Thursday Night Spotlight: What happened to Chicago's defense?

Through most of this decade, and certainly in their Super Bowl season in 2006, the Chicago Bears were defined by what's always defined the franchise -- defenses as tough as a dollar steak, and as ornery as Mike Ditka without a cigar. From 2004 through 2008, Chicago's defense never ranked lower than ninth in Football Outsiders' Defensive DVOA statistic, first overall in 2005, and first in Pass Defense DVOA in 2005 and 2006. As the team ran through a series of regrettable quarterback decisions, it was the defense and special teams that kept the team together.

Not any more. Da Bears go into tonight's game against the San Francisco 49ers with a ranking of 22nd in Defensive DVOA. And for those averse to advanced stats, let's keep it blood-simple. In their last two losses -- to the Bengals and Cardinals -- Chicago gave up a total of 86 points, 886 yards, and 397 rushing yards. Even the pathetic Cleveland Browns ran for 117 yards against this formerly unstoppable defense. The Bengals have a very impressive power running game this season, but 215 yards allowed? What in the name of Richard Dent is going on here?

Losing linebacker Brian Urlacher(notes) for the year in the season opener was a blow, but the Bears have also had dominant tackle Tommie Harris(notes) on the field in a way they haven't in some previous seasons. Before he was given the boot against the Cards for sucker-punching guard Deuce Lutui(notes), Harris had played in every game except that Week 7 debacle against the Bengals, and he was reportedly a "healthy scratch" for that one. Beyond Harris and Urlacher, the front seven is a big question mark. The trade for Gaines Adams(notes) has yet to pay dividends -- the Bears have a grand total of two sacks in their last four games -- and there are no new standout defenders on the team.

In the end, that may be the big problem. General Manager Jerry Angelo hasn't drafted a defensive standout -- or even a reliable starter -- since 2006, when he brought in Danieal Manning(notes), Devin Hester(notes), Dusty Dvoracek(notes), and Mark Anderson(notes) (though sixth-round pick Al Afalava(notes) looks like a find). Angelo spent his first pick of 2009 -- a third-rounder due to the selections expended in the Jay Cutler(notes) trade -- on San Jose State tackle Jarron Gilbert(notes), who hasn't yet done much in games to date. Maybe the Bears need to put a swimming pool in the middle of Soldier Field?

Angelo may be undone by his impatience. Even teams like the Patriots, who are brilliant at stocking their defenses with aging (but still effective) veterans, know that the key to long-term success on the defensive side of the ball is the youth and speed that comes only from the draft. Most the Bears' true standouts over the last few years -- Harris, Urlacher, Lance Briggs(notes), Charles Tillman(notes) -- were found in the draft. Then, you go out and find the Adewale Ogunleyes of the world. And with next year's draft also affected by the Cutler trade, the Bears will have to put a new defense together in a different way. So far, this one isn't working.

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