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Bears’ defense particularly tough in openers

By Brad Biggs, Chicago Tribune –

CHICAGO — Andrew Luck called the Bears’ defense he will face in his NFL debut Sunday in Soldier Field “historically great.”

Luck doesn’t need a primer on some of the franchise greats to know he’s in for a difficult task when you consider how stingy the defense has been under coach Lovie Smith in season openers, holding three opponents in their last seven without an offensive touchdown, including the Falcons last year.

Luck follows an impressive list of quarterbacks the Bears have faced in openers. In the last six seasons, they have played Matt Ryan, Matthew Stafford, Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning, Philip Rivers and Brett Favre.

Even in defeat, the defense has performed at a high level. In the last seven openers, the Bears are 4-3 but have surrendered only seven offensive touchdowns. The most points allowed was in a 21-15 loss at Lambeau Field to begin 2009 when cornerback Nathan Vasher slipped with 71 seconds to play allowing Rodgers to hit Greg Jennings for a game-winning 50-yard touchdown.

The defense throttled Ryan last year and knocked Stafford out in 2010 with a knee injury. Manning was stifled to begin the 2008 season and the 2006 Super Bowl season began with a 26-0 shutout of Favre, the first time the Packers had been blanked since 1991.

In a 14-3 loss at San Diego in 2007, the Chargers were held scoreless until the final minute of the third quarter and their first score came after a punt went off Brandon McGowan to set up Rivers with a short field at the Bears’ 29-yard line. In Kyle Orton’s debut to start the 2005 season, the Bears lost to the host Redskins 9-7, allowing only three field goals.

So, Luck prepares for a defense that has had an opponent passer rating of 72.1 in the previous seven openers. The opposition has averaged 3.5 yards per carry in those games. Theories remain varied why Smith’s defense has been so successful at the start.

“There is no real answer,” defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said. “We have good camps and the guys work hard. I believe there is something to continuity and consistency in what you do.”

While some criticize the Bears for a laid-back approach in training camp with limited full contact, especially for front-line players, three sources mentioned that as a contributing factor.

“Players are fresh,” one said. “That’s why I call it the Bourbonnais Country Club. And they show nothing in preseason. Teams using preseason tape to study the Bears aren’t going to find anything. Preseason games are a necessary evil to Lovie and when the season arrives his players are gung ho.”

It’s more than just making sure players have legs under them when the season begins. The Bears begin gearing up for the first opponent early, but that’s not a unique practice. Marinelli says he will “take a peek” at the first opponent after the schedule is announced in April.

There is work done in training camp to prepare for Week 1. One former staff member said while it wasn’t announced it was specifically for the first opponent, the offense and defense would work off cards for the opener one day in practice before the second and third exhibitions. By the time the fourth exhibition game rolled around, all focus was on the opener. The program hasn’t changed much.

“In camp when you have walk-throughs, when the players don’t even know it, you just slip a play in here or there,” Marinelli said. “You’re working on certain things all the time. The biggest thing, though, is not (the opposition). It’s continually working on what we do.”

Nickel cornerback D.J. Moore shrugged when asked to explain it.

“Everyone is really amped to play,” he said. “That has to be part of it.”

Middle linebacker Brian Urlacher wonders if the increased speed of the regular season — something Luck will experience for the first time — catches up to quarterbacks more than defenses.

“The preseason is not as fast,” he said. “A lot of quarterbacks might get used to that, especially young guys. Once you hit the regular season it speeds up a little bit.

“That may be something, I don’t know. Maybe we’ve had really good game plans.”

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