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Why early success on third downs can fuel Bears defense

"Some of that dawwwg started coming out." How the Bears D is creating an identity.

There were moments Sunday afternoon in Seattle where Chicago Bears outside linebacker Pernell McPhee could feel his adrenaline spike and his optimism growing. During a rugged first-half fistfight with the two-time defending NFC Champion Seahawks, the Bears weren’t backing down.

On the defensive side, plays were being made and a collective confidence built. With a gritty effort, the Bears’ defense played five series before halftime and didn’t allow a touchdown.

On Monday, McPhee remained convinced that significant growth had been shown, that there were major reasons to feel encouraged.

“Some of that dawwwg started coming out,” McPhee said. “That’s that fun part.”

Yes, the Bears lost 26-0 Sunday. Their losing streak reached eight games. And it’s hard to know when they will again enter a game as a favorite.

But in a rebuilding year, while there will never be any satisfying consolation prizes, the Bears have to acknowledge even their littlest victories. And on Sunday, they certainly had to feel pleased elevating their season sack total from zero to four while also turning in a perfect first half on third downs.

As much as anything, the Bears continue to show a trust in the system of defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. And as the calendar flips to October, they also believe chemistry is being established.

Said McPhee: “You could see in some of them plays we were playing with an attitude, we were playing with a swag. And all that goes to show that it’s coming along. The defense is starting to play together.”

Coach John Fox wants his team to recognize its progress. And in that vein, he was pleased that the Seahawks went 0-for-6 on third downs before halftime.

“We executed better,” Fox said. “This game is taking what you learn and see in practice and converting it to the pressure of a live game. That was an area of our football team that did show improvement.”

So there. There’s tangible proof, even in the gloom of a winless September, that improvement can be achieved and that the coaching staff can build off minor successes.

With that in mind, here’s a series-by-series look at the Bears’ first-half defense Sunday and their effectiveness on third downs.

Series 1

Score: Seahawks 0, Bears 0

Seahawks drive: Three plays, 6 yards

End result: Punt

Third-down stop: On third-and-9 from the Seahawks 45, the Bears produced significant immediate pressure on quarterback Russell Wilson. Fangio had a cornerback blitz called but it was McPhee’s quick and powerful rush past right guard J.R. Sweezy that frazzled the Seahawks. McPhee missed on his sack attempt. But Tracy Porter and Jared Allen were also right on top of Wilson, who had to make a magical underhanded flip to running back Fred Jackson to avoid a loss. Jackson picked up 5 yards but was taken down by cornerback Sherrick McManis well short of the first down.  

Also notable: The Bears’ biggest play came on second-and-1. With a five-man rush deployed, defensive end Jarvis Jenkins overpowered Sweezy with a bull rush and engulfed Wilson for an 8-yard loss. Fellow end Eddie Goldman also won his one-on-one against left guard Justin Britt, further cluttering the pocket and giving Wilson nowhere to escape.

Series 2

Score: Seahawks 0, Bears 0

Seahawks drive: Four plays, 6 yards

End result: A 31-yard Stephen Hauschka field goal

Third-down stop: On third-and-4 from the Bears 13, Jenkins recorded his second sack of the first quarter. In actuality, it was significant pressure from Allen that forced Wilson up in the pocket and superb coverage on the back end that convinced the Seahawks quarterback to scramble. Yet Jenkins did a sensational job of getting off a block from Sweezy to make a diving sack.

Also notable: After giving up a 64-yard punt return, the Bears dodged a bullet on the first play of the drive when Seahawks receiver Ricardo Lockette dropped an easy catch inside the Bears 10 on a play-action rollout pass by Wilson. 

Series 3

Score: Seahawks 3, Bears 0

Seahawks drive: Five plays, 21 yards

End result: Punt

Third-down stop: A third-and-1 run by Marshawn Lynch went for a loss of 1 with Bears cornerbacks Alan Ball and Kyle Fuller given official credit for the stop. Wilson appeared to stumble coming out from under center, muddling the handoff exchange. Yet it was penetration from McPhee, working around tight end Jimmy Graham, that blew the play up. Ball’s assertiveness in run support proved impressive. And Allen and safety Adrian Amos also showed admirable hustle in rallying to the ball.

Also notable: Two Lynch runs to open the drive netted 13 yards with the Seahawks recording their first first down of the day. Later on the series, a shrewd challenge by Fox halved an 18-yard gain by Jimmy Graham when replay officials determined Graham had been down by contact on a tackle by Shea McClellin

Series 4

Score: Seahawks 3, Bears 0

Seahawks drive: Three plays, 4 yards

End result: Punt

Third-down stop: On third-and-11 from his own 12, Wilson never stopped at the top of a five-step drop and immediately took off scrambling. Credit Amos for keeping his feet and containing Wilson on the move. McPhee again fired to the ball to tackle Wilson after a 5-yard gain.

Also notable: Pinned deep in their own territory, the Seahawks were off schedule immediately due to a holding penalty on Britt against Ego Ferguson on first down. Four Bears defenders – Sam Acho, Fuller, McClellin and Antrel Rolle – were responsible for stifling a bubble screen to Jermaine Kearse. And McPhee also continued his most solid outing as a Bear by stopping Lynch for a 2-yard gain on a zone read run. 

Series 5

Score: Seahawks 3, Bears 0

Seahawks drive: 12 plays, 77 yards

End result: A 21-yard Hauschka field goal

Third-down stops: The Bears’ sixth and final third down stop of the half came from Ball, who showed great discipline in defending a fade to Chris Matthews on third-and-goal from the 3 with 5 seconds left. A play before, Ball used great vision and body positioning to defend a jump ball to Graham in the end zone.

Earlier on the series, Jenkins exploded off the snap on a third-and-1 play to grab Lynch’s ankle in the backfield, making a stop for no gain. The Seahawks, however, prolonged their drive by converting fourth-and-1 with a 9-yard pass to Lynch.

Also notable: The Bears were vulnerable in their 2-minute defense. Wilson had consecutive completions for 19 yards to Kearse and 22 yards to Graham against soft coverages. Kearse easily worked an out route against Ball. On the next play, Graham ran uncovered down the middle of the Bears’ defense with it appearing as if McClellin missed his responsibility.

The biggest error of the series, however, may have come from Fangio. With 20 seconds left and the Seahawks still holding two timeouts, the Bears had eight defenders retreat to the goal line, essentially giving Wilson a free 15-yard completion to Kearse down to the Bears 3. Fox admitted that call may have come a play too early. And while the Bears still managed to only surrender a field goal, giving the Seahawks three plays from the 3 with a timeout still left made absolutely no sense. 

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