The Chicago Bears heard all the insinuations coming into this season that their defense had grown a bit long in the tooth.
Maybe they’re just getting better with age.
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Chicago’s thirty-somethings answered the critics in a big way Sunday by forcing three Atlanta turnovers during a surprisingly easy 30-12 victory.
”Defensively, it’s about taking the ball away,” coach Lovie Smith said Monday. ”We start at talking about that.”
Forcing turnovers has long been the goal of the Bears defense and they’ve caused more than any NFL team (235) since Smith became coach in 2004.
Having six players 30 or older in the starting lineup against the Falcons only seemed to help and team speed didn’t seem to be lacking, either. The defense became the first since Pittsburgh in the 2010 season opener to hold Atlanta without a touchdown.
”Sometimes it just comes down to that, that speed part,” Smith said.
The oldest Bears defender, 33-year-old linebacker Brian Urlacher, stretched out for an interception and returned a fumble 11 yards for a touchdown. Cornerback Charles Tillman, who is 30, stripped the ball from Atlanta running back Michael Turner in the first half, and 31-year-old Julius Peppers had two sacks and forced the fumble Urlacher returned.
Urlacher marveled at Tillman, who has never been to a Pro Bowl but has forced more fumbles (25) than any cornerback since he came into the league in 2003.
”It’s ingrained in all of our minds, but he’s just very good at it,” Urlacher said about Tillman. ”We all think about it, we try and rip it out, we try and punch it and he just does this (taps it) and he gets it out. I don’t know how he does it but he gets it done. The guy is one of the all-time greats at doing that, at corner, any position I think.”
Smith suggested turnovers like those caused by Tillman are contagious.
”When you play us you know our guys are going to try to strip the ball – he does it,” Smith said. ”Once you see one guy doing it, guys catch onto it.”
Urlacher made 10 tackles Sunday in addition to his big plays.
”That’s just Urlacher being Urlacher,” Peppers said.
The defense has been making big plays for years, but on Sunday a big difference was the offense scoring 23 of the 30 points by using its own big plays.
”We complement each other,” Tillman said. ”The offense makes a play, the defense makes a big play, special teams makes a big play. We feed off that energy.”
If there had been a real question about the defense, it was at tackle after Tommie Harris was allowed to leave in free agency. Henry Melton put on 30 pounds and moved inside from end to the spot in Smith’s cover-2 scheme. Melton, a former running back at Texas who now weighs about 290 pounds, had two sacks Sunday.
”We’ve been talking a lot about Henry Melton, and what we thought he would bring to that group,” Smith said. ”Julius Pepper, he’s a hard guy to deal with for any offense. That sets everything up, being able to get that pressure where we can play a little more.”
The Falcons tried a no-huddle offense early in the game to tire out the Bears’ pass rushers. Chicago rotated seven players on the line to compensate.
”When a team goes no-huddle, it really stresses the defensive line,” Smith said. ”But they kept standing up and they were strong at the end of the game.”
The defense will get another test Sunday in New Orleans against a Saints team that scored 34 points in a loss to the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field last week.
”We can get better,” Urlacher said. ”We make mistakes. That (improvement) will come with seeing plays and doing things that we need to be doing.”