There is no question any longer whether the Chicago Bears are for real, and the major reason is a defense that has been the league's best this season by a wide margin.
"They're great," Tampa Bay Buccaneers Coach Jon Gruden said this week of the unit his club will try to solve Sunday.
The Bears have surrendered the fewest yards and the fewest points in the league. The team ranked second in total defense, the Baltimore Ravens, is allowing 19.9 more yards per game than the Bears. The club with the No. 2 scoring defense, the Indianapolis Colts, is yielding 4.2 more points per contest than the Bears.
The Carolina Panthers had scored at least 20 points in every game this season before facing the Bears this past Sunday. Carolina could do almost nothing offensively, as the Bears amassed eight sacks -- five of them by defensive ends Adewale Ogunleye and Alex Brown -- and won, 13-3, to improve their record to 7-3 with their sixth straight victory. They have a two-game lead over the resurgent Minnesota Vikings in the NFC North.
The Bears have held eight of their opponents to fewer than 20 points this season and six of them to fewer than 10. They've allowed 110 points in 10 games, putting them ahead of the paces of the great Bears defenses in 1985 (when the club permitted 127 points in the season's first 10 games) and '86 (120 points yielded through 10 games).
The 2000 Ravens, who had perhaps the NFL's best defense in recent memory, surrendered 105 points in their first 10 games that season.
These Bears are performing at a time when the NFL's rules-makers have done all they could to help offenses amass passing yards and points. The key to this Chicago defense is that middle linebacker Brian Urlacher is healthy again after being plagued by hamstring problems last season. But, as Gruden said, Urlacher has plenty of help.
"Tommie Harris is a fine defensive tackle," Gruden said during his news conference Monday. "They made a great trade with Miami to pick up a premier pass rusher [Ogunleye]. Everybody knows about Urlacher. No one talks about [outside linebacker Lance] Briggs. . . . Mike Brown was absent last year. He was hurt. He's as good a safety man as there is in the league. They can all tackle. They're very physical and fast, and they're really well-rounded in terms of their pressure package, how they play coverage, their disguises. They're together. They're tight on defense, and they're very good, physical players."
Hall of Fame Semifinalists
Former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman and late Philadelphia, Green Bay and Carolina defensive end Reggie White were among 25 Hall of Fame semifinalists announced yesterday. Selectors pared down a preliminary list of 112 nominees.
Also on the list are former Cowboys wide receiver Michael Irvin, former Cleveland Browns and Ravens owner Art Modell and two former Washington Redskins players, guard Russ Grimm and wideout Art Monk. The list will be trimmed to 13 finalists who will be considered, along with seniors committee nominees John Madden and Rayfield Wright, during Super Bowl week. . . .
The Eagles officially ended quarterback Donovan McNabb's season by placing him on the injured reserve list yesterday. He is about to have surgery on the abdominal injury that plagued him all season. Some people in the league thought the Eagles might sign quarterback Kordell Stewart to go with Mike McMahon and Koy Detmer, but they haven't yet. The Eagles did add a quarterback, Andy Hall, to their practice squad. Philadelphia also placed cornerback Lito Sheppard on injured reserve because of his severe ankle sprain. . . .
The NFC West race is so lopsided that the Seattle Seahawks can clinch the division title this weekend, with a victory by them and a loss by the St. Louis Rams. . . . Rams rookie cornerback Ronald Bartell, a second-round draft pick in April out of Howard University, made his first NFL start last weekend. . . . Rams punter Bryan Barker issued a public apology Monday after the team received complaints about Barker practicing his punting during halftime of Sunday's loss to Arizona while a Veterans Day ceremony was taking place on the field. . . .
The New York Jets have totaled three points in their past two games. When Kliff Kingsbury appeared in mop-up duty last Sunday in Denver, he became the fifth quarterback used by the Jets this season -- following Chad Pennington, Jay Fiedler, Brooks Bollinger and Vinny Testaverde. . . .
After resisting for weeks the temptation to sit veteran Trent Dilfer and play rookie quarterback Charlie Frye, Browns Coach Romeo Crennel worked Frye into the mix during Sunday's win over the Dolphins. Frye played three series, one in the second quarter and two in the fourth quarter. Dilfer said he didn't like the arrangement, but Crennel indicated he plans to continue to find spots to use Frye over the rest of the season.
Former NFL quarterbacks turned television analysts Steve Young and Phil Simms clashed over comments Young made Sunday about Buccaneers quarterback Chris Simms, Phil's son. During ESPN's pregame show, Young questioned whether Chris Simms has the mental toughness to be a successful NFL quarterback, saying he worries about that because Simms grew up in a "laissez-faire" atmosphere.
Phil Simms took exception and fired back Monday on a conference call with reporters, saying he didn't raise his son that way and Young might know more if he followed the league more than one day per week.
Young's comments were oddly timed, with Chris Simms having recovered from a rocky beginning after taking over as Tampa's starter for the injured Brian Griese. When Young spoke, Simms was coming off a superb performance in a win over the Redskins, and Sunday he engineered his second straight triumph as the Buccaneers improved their record to 7-3 with a victory at Atlanta. The Buccaneers totaled 66 points in those two games . . . .
The Detroit Lions are seeking to have wide receiver Charles Rogers return nearly $10.2 million of the $14.4 million in bonus money he received in his rookie contract with the team signed in 2003. The case appears headed to arbitration, with the NFL Players Association opposing the Lions' attempt to recoup the money.
Rogers was suspended for four games this season for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy, and his contract contains a provision enabling the Lions to force him to return the bonus money if he's suspended for that reason. The union maintains the sport's collective bargaining agreement supersedes Rogers's contract and the club is prohibited under the terms of the labor deal from punishing Rogers for a failed drug test. Under the labor agreement, only the league can punish a player for failing a drug test. . . .
Bears President Ted Phillips told a Chicago radio station that "stiff fines" could be levied by the league on offensive linemen Olin Kreutz and Fred Miller. Kreutz broke Miller's jaw in a fight during a recent players' outing to an FBI shooting range in Chicago. . . .
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger probably will be back in Pittsburgh's lineup, after missing three games following arthroscopic knee surgery, when the Steelers try to hand the Colts their first loss of the season Monday night in Indianapolis. Don Shula, the coach of the 1972 Dolphins team that went unbeaten, said yesterday the Colts are a legitimate threat to go undefeated.
"I wouldn't be surprised if they go unbeaten," Shula said during a conference call with reporters. "I think playing at the level they are right now is unbelievable. Peyton [Manning] is a pleasure to watch, and I think they've got a real shot at doing it."