 seconds left gave the Bears a 31-30 win over the Vikings in Game 2.

Chicago's defense made stands deep in its territory on the Vikings' last two possessions to make they settle for field goals. The Vikings had first and 10 at the 14 and first and 19 at the four but could not reach the end zone.