Emma's Tailgater: Once-dominant Bears defense has hit its demise


LAKE FOREST, Ill. (670 The Score) -- During his first practice with the Bears in early August, veteran linebacker Alec Ogletree recorded a pick-six of quarterback Nick Foles. He then ran toward the sideline and dropped the football in a bucket.

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Ogletree did that six times in his first three practices of training camp, intercepting a pass and then dropping, dunking or often viciously slamming a football in a blue trash bin that was a point of pride for the Bears. It was brought in by first-year defensive coordinator Sean Desai to stress the importance of forcing turnovers.

So, what ever happened to that trash bin?

“We do still have it,” Ogletree said. “It just hasn’t been used much lately.”

The Bears have forced just two turnovers in their last four games, including only one defensively. They have just nine takeaways this season, which is tied for 22nd in the NFL, with four of those coming in a win against the Bengals on Sept. 19. Chicago’s once-vaunted defense has just four interceptions in nine games in 2021.

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It’s the continuation of a downward trajectory for the Bears since 2018, when they led the NFL with 36 takeaways and their defense was dominant. The Bears then forced 19 and 18 turnovers, respectively, in the following two years. They're on a similarly disappointing pace in the new 17-game regular season in 2021.

“When you’re a defense like this, you pride yourself on getting the ball,” safety Tashaun Gipson said. “And we had the head full of steam at the beginning of the season. It just fizzled out, man.

“It’s better late than never to catch that groove.”

In the case of these Bears, it’s probably too late.

The Bears entered the season with hopes their defense could recapture its top form and make game-changing plays. That belief has proved to be foolish. Chicago’s defense has allowed opponents to score on 45.7% of their drives, the fourth-worst mark in the league. The Bears have forced turnovers on only 8.7% of those drives, and they rank 23rd in the NFL in scoring defense (24.9 points allowed per game).

In the Bears' close loss to the Steelers on Nov. 8, rookie quarterback Justin Fields led a dramatic go-ahead touchdown drive to give Chicago a 27-26 lead with 1:46 remaining in the game. The Bears' defense then let the Steelers march right back, with Pittsburgh driving 52 yards in seven plays for the go-ahead field goal. For the Bears, it was the type of clunker that's been far too common.

The reality is the Bears have a defense that’s proving to be past its prime. When healthy, Chicago’s starting defense has five players over the age of 30. So it's no surprise that injuries are a constant concern as well. This week, key players in star edge rusher Khalil Mack (foot), defensive lineman Akiem Hicks (ankle), linebacker Danny Trevathan (knee), safety Eddie Jackson (hamstring) and Ogletree (ankle) have missed practices.

Bears general manager Ryan Pace and his front office overcommitted by giving contracts to players whose best days were in the past while also failing to solidify youth further down the depth chart. The result should've been expected – a defense that’s no longer dominant, great or even good enough.

The Bears have been gashed defensively by stars like Matthew Stafford (Rams), Aaron Rodgers (Packers) and Tom Brady (Buccaneers) but also struggled to stop middling quarterbacks like Jimmy Garoppolo (49ers) and Ben Roethlisberger (Steelers).

On Sunday, the Bears (3-6) will host former MVP Lamar Jackson and the Ravens (6-3) at Soldier Field. Will the turnover bucket be used for a celebration?

Or will it keep collecting cobwebs like Club Dub?

4-down territory

1) Still believing
Bears coach Matt Nagy has stressed the importance of simply earning one win to stop his team's four-game losing streak, and it’s the proper perspective to keep for someone in his position.

As Nagy preaches that, the Bears are also keeping the bigger picture of the second half in mind.

"It's up to us to determine what we can do,” receiver Darnell Mooney said. “11-6 sounds really, really good. We can do it. There's nothing in front of us that we can't handle. We just got to go out there and do it."

At 3-6, the Bears are tied for the second-worst record in the NFC but are also just 1.5 games out of the No. 7 seed. Those outside of Halas Hall will roll their eyes at any thought of the Bears reaching the playoffs -- and deservedly so given how poorly this team has played lately. But if Nagy is to keep the buy-in of his players, he needs that playoff motivation to be present.

