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Bears' defense takes step backward

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The Bears have picked a bad time to slump.

After a 7-1 start to the season, the Bears appeared to be a lock to make the playoffs. That has changed as the Bears have lost three of four games, including an overtime loss to the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday in which a rookie quarterback outsmarted a veteran defense.

If the season ended today, the Bears (8-4) would have a wild-card berth to the playoffs as the NFC’s No. 5 seed. They have a one-game lead against the Seahawks (7-5), who are in sixth place in the conference, but the Seahawks hold the head-to-head advantage against the Bears if both teams finish with the same record.

Meanwhile, the Dallas Cowboys (6-6), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-6) and Minnesota Vikings (6-6) each are one game out of the playoff picture with four weeks remaining. The Vikings will host the Bears on Sunday in the teams’ second meeting in three weeks.

“Big picture: [We’re] 8-4, tied for the lead with the team up north,” Bears coach Lovie Smith said. “Three out of the next four games are against NFC [North] opponents. But it’s about this next division opponent that we’re playing.

“We’re going to watch this video. A lot we can learn from it. It’s not been a great 24-hour period for us, but we’ll bounce back – and we’ll have to – to be ready for the Vikings.”

While Smith re-watches the game, Bears fans would be better off doing something else. Although a couple of the Bears’ lead actors were impressive, the ending was terrible.

Grades for the Bears from Sunday’s game:

Quarterback: A

Jay Cutler (61 snaps) did his part to lead the Bears to a win, but not enough of his teammates could say the same. Cutler repeatedly zipped accurate passes to Brandon Marshall, connecting on 10 of 14 attempts. When Marshall and other Bears receivers were covered, Cutler scrambled for gains of 8, 4, 7 and 8 yards to keep the offense moving. Cutler also avoided costly turnovers as he recorded his third game of the season without an interception.

Running backs: C

Matt Forte (48 snaps) did his best work as a receiver. He released to the right on a screen pass and followed his blockers for an 11-yard gain on third-and-10 in the first quarter. He lined up wide and caught a 12-yard touchdown pass in front of Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner in the third quarter. Yet Forte averaged only 3.1 yards a carry, and short-yardage specialist Michael Bush (13 snaps) could not convert a fourth-and-1 on a crucial play in the second quarter.

Wide receivers: B

As Bears fans have come to expect, Brandon Marshall (55 snaps) was outstanding. He caught 10 passes for 165 yards against the Seahawks’ talented tandem of cornerbacks, Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner, who had quieted Pro Bowl receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson this season. But Marshall’s success was overshadowed by a terrible drop by Earl Bennett (18 snaps), who should have caught a 62-yard touchdown pass to give the Bears a 14-0 lead.

Tight ends: C

Kellen Davis (55 snaps) was targeted only once, and he could not make the reception as Sherman and Kam Chancellor converged to break up the pass. Matt Spaeth (26 snaps) provided some help as an extra blocker but also committed a false start on third-and-1. Kyle Adams (4 snaps) maintained his block nicely on Bennett’s 12-yard touchdown on the offense’s opening drive.

Offensive line: B

Considering the upheaval that has taken place on the offensive line in recent weeks, the new-look unit did a great job protecting Cutler in the pocket. On third-and-11 in the first quarter, Cutler had no pressure whatsoever and found Marshall for a first down in the red zone. However, a few run-blocking miscues included failing to get a push on fourth-and-1 in the second quarter. Roberto Garza (61 snaps), Gabe Carimi (61 snaps) and Edwin Williams (61 snaps) failed to create an opening for Bush.

Defensive line: D

It looked like the Bears’ front four were in for a great afternoon as Julius Peppers (57 snaps) bull-rushed Seahawks guard James Carpenter and sacked Russell Wilson on the second play of the game. But besides a second-half sack by Stephen Paea (25 snaps), the line did not touch Wilson again. Peppers, Israel Idonije (48 snaps) and Corey Wootton (34 snaps) failed to keep contain on plays during the second half.

Linebackers: D

After a midseason surge, 34-year-old Brian Urlacher (70 snaps) has reverted to his slow and creaky early-season form. Although Urlacher forced a fumble on the first series, he also missed an arm tackle on a 13-yard gain in the first quarter and committed a costly 15-yard penalty for a horse-collar tackle against Leon Washington in the second quarter. Lance Briggs (71 snaps) and Nick Roach (32 snaps) were nonfactors when they needed to be difference-makers.

Cornerbacks: D

Charles Tillman (71 snaps) nearly was beat on a home-run pass to Braylon Edwards, but Wilson slightly underthrew the pass and Tillman recovered to knock it down. Tim Jennings (63 snaps) fell down on a 49-yard pass to Golden Tate in the second quarter. Maybe Tate pushed off, but Jennings needed to keep his feet. Meanwhile, Kelvin Hayden (44 snaps) whiffed on a key tackle on Tate’s 14-yard touchdown reception in the final minute of regulation.

Safeties: D

Major Wright (71 snaps) joined Hayden in the missed-tackle club on Tate’s go-ahead touchdown late in the game. Wright also missed a tackle on Marshawn Lynch’s 4-yard touchdown in the second quarter, and the Bears’ third-year safety delivered a dangerous shot to Sidney Rice’s helmet on the final play of the game. Craig Steltz (65 snaps) filled in decently for Chris Conte (6 snaps), who left because of illness.

Special teams: C

Eric Weems narrowly averted disaster by pouncing on the ball after he muffed a punt at the Bears’ 12-yard line. Weems also underwhelmed in place of injured teammate Devin Hester as a kickoff returner, where he returned kicks out of the end zone to the Bears’ 15- and 14-yard line. Robbie Gould drilled a 46-yard field goal as time expired in regulation to improve to 21 for 25 this season.

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