Holding Peppers back

Having defensive end cover cripples pass rush

Nobody at Halas Hall came out and directly questioned the design of the Bears' pass rush, a misnomer so far.

But if you listened closely the other day, you heard doubt.

"We've stunted our defensive linemen a lot on passing downs, where we didn't give them an opportunity to create or generate a better opportunity for a rush,'' linebacker Lance Briggs said.

Someone followed up by asking Briggs if he would prefer Bears ends get upfield where they could, I don't know, increase their chances of sacking the quarterback. The Bears have only eight sacks in six games — the NFL's third-lowest total. Opposing quarterbacks have become so comfortable at Soldier Field the McCaskeys are considering selling PSLs for seats in the pocket.

Briggs answered by repeating himself for emphasis.

"Like I said, we've stunted our defensive line and put them in situations where on passing downs they couldn't generate a continuous pass rush,'' Briggs said. "That's what it is.''

This is also what it is: an indirect indictment of Mel Tucker, whom Bears fans still don't know well enough to determine where he falls between Buddy Ryan and Bob Babich on the continuum of defensive coordinators. But we are starting to sense from comments such as Briggs' that when Bears defensive players talk about trusting each other more, they don't just mean teammates.

For the last decade, the Bears have taken pride in telling us the star of the defense is the defense. Seeing that star struggle through six games has been like watching a great actor decline on stage in front of a packed house, missing cues, forgetting lines and resembling a shadow of his former self.

The Bears still produce points off turnovers like they did to beat the Giants. But any defense on pace to give up a franchise-record for yardage that tries living off takeaways lives dangerously. In the past, debates over how good the Bears were always came back to a defense that passed the eye test. So far, the 2013 version doesn't. In Chicago, a Bears offense carrying the defense is like the mayor following the aldermen's lead. We stare in disbelief.

In fairness, the loss of three starters made life more challenging for Tucker and contributed to the Bears giving up 29 plays of 20 or more yards — more than any team but the Broncos. But so have some curious decisions by Tucker that have raised eyebrows from the press box to the locker room, particularly involving Julius Peppers.

Tucker continues to move Peppers around liberally in attempts to ignite the enigmatic 33-year-old. Against the Giants, Peppers lined up at all four line spots and made an impact at none. In one creative alignment, Peppers was one of four defensive ends rushing. The highest-paid Bear finished without a tackle and remains stuck on one sack heading into Sunday's game at FedEx Field against elusive quarterback Robert Griffin III.

The next time you see Peppers dropping into coverage instead of rushing the passer, as Tucker occasionally has required, remember the words of former Bears coach Lovie Smith. Smith, in an entertaining interview this week on themmqb.com, provided a glimpse what former players he trained might be thinking whenever Tucker's defense asks Peppers to cover a running back in the flat.

"Every time he doesn't rush, you know what the offense is saying? Phew! Good!" Smith said after watching another pass rusher drop into coverage.

The same reasoning applies to Peppers. At Redskins practice, Pro Bowl left tackle Trent Williams reflected what first pops into the head of every offense preparing to face the Bears.

"It's still Julius Peppers, man,'' Williams told reporters. "It doesn't get too much harder than that as far as blocking somebody.''

It doesn't get any easier than blocking a pass rusher who doesn't rush. Schematically, keep Peppers on either edge and let him do what he has done well enough to warrant Hall of Fame consideration. Let Peppers prove his lack of explosiveness represents an aberration more than indication he is following several 30-something peers into NFL oblivion. Falcons defensive end John Abraham, 35, has two sacks in seven games. Chargers defensive end Dwight Freeney, 33, had a half-sack before an injury ended his season after four games. Bengals outside linebacker James Harrison, 35, has one in six, like Peppers.

"We're asking more of every guy, every day,'' Tucker said. "We need to get better. We need more rush. We need more violence. … Never at any point are we saying, 'OK, you're in good shape. You don't need to do more.' And Julius is no different.''

But Peppers is different, and Tucker needs to find more ways to remind everybody. If Tucker can't, then a Bears defense in transition will lose its unique status too.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh

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