“Honestly, just keep fighting and stop shooting ourselves in the foot,” cornerback Jaylon Johnson said. “There are some opportunities that we have that we either hurt ourselves on whether it was flags or just not capitalizing on making plays, but it’s definitely a lot that we’re leaving out on the field.

“I mean, just really being able to clean that up in the second half of the season and take full advantage of our opportunities.”

2) Money Mooney
Mooney proved to be one of the Bears’ bright spots as a rookie in 2020. He broke onto the scene with 61 receptions for 631 yards and four touchdowns after being selected in the fifth round.

The 24-year-old Mooney is on pace to top each of those marks from his first NFL season and continues to show promise for what’s to come. Bears receivers coach Mike Furrey believes Mooney has untapped potential, specifically in how he can find success by altering route concepts and fine-tuning that portion of his skill set.

“We look at Darnell like, ‘You caught all these balls as a rookie. You’re so mature. You’re much more mature than a normal rookie coming into this league, you get it, the way you handle yourself, the humbleness,’” Furrey said. “The next phase is continuing to grow in terms of, ‘This is my route. I don’t have free access. Somebody is getting in my way. I still have to have the patience to push my depth to make it seem like I’m running this route and I'm running another route.’ So, that’s just all experience, gaining that experience, not cutting routes short.

“It's fun to watch now. It’s going to be a lot of fun to watch down the road.”

3) Teven's return
Bears rookie tackle Teven Jenkins (back) returned to practice this week for the first time since the offseason program. By designating Jenkins for a return from injured reserve Monday, the team opened a 21-day window for him to practice before being activated.

The Bears will take that time to work Jenkins back to form, allowing him to get acclimated with the NFL speed while refining his technique in live plays. There has been no plan publicly shared regarding where Jenkins will fit in on the offensive line once he’s activated.

The Bears plan to alternate Jenkins between left tackle and right tackle in practice, offensive line coach Juan Castillo said, giving him experience at each side. Jenkins primarily played right tackle at Oklahoma State but told Castillo that left tackle is now a more comfortable position for him.

“He’s so excited to be back on the field,” Castillo said.

4) Family tree
If Ogletree makes a tackle on Jackson on Sunday, it figures to catch the attention of his five-year-old son.

“My son loves him,” Ogletree said of Jackson.

“He better be rooting for us. I understand he likes players. That’s one of the guys he likes: ‘That’s No. 8 right there!’ It’s fun. I laugh at it and enjoy that. It’ll be a fun time."

Quote to note
"There's not many guys who are like Lamar Jackson. Call it what it is."
-- Fields

Injury report
OLB Khalil Mack (foot) -- The Bears have been hopeful that Mack can return Sunday, and he’s the type of player who doesn’t need the full week of practice to impact a game.

DL Akiem Hicks (ankle) -- The Bears could really use Hicks' impactful presence up front against Jackson and the Ravens, but it’s a matter of how his ankle feels come Sunday.

WR Allen Robinson (hamstring) -- Robinson joined Hicks as key Bears players who suffered injuries in the team's loss to the Steelers on Nov. 8. Though Robinson hasn’t been producing at his usual levels, his absence would be felt offensively.

S Eddie Jackson (hamstring) -- Jackson took a step forward Thursday by returning to the practice field in a limited fashion. If he can finish the week feeling well, he'll likely play.

LB Danny Trevathan (knee) -- Trevathan was a new addition to the injury report. He just hasn’t been healthy or productive this season.

LB Alec Ogletree (ankle) -- Ogletree expressed optimism that he can play Sunday.

WR Darnell Mooney (foot) -- The foot ailment is a new injury report listing for Mooney, but he hasn't been slowed this season.

OL Elijah Wilkinson (back) -- Wilkinson has shifted into a reserve role. Regardless of whether Wilkinson is healthy, rookie Larry Borom will start at right tackle once again.

RB Damien Williams (knee) -- Williams took a step forward by returning to practice this week, albeit in a limited role.

Emma's prediction (7-2): Ravens 27, Bears 24
Fields and the Bears will continue their progress offensively, but Jackson will be too much to contain as the Ravens take this one at Soldier Field.

Chris Emma covers the Bears, Chicago’s sports scene and more for 670TheScore.com. Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670.

Featured Image Photo Credit: Dan Powers/USA Today Network