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The State of Bears Nation – The Defense

Can the Bears Defense Become Elite?

Khalil Mack is on the hunt for QB's in 2021

With over a month to go until Training Camp begins, the Chicago Bears have many questions facing their once-dominant defense. In 2018 the Bears had a Super Bowl-ready defense. With Vic Fangio in his 4th year and Ryan Pace able to fully implement his defensive blueprint, the Bears were ready to win low-scoring games with an elite defense. Then the Bears traded for Khalil Mack 10 days before the season began and expectations were off the charts.

It’s safe to say the Bears met all expectations in 2018 and they entered the playoffs on the back of a dominant defense that was 1st in scoring defense, 3rd in yards against, and had a league-leading 36 turnovers. Quite simply, the Bear’s defense was elite and could have carried the team to a Super Bowl.  

As we know, the double doink happened and the Bears did not reach the Super Bowl. I’ll stop opening old wounds but ever since that fateful day in January of 2019 the Bears defense has regressed. After the 2018 season ended, Vic Fangio was named the Denver Broncos’ new head coach and the Bears welcomed Chuck Pagano into town as defensive coordinator. With Chuck in tow, the Bear’s defense brought back nearly all their starters. They lost Adrian Amos and Bryce Callahan but for the most part, they kept their elite defense intact.  

Defensive Regression

For whatever reason, defensive scheme, injuries, tougher schedule, the Bears took a step back in 2019 and an even larger step back in 2020. In 2019 the Bears were 4th in scoring defense, 8th in yards allowed, and they plummeted down to 22nd (19) in turnovers. The Bear’s defense wasn’t bad but without the offense taking the steps forward most believed they would take, the Bear’s defensive regression could not carry the Bears back to the postseason.  

In 2020 the stats were even worse. With the Bear’s defense aging, they plummeted down to the middle of the pack.  In 2020, the Bears were 14th in scoring, 14 in yards allowed, and a frustrating 26th in turnovers with only 18 TO’s gathered in by the defense. The question now is, can the Bears improve on these numbers, and if they are unable to improve what does that mean for the 2021 Chicago Bears.  

A New Voice

After the 2020 season, Chuck Pagano announced his retirement from the National Football League. I believe he would have been fired had he not retired. Pagano is a great coach and an even better person, but the truth of the matter is the Bears defense regressed under Chuck Pagano. What’s worse is playmakers like Eddie Jackson really regressed under Pagano. The Bears had too much talent on defense to take such a drastic step back over the last two seasons and a new voice, new scheme, and new attitude is needed on the defensive side of the ball.

Enter Sean Desai. Desai is an interesting choice that I believe will pay off. He is a young guy (38) that has worked for the Bears for almost a decade. Desai’s career ascended under the guidance of Vic Fangio as a quality control coach and he has worked with the safeties the last two seasons.  

Desai wants to be aggressive. He understands the power of takeaways. Having experience with the Bears secondary, look for his coverage schemes to confuse opposing quarterbacks while asking his defensive line to create pressure without bringing the blitz. 

Vic Fangio was known for creative coverage schemes using his 3-4 defense. Desai will bring more of these principles and use Khalil Mack and Robert Quinn primarily as pass rushers. Desai wants to impose the defense’s will on first and second down, stop the run, and then disguise playmakers like Eddie Jackson on passing downs so he is free to make plays and create turnovers.  

Personnel

The Bears are in salary cap hell. Many teams are after the COVID-riddled 2020 season. That means less flexibility. The Bears will bring back most of their defensive starters but a key piece will be missing. Kyle Fuller is good at football. He isn’t great, but after the last three seasons, his absence will be missed. Fuller is an all-around solid cornerback. He is bigger and thicker than a lot of CB’s. He is a good tackler and rarely gets beat. His long arms allow him to recover and his instincts allowed him to be around the ball often. Fuller is now joining Vic Fangio in Denver and he was the largest cap casualty for the Bears in the off-season. There are plenty of questions about why Jimmy Graham is still on the Bears and Kyle Fuller isn’t but I believe the Bears want to make a transition to an offensive-dominated football team.  

With the addition of Andy Dalton and then the ability to move up to draft Justin Fields, the Bears made it clear they needed to upgrade the QB position from the disastrous play of their QB’s in 2020. Andy Dalton is better than Nick Foles, though not by much. Another question that should be asked is why the Bears felt Dalton was better than Foles, one year after passing on Dalton to trade for Foles?  More goes into free agency than fans will ever know and maybe Dalton’s team told the Bears he was going to Dallas but I find it hard to believe. 

The truth is the Bears messed up their QB search last year, trading a 4th round pick for Nick Foles and paying him $27 million was pure incompetence only to land on another $10 million, 1-year contract for Andy Dalton a year later. Justin Fields was a gift, he will be the gift that keeps on giving for the next decade and a young QB can always use a wily veteran TE, especially in the redzone. That being said, it is hard to imagine how Jimmy Graham can help beyond this first year where Kyle Fuller was seen as a cornerstone piece of the defense.  

Corners

The Bears are throwing a lot against the wall and hoping it will stick in the secondary. Jaylon Johnson will be returning in year two. He showed great promise as a second-round pick last year and if he can stay healthy and continue to ascend then the Bears may have found their 6-8 year lockdown corner. Opposite Jaylon Johnson will be Desmond Trufant. Trufant was a first-round corner of the Falcons in 2013 and after an injury-plagued season with the Lions last year, Trufant signed a one-year deal with the Bears.  

