CHAMPAIGN—If only the Bears played the Saints with the same ferocity as they defended Reggie Austin afterward, maybe they don't lose Sunday.
You suspect they doth protest too much when the very mention of Austin, who gave up the game-winning 29-yard touchdown pass from Aaron Brooks to Donté Stallworth with 1 minute11 seconds left, brought responses like this from Mike Brown:
"If fans are mad at him, pay them some money and get them out there and try to cover someone one-on-one. It's pretty difficult to do. We're proud of Reggie. He played extremely well today."
The second-year cornerback had an interception in the first quarter that set up the Bears' first touchdown. Then in the second quarter he merely played like, well, the inexperienced, inconsistent player he is when he let Jerome Pathon get inside for a 16-yard pass play and the Saints' first touchdown.
Austin continued his up-and-down play with a relatively harmless illegal-contact penalty on a Saints second-down play from their own 16 in the third quarter, then broke up a pass in the fourth before letting Stallworth spin past him for the game-winner.
That's what happens when a veteran like R.W. McQuarters goes down. You lose depth and you lose consistency, and on this day, anyway, the Bears lost 15 yards and a potential score when his replacement at left corner, Todd McMillon, was flagged for unnecessary roughness on a punt that should have started a Bears drive at the Saints' 35.
Instead, it began at the 50 and ended with a whimper 2 yards later.
Is McMillon in that situation even if McQuarters is playing? Yes. But it doesn't lessen the impact of having a defense that thrived on mistake-free, seamless play disrupted and depleted by the injuries of three starters.
"We get paid to win with rookies, veterans, whatever," Bears defensive coordinator Greg Blache said. "We're all Bears. That's no excuse whatsoever. We had people plenty capable of making plays to win that ballgame today. We got beat by a better football team, by penalties, by a lack of making plays."
Yeah, committed by inexperienced players not ready to be playing in these situations. If anything was bound to bite the Bears in the posterior, this was it. And it will bite them again. Be prepared. An inexperienced secondary generally makes for a porous secondary, though a 20-point lead usually is enough of a cushion to overcome such a thing.
Jerry Azumah, who maybe gets away with some growing pains with McQuarters, Ted Washington and Phillip Daniels on the field, was called for pass interference on a third-and-1 in the second quarter that gave the Saints a first down on the Bears' 16 and led to Pathon's touchdown catch.
Brian Urlacher wrote off the 21-point swing to lack of a killer instinct.
"We've got to learn to play with a lead," Urlacher said. "We got all happy on the sideline and just quit making plays and quit playing hard. I don't know what the deal was. We just got nonchalant and quit making plays."
He was being kind. In talking about the impact the injuries had Sunday, Brown acknowledged, "They're starters for a reason," adding, "The effort is there, but sometimes there's a breakdown or someone's not dropping in the right spot and they get a first down and that continues the drive. We have to learn to stop people on third down. It's the details, not taking care of the details."
It was inevitable. No team in the NFL has the sort of depth that can absorb the loss of its two best defensive linemen and best cover corner.
The Bears did do an admirable job stopping the run Sunday, limiting Deuce McAllister to 45 yards on 17 carries. But Washington's replacement, Alfonso Boone, did not make the defensive stat sheet, which means not even an assist on a tackle.
Keith McKenzie, playing for Daniels, finished with one tackle, though when the Bears break down film this week, both McKenzie and Boone are liable to be credited with 12 apiece.
If nothing else, the Bears did show unity in closing ranks. If the replacements stunk, well, then they all stunk.
Including their leader.
"Reggie wasn't the only guy out there today," Blache blustered when the subject of Austin was brought up. "They had a lot of points on that board. I'm not going to single Reggie out. You want to talk about me? Second-and-12 in that same drive [on which Austin allowed the final TD], I made one of the dumbest calls in America. Tried a pull-down coverage with a pass-rush front. Stupid. I knew it as soon as it came out of my mouth.
"You want to talk about somebody's problem, look right here. It's plenty enough."
They can only hope.