In the first part of this week's Analyzing the Enemy, I essayed that the Bears actually look quite a bit like the Cowboys on the offensive side of the ball. As it turns out, the comparison may be even closer on defense.
Line-of-scrimmage play featuring a solid but unspectacular interior and a truly elite edge defender? Check.
A set of off-linebackers featuring a smart jack-of-all-trades type and a superior run-and-hit athlete? Check.
A strong pair of cornerbacks with more game than name recognition? Check.
Kiiiiiind of an adventure at safety? Check.
Selling subprime mortgage bonds the day after Lehman Brothers crashed was an easier way to make a living than running the ball against the Bears in 2011, and while they haven't been quite as dominant to start off 2012, they've looked pretty strong. While the Bears' front lacks an interior run-game dominator in the mold of the Saints' Broderick Bunkley or the Jet's Sione Pouha, every player works well in DC Rob Marinelli's scheme to shut down lanes and flow to the ball. Nose tackle Stephen Paea famously put up a combine bench press performance that might have given 1990's Larry Allen pause, and while the bench press is not the end-all-be-all of functional football strength there's no question that Paea is a powerful inside presence that can be extremely tough to root out of the hole. He has also proven more than capable of driving offensive linemen back into the QB's lap so far this season. ‘Under' tackle Henry Melton is a rare athlete (he started his career at Texas as a 270-pound running back) who excels at shooting gaps in both the run and pass game. He's bagged three sacks in three games this season, which qualifies as doing work for an interior rusher.
This picture looks more Cowboys-like once Jay Ratliff is in the picture to provide more pass-rush pop for Dallas' down defensive linemen. Dallas' down linemen in aggregate have contributed 17 sacks, hits and hurries this season versus 16 for the Bears' DTs, although given the difference in base alignments you're counting three positions for Dallas versus just two for the Bears. Dallas' big boys have also played a bit better against the run so far than their Bears' counterparts, with Hatcher doing strong work all around and Lissemore providing the run-stuffing power that helped earn him a contract extension earlier this month.
At defensive end, the Bears get a star turn from all-everything Julius Peppers. Peppers is the most powerful 4-3 end in football not named Mario Williams, and his pass-rush arsenal and motor have caught up to his ridiculous strength and speed to make him an every-down terror. Peppers' three sacks and nine additional hits/hurries this season are near-identical to DeMarcus Ware's four sacks and eight hits/hurries. Peppers' bookend Israel Idonije is tough on the run with less (historical) pass-rushing chops, but he's playing lighter in 2012 in an effort to up his sack production. It seems to be working so far, as he's bagged three sacks and six hits/hurries in 2012. Comparing Idonije with run-first edge defender Anthony Spencer - who has two sacks and seven hits/hurries - starts to make this exercise downright eerie. Chicago also tapped Boise State DE/OLB Shea McClellin with the 19th pick in the draft to provide a situational pass rush, and McClellin has started out in fine form with a pair of sacks and six hits/hurries in just 79 snaps thusfar this season. His sub-package pressure is theoretically pretty similar to Victor Butler, though Butler has been limited to just 35 snaps in 2012.
Chicago is the kind of football town where kids have pictures of the defense on their walls, and nobody's sold more FatHeads over the last decade than MLB Brian Urlacher. Urlacher's size and smarts have made him a capable run defender, but the former safety's speed and range in locking down the seams in the pass game are what will make him a Hall of Famer. He's slowing down and battling some nagging knee issues, but he's still a force at age 34 and Romo won't be able to let anything fly over the middle without knowing exactly where Urlacher is roaming. While Sean Lee lacks Urlacher's absurd physical attributes, he's got every bit the football brain Urlacher does and his youth and quickness make them pretty comparable players at this stage in their respective careers. Check out their statistics in pass defense from 2011:
Thrown At/ Catches/ Yards Catch/ TDs Allowed/ INTs
Urlacher 58/ 41/ 9.9/ 2/ 3
Lee 63/ 50/ 9.9/ 3/ 4
While Urlacher has more coverage responsibility down the deep middle in the Bears' Cover 2 than Lee does with Dallas, it's a similar stats profile that shows both players' abilities to get things done in space.
Chicago weakside ‘backer Lance Briggs is one of the league's best combinations of speed and power on the outside, and SLB Nick Roach is a steady run-plugger who can sometimes be picked on in pass coverage. Youngster Bruce Carter is a pretty good physical comp for Briggs, and he could enjoy a similar degree of success if he's able to develop the combination of smarts and physicality that Briggs brings to the table.
The Bears were easier to throw on than to run on last season, but not by much. A lot of the credit for that fact goes not only to Urlacher in the middle, but to the corner tandem of Charles ‘Peanut' Tillman and Tim Jennings. Neither is a household name, but both thrive in classic Cover-2 zone looks when they can backpedal and then break to disrupt a throw. The pair combined to surrender just a single TD last season while notching 5 INTs and allowing a combined passer rating of 71.2 on balls thrown their way. They were even versatile enough to start playing more press-man coverage last season, enabling the Bears to outnumber the run game and clamp down on opposing TE's by bringing a safety out of the classic Cover-2 shell and down into the box.
Obviously Brandon Carr and Mo Claiborne don't have anything close to the track record in Dallas that Jennings and Tillman have amassed in the Windy City, but they figure to compare pretty closely as the season goes on (and Claiborne continues to grow up) as a pair of upper-tier corners that are tough to exploit.
Safety turned out to be a bit of a weak spot for Chicago as injuries forced several guys into the rotation. Chris Conte endured some rookie struggles before going down with a December foot injury, but he has played well so far in 2012. Major Wright is a fairly hard-hitting strong safety who can struggle getting sideline-to-sideline in the pass game. Attacking the deep seams and corners is still probably the best way to go after this defense, but strong work by Urlacher and the corner tandem means that those windows tend to be smaller than Romo would like them to be.
To top off all this ‘Chicago is Dallas/Dallas is Chicago/Finkel is Einhorn/Einhorn is Finkel' business, every year I track each team's game-by-game stats to rank each team by how much they're gaining/allowing in Yards per Rush and Yards per Pass Attempt relative to what their opponents are gaining/allowing (it's basically a much less mathematically/statistically rigorous approach to what Football Outsiders does with their DVOA metric). Through three weeks, I've got Chicago ranked #11 against the run versus #14 for Dallas, while the Cowboys are #3 against the pass with the Bears coming in at #6.
The Bottom Line
In a lot of ways, it really feels like Dallas will be playing themselves this Monday night. Both defenses could have an edge over their opponents if strong DL play meets the shoddy OL work that both teams have displayed up to this point. Dallas has better weapons in the pass game and a talent advantage at running back if Forte is out or hobbled. Chicago counters with the more proven back seven on defense and a much better track record of turning defensive pressure into (recovered) fumbles and INTs. Special teams could obviously wreck this one for Dallas if we make the mistake of kicking to Devin Hester, but it's likely that this game comes down to which quarterback can execute the best in the face of heavy pressure. Even when accounting for another possible blow-up by the right side of the Cowboys' OL, history says that QB is likely to be Romo.
Cowboys 23, Bears 17