Bears defense dominates, despite rules changes

NFL rules are tilted so heavily in favor of the offenses — particularly the passing game.

The Pillagers of the Midway are on a record pace, returning seven interceptions for touchdowns in their first eight games as they prepare for Sunday night's prime time adventure against Matt Schaub and the Texans.

What is most remarkable is the fact the Bears defenders are dominating in an era when the NFL rules are tilted so heavily in favor of the offenses — particularly the passing game.

One of the early signs of preferential treatment for the offenses in the modern era came in 1978 when receivers were not allowed to be bumped beyond five yards of the line of scrimmage. That rule has been enforced more strictly in the past five years or so. In previous decades, receivers literally fought to get open.

"Back then, as long as the ball wasn't in the air, (the defenders) could hit you anywhere on the field," former Bears end Harlon Hill told me. Hill still somehow managed to catch 233 passes for 40 TDs during his NFL career (1954-62).

Another rules change allows offensive linemen to extend their arms while blocking and basically grab on to defensive players in a manner that makes holding calls quite arbitrary. And, of course, quarterbacks cannot be hit too high, too low or too hard, less a hanky is tossed.

"You've got to think about it now with all of the rules against us," Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher said.

The head slap that Hall of Fame defensive lineman Deacon Jones popularized to get past offensive linemen was outlawed in 1977. The clothesline tackle that former Bears defensive end Ed "The Claw" Sprinkle perfected in the '40s and '50s is now prohibited. The horse collar tackle was deemed illegal in the NFL in 2005.

Beginning in 2001, new rules were implemented almost annually to protect the quarterback. All of these rules and new offensive strategies, no doubt, contributed to three quarterbacks (Drew Brees, Matthew Stafford and Tom Brady) passing for more than 5,000 yards last season — the first time that had happened in NFL history. It makes you wonder how Sid Luckman still holds so many Bears passing records.

Yet the enterprising Bears defense continues to dominate this season.

Urlacher joined the pick-6 party last Sunday at Tennessee when he returned a Matt Hasselbeck pass 46 yards for a score. Don't get Urlacher started talking about offensive rules advantages.

"This could be a long conversation," he said. "There are so many rules against us. I'm going to go on a different tangent. The thing that (concerns me) is the cut blocks. Last week Izzy (Israel Idonije) got hurt. He was engaged (by a Titans blocker) and a guy cut him. How is that legal? We can't hit in the head, we can barely tackle anyone because with a concussion you might be out for a week or two. But if you lose your knee, you're out for a season or maybe longer. It's very frustrating, but the rules are the rules. We have to play within them."

For Bears defenders such as Charles Tillman, Lance Briggs, Tim Jennings, Major Wright, D.J. Moore, Urlacher and others to excel each week says something about their superior technique, anticipation and athleticism.

"I think the thing that eliminates most of (the rules disadvantages) for us is we play hard," Urlacher said. "We get 11 guys to the football. The ball's coming out. We've got guys stripping the football. And usually when they come out, unless they go out of bounds, we get them because we have so many guys going to the football."

fmitchell@tribune.com

Twitter@kicker34

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