Bears 'D' excels on ‘Money down’

Matt Trowbridge

Sometimes the Bears don’t stop the run. Sometimes they can’t stop the pass. Turnovers and sacks can come in bunches. Or not at all.

But one thing the Bears can count on doing is standing tall on third down.

Chicago has ranked either first or second in the NFL in third-down defense in all four of Lovie Smith’s seasons as head coach. Even last year, when Chicago slipped from No. 5 to No. 28 in overall defense, foes converted only 32.7 percent of their third-down tries against the Bears.

“That’s the money down,” defensive end Alex Brown said. “You’ve got to get off the field. You don’t want to start it over and go to first and second down again. So when it’s third-and-long, that’s our time. You go after it and try to get the quarterback.”

“Those are big plays,” safety Mike Brown said. “You want to give your offense the ball as many times as possible. Without a turnover, that’s the easiest way to do it.”

The Bears’ No. 27-rated offense couldn’t blame the defense last year. Chicago had 33 takeaways, eighth-most in the NFL. And the Bears forced teams to run three plays and punt on almost one of every three series. Their 65 three-and-outs on 214 defensive series were the most in the NFL in eight years.

“Normally, you can look at third downs and tell a lot about whether a team wins football games,” Smith said. “Converting third downs hurts your defense, because they are probably tired. And any time you keep the offense over on the sideline, that’s not good.

“We have basically done the same thing every year. We like to get them in third-and-long and play Cover-2, our signature coverage, or blitz. We put a big emphasis on that. Always. It’s critical that you play great on third down on both sides of the football.”

Chicago gets it right on only one side. The Bears have an average rank of No. 28.5 on third down offense in Smith’s four years as coach. That makes it more important than ever for the defense to get off the field quickly before it tires.

“Our package,” defensive coordinator Bob Babich said, “is not a whole lot different than other teams, but it seems to work.”

Babich said the key isn’t just the Cover-2 or using zone pressure, but keeping offenses guessing. “Disguising the blitz and coming out in zone coverage is also good for us,” he said.

And the best way of all is to get pressure without having to blitz.

“If you win on third down, you are probably going to win the game,” linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer said. “A lot of that has to do with making big plays. Third down is a down where you bring pressure. Toward the end of last year, we started to get a lot of good pressure.

“We have a great D line. It doesn’t matter what else goes on, if those guys start getting pressure just with the front four, then it’s going to work out well for us.”

The Bears forced 20 turnovers in their final eight games last year, third in the NFL. And they dominated on third down.

Still, that wasn’t good enough for Alex Brown. Not with the Bears falling from the Super Bowl to 7-9. Not with a defense that had ranked No. 2 and 5 the two previous years dropping to No. 28.

“What did we do on first and second down?” Brown asked. “It doesn’t matter what we did on third down because people probably scored on first down. We didn’t win.

“When things got tough, we didn’t answer. That’s what we have to do. This year we will do that.”

Assistant sports editor Matt Trowbridge can be reached at: 815-987-1383 or mtrowbridge@rrstar.com

Money Down

The Bears’ defensive and offensive rankings among the 32 NFL teams on third down and the percentage of conversions:

Defense                                               Offense

Year    Percent             Rank               Percent             Rank

2007   32.7     No. 2  34.1     No. 29

2006   31.0     No. 2  36.8     No. 22

2005   31.9     No. 2  28.8     No. 31

2004   30.5     No. 1  25.1     No. 32