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Across board, Bears’ defense among leaders in NFL

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2012 10:00 a.m. CDT
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(Photo by Scott Strazzante/Chicago Tribune/MCT)
Chicago Bears' Lance Briggs strips ball from Detroit Lions' Nate Burleson in 2nd quarter Monday, October 22, 2012, at Soldier Field in Chicago, Illinois.

(MCT) — CHICAGO — It is a conversation Bears defensive end Julius Peppers has no interest joining.

Do the Bears (5-1) have the best defense in the NFL seven weeks into the season?

Some primary statistics give you ammunition to make that argument. For starters, the Bears are allowing only 13 points per game. That is tops in the NFL and close to the best mark under Lovie Smith of 12.6 in 2005.

The Bears have 21 takeaways, most in the NFL and the most by any team after six games since 1971. They lead the NFL with 14 interceptions and they even have two takeaways on special teams. The defense ranks second against the run — by 1/10th of a yard — allowing 71.3 yards per game. The pass rush is tied for fifth with 21 sacks, putting the unit on pace for 56, which would shatter the high under Smith of 41.

Opponents are converting 29.2 percent of third downs, fourth in the NFL, and the red zone defense has been stout, tied for seventh at 40 percent after getting three takeaways inside the 20-yard line in Monday’s 13-7 throttling of the Lions at Soldier Field.

The Bears cannot be excited about an offensive effort that left a lot of yards and points on the field. But the defense put Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford on the run from the start and never let up, blanketing wide receiver Calvin Johnson along the way as he was limited to three receptions for 34 yards, season lows.

Johnson, who was targeted 11 times, didn’t catch his first pass until late in the third quarter and the Lions didn’t convert a third down until midway through that period. At the end, the Bears were one offensive first down away from posting their first shutout since Nov. 18, 2010 at Miami.

“We’re not concerned with stats and who’s the best and this and that, we’re just trying to get better,” Pepper said.

The schedule has presented the Bears with some prime opportunities. They have faced the Jaguars and Rams, two of the five-worst total offenses in the league. Stafford and the Lions were misfiring before they came to Soldier Field. Then you remember this was supposed to be the season the offense would lead the way for the Bears and realize it’s the same defense with the same familiar faces playing better than it has in some time.

“The thing that we do, that I’m not sure most defenses do, we run to the football,” said middle linebacker Brian Urlacher, who probably had his best game to date in 2012. “If you watch our defense we have 11 guys running to the football every play. That’s the biggest (thing) our coaches emphasize.

“You watch defenses around the league, it’s not like that. Around here, it’s the culture, you run to the football or you’re not going to play. You see our D-linemen turn and run when the ball is thrown.”

So, when balls squirt out like the fumbles of Lions running backs Mikel Leshoure and Joique Bell, the Bears have more players near the play to make a recovery than the opponent. Urlacher had one of the recoveries and he also was credited with seven tackles, one stop for loss and two pass breakups.

“They say they’re getting older and stuff like that, but they’re not that old, you know what I mean,” Lions left guard Rob Sims said. “They’re together for a reason, and it shows.”

The defense has star power. Opponents can scheme to slow Peppers but he’s just one of the productive pass rushers on the line. Defensive tackle Henry Melton and ends Israel Idonije, Corey Wootton and Shea McClellin also are producing. The defensive line has been impressively opportunistic and relentless.

Now, the Bears prepare to face another struggling offense in the Panthers. Nothing is going right for them but when Cam Newton played in his fourth NFL game at Soldier Field last season they rolled up 543 yards offense, one of the most prolific days ever against the Bears. Newton ran for two touchdowns and passed for 374 yards and another score.

“He was running around a lot,” Melton said. “We just have to keep him contained.”

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