During the Chicago Bears’ three-game winning streak, the defense has allowed just two touchdowns. But that’s not even half the story of what has become one of the NFL’s most dominating units.
During those same three games, the defense has scored five touchdowns, just one fewer than the Chicago offense has produced in that span.
Taking the ball away and then taking it to the house has become a way of life with Bears defenders since Lovie Smith became the head coach in 2004. In that time, the Bears have 283 takeaways, the most in the NFL. Interceptions have accounted for 171 of the turnovers, and 21 of them have been returned for touchdowns, the third-highest number in the league during that time period.
All five of the defensive touchdowns during the three-game winning streak have come on pick-6s. Four of them have been in the past two games, two each by cornerback Charles Tillman and linebacker Lance Briggs, the first time in NFL history two teammates have scored on interception returns in back-to-back games.
Smith isn’t sure exactly when in his coaching career he began stressing the importance of taking the ball away and then doing something positive with it, but it was a while ago.
“Great coaches have been talking about taking the ball away forever and ever,” Smith said. “For us, I don’t know exactly when we started, but I know it’s been a mindset of ours.”
At Halas Hall, it began on the first day of work in the offseason after Smith was hired. In an indoor practice at the Walter Payton Center, defensive players were required to scoop up every ball that hit the ground and take it all the way to the end zone. It was a novel approach for the Bears, and it’s obviously caught on.
Smith’s reasoning is as basic as it is irrefutable.
“What can, not necessarily guarantee victory each week, but has a direct impact on whether you win or you lose?” he said. “It always goes back to that turnover ratio. So offensively, (it’s) ball security. You want explosive plays and do all types of things, but it’s about ball security.
“On the defensive side, you’ve got to take the ball away.”
All teams stress that some of the time, and some teams stress it all the time, but no team stresses it more than the Bears.
“As you look at a football game, most times at the end of the game, you see guys start yanking the ball and coaches start really talking about, ‘We’ve got to get the ball back,’” Smith said. “How about you start the game like that? You don’t have to wait until the end to get those things done.”
Just taking the ball away isn’t enough for the Bears’ defense. It’s just the first part of the job, and the job isn’t complete until the ball is in the end zone. The Bears lead the NFL with 17 takeaways, but even more important, they’re making the most of those opportunities, which has become a tradition.
On Sunday, Tillman moved into first place in team history with his eighth defensive touchdown. The man he passed, Mike Brown, played five of his nine seasons under Smith. Briggs is third all-time with six defensive touchdowns.
It’s not a coincidence that Tillman and Briggs both joined the Bears one year before Smith took over and now have combined for 14 defensive touchdowns; it’s by design.
“Guys realize that taking the ball away is part of a good defensive game for us,” Smith said. “It’s just a mindset. We have guys that have been around here a long time. As you talk about the career leader in defensive touchdowns, Brian Urlacher has also scored a lot of touchdowns around here (four, including 90- and 85-yard interception returns, a 12-yard fumble return and a 27-yard reception). Guys have gotten that message, and they know how important it is.”