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Hoge: Schedule Points To Improvement For Bears' Defense

By Adam Hoge-

HALAS HALL (CBS) — Somewhat lost in the Jay Cutler controversy Sunday was that the Bears' defense held the NFL's third-ranked offense to just 21 points and 364 total yards.

It was by no means a dominating performance by Mel Tucker's unit, but the defense did take a step in the right direction against the Lions.

"There were some positives in the game. We're going to build on those, but we're just moving on to the next one," Tucker said. "There's no moral victories or anything like that in anything that we did. We're going to build on the positives and work to eliminate the negatives and move on to the next one."

But with the Bears averaging 28.8 points per game on offense — third-highest in the NFL — defensive performances like Sunday's against the Lions might be good enough to get the five wins in seven games the team needs to get to the playoffs.

And you can mostly thank the schedule for that. Of the seven remaining opponents, only two rank better than 19th in total offense: the 5-5 Eagles (4th) and the 5-4 Packers (3rd), who are currently without quarterback Aaron Rodgers. The Ravens are 29th, the Rams are 26th, the Vikings are 28th, the Cowboys are 19th and the Browns are 25th.

The point is, if the offense can continue to score at the rate it has — and it will only see one opponent that ranks better than 15th in total defense (the Browns, which are fifth) — the Bears' defense might be able to hold on just enough to reach the postseason.

Amazingly, in the two games played without linebacker Lance Briggs, the Bears are only allowing 20.5 points per game. In the seven they played with Briggs, they allowed 29 points per game. Seneca Wallace and Matthew Stafford throwing to ghosts undoubtedly helped that statistic, but it's not like Kellen Clemens, Christian Ponder, Jason Campbell and Nick Foles — all of whom the Bears will see in the final seven weeks — scare you. And if the latter two have your attention with their recent performances (along with Tony Romo in Week 14 and possibly Aaron Rodgers in the season finale), remember that Briggs should be back for the final four weeks of the season and newcomer Jeremiah Ratliff could be added to mix by then, too. The Bears will also need rookie middle linebacker Jonathan Bostic to continue to improve, which he has done in each of his last two starts.

It's certainly a hypothetical outlook only an optimist can stomach, but imagine a formidable linebacker unit with James Anderson, Jon Bostic and Lance Briggs behind a defensive line with Corey Wootton back at defensive end because Ratliff is providing adequate pressure out of the three-technique. All of that would greatly reduce the pressure on the struggling safeties.

And if you want to get really crazy, there's a chance Charles Tillman could return for the playoffs as healthy as he has been all season after being able to rest his ailing knee for eight weeks.

Again, such a positive outlook is only possible because of the schedule, which includes only one team currently above .500 — the Aaron Rodgers-less Packers.

And it all starts this Sunday at Soldier Field against the Baltimore Ravens, who have the fourth-worst offense in the league.

"We haven't been precise enough in the passing game, and we haven't really been able to get any yards in the running game," Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco said on a conference call Wednesday.

Sounds like the perfect opponent for the Bears defense.

With Flacco being a "franchise quarterback" in contract terms only, and Ray Rice averaging just 2.5 yards per carry this season, the Bears should be able to build on the positives Mel Tucker saw against the Lions.

"Ray Rice's numbers haven't been as good as in the past, but you know he's a guy who is going to bring it," Corey Wootton said. "He's going to come downhill and they are going to try to hit you in the mouth. That's Harbaugh-type football."

But Harbaugh-type football — at least John Harbaugh-type football — has only led to a 4-5 record this year after last season's Super Bowl run. And that's why the Ravens' offense looks like one of many on the schedule that the banged-up Bears defense might be able to slow down enough to beat.

Wednesday, Bears head coach Marc Trestman gave Mel Tucker a vote of confidence despite his unit ranking 27th in points allowed, 26th in total defense, 31st against the run and 23rd against the past.

"Mel's done an amazing job in my opinion," Trestman said.

"Amazing" might be overstating it, but if the defense can improve enough to get the Bears into the playoffs, then "good enough" will suffice.

Adam Hoge covers the Bears for and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter at @AdamHoge.

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