CHICAGO – Defensive end Alex Brown is tired of hearing suggestions that the Chicago Bears' defense has been irreparably altered by the loss of defensive tackle Tommie Harris. So by the time a visitor wandered into that territory on Monday, he wasted no time launching into his monologue.
"OK, the thing with Tommie," Brown started, "I'm sorry, I don't know if you know, but he's not coming back. Alright? He's not coming back. We would love to have Tommie, but he's not coming back. We've got to play with the guys we have.
"We have very good players. Ian (Scott), (Alfonso) Boone, they've stepped up and played well. Tank (Johnson) has stepped up and played well. Talk about those guys. Yeah, Tommie is a great player. He's probably the most gifted athlete I've ever seen as a defensive lineman. But he's not playing. He's a great guy, but he's not coming back, OK?"
Saying it aloud doesn't make it any easier for this franchise. Because whether Brown wants to talk about it or not, Chicago's defense simply hasn't been right since Harris ruptured a hamstring in early December. And it likely won't be any more noticeable than in the NFC championship game against the New Orleans Saints, when the Bears will need both flawless gap control and a dominant pass rush from the front four.
Two months ago, that wasn't asking too much – not with Harris healthy and a good rotation at tackle and defensive end. But his absence has robbed the line of its most dynamic presence, and perhaps the defense's second-most important player beyond linebacker Brian Urlacher. At his best, Harris was capable of collapsing a pocket, disrupting running plays and creating a pass rush on his own. At the very least, he was a player offensive coordinators had to scheme around, if not consistently double team.
With him, this was a defense that limited offenses to 176 passing yards per game and 14 touchdown receptions in 12 games. Without Harris, those numbers jumped to 292 and 10, respectively, in four games. Hidden within those stats? Other than situational pass rusher Mark Anderson, who had four sacks in Harris' absence, the defensive line has struggled to consistently establish a pass rush. The tackle rotation of Scott, Boone and Johnson has been little more than a run-plugging trio, with none of those players taking away the occasional double-teaming of the Bears' defensive ends.
In the final four regular season games without Harris, the starting end tandem of Brown and Adewale Ogunleye produced two sacks. And although Ogunleye managed a sack in Sunday's NFC divisional win over Seattle, the pass rush was largely ineffective until late in the game, thanks to some designed double-teaming on Ogunleye and Anderson.
A lukewarm pass rush won't be a minor point against a Saints offense that was the league's No. 1 regular-season unit in passing (281.4 yards per game) and overall yardage (391.5), and that boasts one of the most efficient third-down packages in the league. Even the Bears have had to admit this will be the most diverse offense they have seen this season.
"Who are we kidding? They're very good," Brown said. "We all know the Philadelphia Eagles, and they blitz constantly. [New Orleans] picked them up well enough to put up 27 points on them. They have very good skill position players. Joe Horn didn't even play, and he might play in this game. They're very good without him, and if Horn plays, they're even that much better. Let's not forget the offensive line that's protecting Drew Brees, either."
It's a line that has allowed Brees to be sacked only 18 times and features one of the best young left tackles in the league in Jammal Brown. The unit also isn't likely to have to deal with much blitzing from the Bears, largely because Chicago's linebackers and secondary is going to have to contend with the speed and versatility of not only the two-back rotation of Reggie Bush and Deuce McAllister, but also with a receiving corps that features one star capable of dominance (Marques Colston) and a complement of both speed and possession options (Devery Henderson, Billy Miller, Terrance Copper and Horn, if healthy).
That reality means the defensive line will have to carry the majority of the pass-rushing burden this week, much like it did early in the season. And it also makes the unit the key to slowing down Brees and company, while allowing the linebackers and defensive backs to keep the big play in front of them in the Cover 2.
"Whenever your front four can get consistent pressure without blitzing and without giving them extra help, that's a huge load off of everybody in the back seven," linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer said. "One, you can get more people in coverage. And two, they don't have to cover as long."
Added Johnson: "In a game like this, you've really got to trust your teammates because these guys are going to run all over the place. So we've got to be pretty gap-committed. … Doing our job up front takes a lot of pressure off the other guys. When we're able to make plays, it just lets the other guys run around more."
That proved to be tougher than expected at times against a Seattle offense that ranked 19th in the regular season and featured little consistency. Yet, that unit went into Soldier Field on Sunday and scored 24 points – the fifth straight game in which the Bears surrendered at least 21. At times, the Bears had to blitz to get a pass rush going, and when it failed, Hasselbeck was able to expose some of Chicago's shortcomings at safety – something that would be killer if repeated against the Saints.
"The bottom line, if we're getting a pass rush with the front four, then we can blitz when we want to, as opposed to when we need to get pressure," Brown said. "It makes life a lot easier for the coaches and for the entire defense, really."