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Inside a somber Bears' locker room, Tommie Harris glanced at pouting teammate Mark Anderson and immediately gave the defensive end an encouraging but stern earful.
"We have next week, man," Harris said. "I'm not telling you to smile about it. But hey, man, you can't be mad."
The defense had every right to be furious.
When you hold reigning NFL MVP LaDainian Tomlinson to 25 yards rushing—his lowest total since 7 yards against Philadelphia in 2005—and when you make arguably one of the top offenses in the NFL look more like a team of replacement players for more than three quarters, you're supposed to win. The Bears didn't, meaning the defensive effort was as meaningful as an exhibition victory.
Sunday's 14-3 loss to the San Diego Chargers proved that no matter how hard it tries, the defense can't shoulder the entire load if the Bears want a return trip to the Super Bowl. The offense and Rex Grossman sputtered. Costly second-half turnovers allowed the Chargers to eat up clock and wear down the defense.
"I don't like losing, no matter what," Anderson said. "We were on point for about two, three quarters. Than we let them do what they do. We let them off the hook."
Defensive coordinator Bob Babich's bunch was better than advertised, save for one big hiccup—a 17-yard touchdown pass from Tomlinson to Antonio Gates in the third quarter that wiped out the Bears' 3-0 lead. But nothing hurt the defense more than running backs Cedric Benson and Adrian Peterson fumbling in the second half and a special teams mishap on which a Chargers punt hit off the Bears' Brandon McGowan before the Chargers' Matt Wilhelm covered it.
Babich refused to make excuses for his defense.
"I saw a lot of energy from our guys," Babich said. "In taking a peek at the third-down stats, I think we could have done a better job to get ourselves off the field."
The Chargers had possession for 12 more minutes than the Bears in the second half. No wonder the defense was chugging Gatorade bottles so quickly in the fourth quarter.
"We don't get tired," linebacker Brian Urlacher contended. "Sometimes we get winded, but we don't get tired."
Some of that wind got sucked out on the Tomlinson touchdown toss with 52 seconds left in the third quarter. He took a pitch from quarterback Philip Rivers, ran parallel to the line of scrimmage, cocked his right arm and fired to Gates. The burly tight end got behind Hunter Hillenmeyer then sneaked into the end zone with a stretch of the arm before free safety Mike Brown could get to him.
Babich wouldn't say which player was out of position on the play, but with three safeties on the field, someone needed to help cover. No one did.
"I just saw the toss to my side, I came up, and … that's all," McGowan said. "It's not frustrating. You've just got to get over it."
Shaking off this one will be tough considering how the defense couldn't escape San Diego unscathed. Brown, set to make a magical return from a foot injury after grabbing an early interception, left the game with a left knee sprain and was in tears afterward. Nose tackle Dusty Dvoracek, who, like Brown, was coming off an injury last season, also suffered a knee injury. Losing Brown for any extended time will hurt, considering the leadership he brings. And Dvoracek's run-stuffing ability is something the Bears' could use with Larry Johnson and the Kansas City Chiefs coming to town Sunday.
Before Brown and Dvoracek exited, they contributed greatly to a defensive effort that was pitching a shutout. The Bears held the Chargers scoreless in the first half, something that last happened in '05 against the Eagles. And the Chargers led the NFL in scoring last season, averaging more than 30 points per game.
At one point, Tomlinson had nine rushes for minus-1 yard as the defense loaded the box to shut him down. The pass rush was excellent, with Anderson, Adewale Ogunleye and Nathan Vasher credited with sacks. And the Bears had all this success without blitzing much.
Harris exemplified how tough the defense played, getting into the backfield twice in the second half to stuff plays, including one that caused Rivers to fumble at the Bears' 1. Brown recovered that third-quarter fumble.
Strong safety Adam Archuleta, upset in much the same manner as Anderson after the game, appreciated the big plays his teammates made but put everything in perspective.
"As a defense, we need to tell ourselves we need to make more game-changing plays," he said. "The first half? What does that mean? We can feel good after 30 minutes, but the bottom line is we lost the first game."
But the season won't be a loss, as long as defense doesn't have to do all the heavy lifting.