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Lovie's defense keeps Bears in the hunt

Bears head coach Lovie Smith continues to thrive in his ninth year because his team does the ordinary things extraordinarily well.

Smith's scheme is not especially complex. He does a phenomenal job of coaching sound gap control, good tackling, and stripping the ball.

Since 2004 when Smith took over the Bears, Chicago leads the NFL in takeaways, third-down defense and red-zone defense. The beat goes on this season. Chicago entered Thanksgiving Week leading the league with 30 takeaways. The Bears are No. 2 in third-down defense and are tied for fourth in red-zone defense.

Smith remains an advocate of the Cover 2 scheme, with two deep safeties preventing big plays and the middle linebacker - Brian Urlacher - required to cover the deep middle of the field as well as stuffing the run. Cover 2 still is a key defense in the NFL. But many teams have played it less in recent years, partly because a dominant defensive line is required to prevent runs between the tackles.

Like Bills defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt, Smith puts a lot of pressure on his defensive linemen, asking them to be playmakers by attacking the line of scrimmage, getting into the backfield and wreaking havoc. The Bears have quality defensive ends in Julius Peppers and Israel Idonije and have one of the more underrated defensive tackles in the league in Henry Melton, a fourth-year player who is having his best season. Behind the front four, Smith has stud linebackers in Urlacher and Lance Briggs and one of the best cornerback tandems in the league in Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings.

No coach wins without talent. But Chicago's track record of creating turnovers is exceptional. The Bears have seven defensive touchdowns this season. The single-season record is 10 by Seattle in 1998. It's the coaching of Smith and his assistants that gets the Bears to play fast and strip the ball.

"You get labeled ‘Cover 2' and everybody assumes we play Cover 2 every snap, and that's the furthest thing from the truth," Smith says. "We can play Cover 2 maybe a third of the time. I would say most people would want to play Cover 2 ... if you get teams in a passing situation, that's a good coverage. But we do a lot more than just that."

"And as far as our philosophy - I think when you have a philosophy you really believe in, you don't change and go to a different defense each week. You go with what you believe in, and that's what we do. Our defense is just based on relentless play, always getting 11 guys to the ball carrier on the football field, and good things are going to happen."

Former Bills safety Matt Bowen said he thought he was playing fast in the NFL until he joined the Rams defense coached by Smith. Then he found out what playing fast in practice every day really meant.

The Bears still keep a "loaf" chart, tracking every defensive player's full-speed effort on every play.

The Bears don't blitz a ton. Last year they rushed five or more men 17.9 percent of the time, which ranked 21st in the league, according to

When Smith's defenses have struggled, it's because the front seven didn't stop the run well. In 2009, the Bears were 23rd against the run. Chicago finished 7-9. Ditto for the 7-9 season in 2007, when Chicago was 24th against the run.

This season the Bears are eighth against the run.

The Bears are tied with Green Bay for the NFC North lead at 7-3. With an offense ranked third-worst in the league, Smith's defense is going to have to keep the turnovers coming for the Bears to beat out the Packers.

"We are just going to keep doing what we can do and keep playing hard and doing the ordinary things better than everybody else," Smith said earlier this season.


Graham shines

Buffalo's Corey Graham had the best game of his six-year career on national television for the Baltimore Ravens last Sunday. Graham, the Turner-Carroll and University of Maine product, was pressed into the Ravens' starting lineup against Pittsburgh because of injuries to cornerbacks Ladarius Webb and Jimmy Smith. Graham made big-impact plays throughout the Ravens' 13-10 victory.

Graham intercepted a Byron Leftwich pass in the third quarter and returned it 20 yards. That turnover set up a field goal that turned out to be the decisive points. Later in the third quarter, Graham broke up a first-down pass into the end zone for Jerricho Cotchery then forced an incompletion in the end zone on third down. He had eight tackles and three pass break-ups.

"That's what you want. You always want an opportunity to show what you got," Graham told the Baltimore Sun this week. "Over the last couple of years, I've been doing special teams, doing really well at it, and sometimes, you tend to get labeled as a special teamer. There's really nothing you can do about it. I feel like last year when I got an opportunity to play, I played nickel for three games with Chicago and I ended up with three interceptions in those three consecutive games. It just seems like I couldn't get over the hump. ... For some reason, it just seemed like Lovie Smith wanted me to be the guy on special teams. No matter what I did, that's what it came down to. ... I was just happy to get some new eyes to see me and get an opportunity to play."

Graham has played 87 games and started 12. He was a fifth-round pick of the Bears in 2007 and made the Pro Bowl as a special teamer in 2010. He signed a two-year, $3.7 million contract with Baltimore in March.


Starks healthy

James Starks, the Niagara Falls and University at Buffalo product, had his best game of the year last week for Green Bay, rushing for 74 yards on 25 carries in a 24-20 win over Detroit.

Starks is finally healthy after nursing a turf toe injury for almost three months. Starks started out strong, gaining 49 yards on his first 13 carries. Packers running backs coach Alex Van Pelt, the former Bill, acknowledged he rode Starks a little too hard in his first extensive outing.

"Yeah, it was asking a lot for him to carry the load like that," Van Pelt told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. "He ran hard, played with good leg drive," Van Pelt said. "I thought even though he had a tackler with him he'd drive for an extra 3 or 4 yards."

The Packers live on the passing of Aaron Rodgers. They're 24th in the league in rushing. But if Starks can stay healthy down the stretch, the Green Bay offense will be harder to stop.


Tepid in Tampa

Tampa is a confounding sports market. The Bucs have won four straight games and are coming off a thrilling comeback win at Carolina. They face the 9-1 Atlanta Falcons today. Yet the team could not sell enough tickets to reach the 85 percent threshold of non-premium tickets sold, and the game will be blacked out of local television. That makes 18 of the last 21 Bucs home games that have been blacked out. The Bucs reduced prices on 80 percent of the seats this season and offered a 12-month payment option for season tickets.


Onside kicks

*Oakland QB Carson Palmer returns to Cincinnati today, two years after forcing his way out of the Queen City by holding out and waiting for Bengals owner Mike Brown to trade him.
"Just a culmination of things," Palmer said of his desire to leave Cincinnati. "Some things that I had learned that ownership ... just some things that built up over time, and it was just time for a change."

Palmer refused to specifically elaborate but added: "I have seen guys, run into guys back in San Diego, talked, texted ... I think that anybody that's ever played for that ownership knows what I was doing and why I was doing it."

*The Nielsen market research company announced the results of a poll that asked Americans who they would most like to invite to Thanksgiving dinner. The winner? Jets backup quarterback Tim Tebow. He beat out President Obama, Big Bird and Lady Gaga.

*Buddy Nix made a good evaluation in not re-signing Demetress Bell. He has scored a negative grade in six of seven games he has played for the Eagles. Philadelphia benched him in favor of rookie Dennis Kelly for last week's game against the Redskins. The Eagles rank 27th in sacks allowed per pass attempt.

*Another offensive lineman discarded by the Bills, Jonathan Scott, moves back into the starting lineup for Chicago this week. Scott takes over for Gabe Carimi at right tackle, while Chris Spencer has replaced Chilo Rachal at left guard. The O-line shakeup comes with the Bears ranking 30th in sacks allowed.?