In the second quarter of Sunday's game at Soldier Field against Detroit, the Bears' defense constantly had their backs against the proverbial wall. The Lions, who already held a touchdown lead, repeatedly drove the ball into Chicago territory. And each time they did, the Bears were able to come up with big stops, grabbing a pair of interceptions – one in the end zone and one at the 1-yard line – to keep Detroit off the scoreboard.
The takeaways were just some of the several impact plays the Bears defense made on the afternoon. The unit had one its best games of the season, and though it came in a 20-14 loss, many on the defense felt the performance could be a building block for greater things moving forward.
"We changed up our coverages a bit, played a little more man-to-man, and that allowed us to really go out there and compete. Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose, and I thought we won our share of plays today," said safety Ryan Mundy, who had one of the interceptions. "It was a different feel out there defensively. We just have to build off that now. Go up to Minnesota (in Week 17), try to have a duplicate performance and come out with a win."
Mundy and fellow safety Brock Vereen, who had the other interception, credited the team's defensive line for a lot of their success. The Chicago pass rush was constantly in the face of Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford. The defense finished with four sacks by four different players, along with three other hits on the quarterback. Stafford finished with a rating 53.7, his second-lowest of the season.
Vereen said the team was motivated to play well after being embarrassed by the Lions earlier in the season. When the two NFC North foes met on Thanksgiving, Stafford threw for 390 yards and two touchdowns. The Bears were determined not to let that happen again by playing a more physical scheme that wouldn't allow free releases from the line of scrimmage for the Lions receivers.
Chicago's secondary also took it as a personal challenge to measure itself up with the Lions defense that ranked second in the NFL in yards allowed heading into the game.
"Nobody is satisfied with the outcome, but there were some good things out there. It's definitely something to build on," Vereen said. "What (Mundy) was stressing pregame was, 'Brock, we as safeties have to outplay their safeties' and that kind of set the tone for the entire game."
Vereen and fellow rookie Kyle Fuller were a major reason for the strong play of the secondary. The two were assigned to mainly shadow Calvin Johnson, the Lions' All-Pro wide receiver. Though Johnson finished with 103 receiving yards, the Bears were encouraged by their effort on him, especially because the job was done by a pair of first-year players.
"Their knowledge of the game, they are getting so much smarter," cornerback Tim Jennings said of the growth shown by Fuller and Vereen. "They know the game, are studying the game. And also knowing the defense and where they're supposed to be. They've grown as rookies."
Another rookie, defensive tackle Ego Ferguson, played a big role in the defensive performance as well. In the third quarter, following a four-yard run by Detroit's Joique Bell, Ferguson rolled his ankle when Lions center Dominic Raiola jumped on his leg. The rookie wouldn't address the play after the game, saying the film spoke for itself and that there was no need to explain it further, but it was clear the cheap shot angered the Chicago defense.
Teammate Jared Allen told reporters in the locker room that, "there was no need for (the jump)" and that he spoke with Raiola after the game.
The play on Ferguson came just two snaps after Willie Young was taken off the field with an Achilles injury. Young was eventually carted into the locker room, and the defensive end had a walking boot on his left foot as he left Solider Field.
Young, who will miss the Week 17 finale, finished the season with a career-high 10 sacks. He reiterated what many of his teammates said about seeing the defense evolve as the year has progressed, despite the team's 5-10 record.
"We've seen a lot of growth," Young said. "This time of the year we are fighting for pride, for our fans, for one another. And it means a lot. This has not been our year, but we are a team in here, we're a family and we are going to keep moving forward."
In the end, the strong performance came in a losing effort, and that's all that matters. But the strong play by the young defense against a playoff-bound team shows the Bears have momentum to build on moving forward.
"We got a couple of interceptions, which was really good," coach Marc Trestman said. "We were in a highly competitive football game against a team that is going to the playoffs. We stood tall. We played hard.
"But we're not trying to sugarcoat it – we didn't win. We're here to win."