In a bend-but-don’t-break season, the Bears' defense played a bend-but-don’t-break game in the team’s last contest of significance — a 21-13 road loss to the Green Bay Packers.
The Bears' first half energy was palpable. And how could it not be? On Sunday afternoon, the front seven, the defense and the team, en masse, regained one of its preeminent talents and preeminent leaders in Akiem Hicks.
“It was everything,” Hicks said, of being able to return. “My defensive linemates saw the energy and they were excited for me to be able to go back out there, because they know how much I miss it.”
“It was huge, man,” Eddie Jackson said of Hicks’ impact. “He gets us fired up.”
For a time, that was enough. At the half, the Packers led 7-3, but had only 129 total yards (29 rushing on 3.2 ypc) of total offense, had punted twice and turned the ball over on downs twice. Their only score came as a culmination of a four-play, 35-yard drive on a field shortened by a questionably-called kick-catch interference penalty on Cordarrelle Patterson.
But signs of the Packers’ eventual offensive breakout were abundant. On the first play of the game, Marquez Valdes-Scantling dropped a would-be 70-yard touchdown after roasting Prince Amukamara in coverage. Davante Adams burned a sagging Buster Skrine for a score on a 4th-and-6 play later in the first quarter. Even only 11-of-21 with 100 yards at the break, Aaron Rodgers faced little pressure in the game’s first 30 minutes.
There’s the bend.
The break came fast and hard on the Packers’ opening two drives of the second half. On the first, Rodgers gashed the Bears twice — once through the air on a 34-yard dart to Adams, then on the ground with a 17-yard scramble. Aaron Jones finished the job with a 21-yard touchdown run from there. Then, after a Bears’ three-and-out, Green Bay snapped off a five-play, 66 yard touchdown drive that featured a 49-yard Josh Kumerow catch-and-run.
Coverage breakdowns and missed tackles abounded. The Packers led 21-3.
“Nobody anticipated coming out of the half and having them rally that way,” Hicks said. “So we just kept fighting.”
As the Bears’ offense gradually came to life over the game’s last quarter-and-a-half — eventually cutting the deficit to 21-13 — the defense held tough. Eddy Pineiro opened the fourth quarter with a 27-yard field goal. From that point on, the Packers didn’t get a first down.
“Guys stepped up. You could see the fire in guys’ eyes, because we felt that,” Hicks said. “We stayed in the game. It’s impossible not to have a good deal of respect for these guys because there’s no quitters.”
But that last, over-the-hump moment eluded the Bears. After drawing within eight points, the offense failed to push the ball deep into Packers territory until the last play. On the drive directly after an Anthony Miller touchdown made the score 21-13, the defense nearly flipped the game’s script with what appeared to be a forced fumble on Rodgers at the Packers’ 20-yard line. After replay review, officials ruled Rodgers’ elbow down.
Last season, a play like that might have swung the Bears’ way. But not tonight — a night when, it should be noted, the defense sacked Rodgers only once and didn’t force a turnover. The D was solid, but the big plays were lacking, as they have been all year.
“We always wanna get [big play turnovers], but right now they’re not there. That’s something you feel as a player,” Jackson said. “You know, a lot of stuff changed from last year to this year, just with the type of play calls and everything. But that’s expected. Everybody’s still getting used to everything, finding your finesses, your disguises, things like that.”
Of course, the offense will be decried for not putting up more than 13 points in a must-win game. And the defense, playing without multiple starters for the majority of this season, will be criticized for the lack of takeaways. There's ample criticism and explaining away to go around. Ultimately, the Bears’ locker room was ripe with disappointment over the result of this game and this season, but the confidence in each other and the emphasis on finishing the final three games on a high note remained.
“Just finish man. Just finish. You just lay it all on the line. That’s it,” Jackson said. “You gonna see who gonna stand up, you gonna see who gonna lay down.”