The Bears will also have Kindle Vildor, Duke Shelley, Artie Burns, and rookie Thomas Graham as depth pieces with Vildor competing with Trufant for the starting position. In a word, the Bear’s secondary will be shallow.  Johnson is still largely unproven after finishing the year on IR with a nagging shoulder injury. Trufant is a 30-year-old corner that hasn’t played all 16 games since 2018. Vildor and Shelley are second-year players looking to make a name. Artie Burns is a former first-round pick that failed in Pittsburgh and was injured all of last year. 

Rookie Graham

I am looking for Thomas Graham out of the University of Oregon to make a name for himself. As a sixth-round pick, he will have to make plays on special teams at first but this is a kid who was a victim of opting out of the 2020 season. His tape looks great and many felt he would be a day two pick had he progressed his junior year. The secondary will have holes but the Bears are planning on a bounce-back year from the defensive front and new coaching schemes to fill those holes.  

Eddie Jackson scores a touchdown
Nov 22, 2018; Detroit, MI, USA; Chicago Bears free safety Eddie Jackson (39) makes an interception for a touchdown against Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford (not pictured) during the fourth quarter at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Safeties

Three years ago it looked like the Bears struck gold with Eddie Jackson. After 2019 Eddie Jackson was signed as the highest-paid safety in the league. At the time, that extension made sense. Since entering the league Eddie Jackson has 6 touchdowns. He had two in his rookie year in 2017 and three in 2018. The guy was everywhere, all over the field. Eddie’s gift is instincts.  His ability to disguise himself well pre-snap, use his instincts to feel out a play, and attack the ball make him elite. He needs to become that guy again.    

Since 2019 however, Jackson has not had the impact he had the first two seasons. Last year he had one turnover and turned that into a touchdown but he had zero interceptions and only 5 passes defended. He was non-existent in many games and he definitely was not the feared player from 2018. The hope is that Sean Desai can help Jackson find his form once again. Desai has been the safeties coach for the Bears the last two seasons and the Bears brass are hopeful he will know what it takes to once again unlock what the Bears felt was a top defender in the NFL.  

The other safeties are solid but aging Teshaun Gipson playing next to Jackson with long-time holdovers Deon Bush and DeAndre Houston-Carson serving as backups. The safeties group is once again solid but not great. The hope is that Eddie Jackson once again becomes a premier safety for the 2021 squad and helps the Bears create turnovers and turn them into points.  

Roquan Smith is elite
Roquan Smith looks into the backfield ready to make a play

Linebackers

The linebacking group is solid. Headlined by ascending star Roquan Smith, this is a group that shouldn’t be a liability in the run or pass defense. Danny Trevathan is playing in the final year of his contract and there were signs last year that Trevathan is not the player he was when the Bears signed him. He is a liability in pass defense. As a small quick linebacker losing a step could cost the Bears to get eaten up by talented tight ends and backs out of the backfield. 

With Joel (Iggy) Iyiegbuniwe and Trevathan possibly on the bubble there is little depth at the inside backer position. The Bears did sign Christian Jones, a former Bear and most recently a Lion as a solid backup and a solid special teams contributor. The Bears also have Josh Woods but hopefully, this is a group that stays healthy and Roquan Smith continues to fulfill his super start potential.  

Edge

Khalil Mack headlines the outside LB group or edge position. He will have Robert Quinn as his counterpart on the other side and let’s only hope Quinn can get back to the pressure monster he was before his atrocious 2020 season. Quinn looks to be one of the worst signings of Ryan Pace’s career. A $30 million, 5-year contract for a 30 year player in his 9th year was already a head-scratching move. But after watching Robert Quinn get manhandled all of last year, he is as much a cap liability as any player in the league. The Bears can not get out of Quinn’s contract this year, which means they will have to pray he can bounce back.  

Return of the Mack

Khalil Mack turns 30 this year and there are signs over the last year that he is on the downside of his career. He continues to be ranked by PFF as one of the best edge players in the NFL but his production and his tape say otherwise. With only 9 sacks last year, Mack was barely heard from in too many games. Ryan Pace said Mack was dealing with a back injury that slowed him down but he will have to become the 13-15 sack, QB antagonizer he once was in order for the Bears to take a step forward in 2021.  

A lot will be asked of Mack and Quinn, with Desai now in tow these players will be asked to almost exclusively rush the passer. The Bears did bring in some depth in Jeremiah Attaochu being brought over from Denver. The  Bears are also hoping that the 5th round pick (who the Bears traded a 2021 4th round pick for) Trevis Gipson can take a leap this year. The defense will need to apply more pressure to opposing QB’s this year. Whether that results in sacks or poor throws the Bears can not afford to let their inexperienced secondary be exposed or they could easily become a bottom-five defense this year.  

Defensive Line

2020 was a strange year.  No doubt.  There were many players in both the NFL and college level that opted out because of COVID-19. One of those players was Eddie Goldman, and he was missed. The Bears were once a great run-stopping defense. Even as they fell off a little in the 2019 season they were still ranked 9th in rushing yards and 5th in rushing yards per attempt. A lot of this was because of the big man in the middle. 

Goldman was missed last year. The Bears not only were gashed in the passing game but they were attacked in the run game as well. The Bears gave up the 15th most yards to the run last year. Not horrible but Goldman’s stout run defense was missed. As of this writing, it seems like Goldman will be back in 2021. After a long layoff from last year, Eddie should be rested. There was some speculation EG could retire. 

After not reporting for mandatory minicamps and very little explanation given to his absence, many were speculating that Eddie Goldman enjoyed his time away from football. He has enough money and he may not want to come back for his 7th NFL season. I will assume Eddie is back. There is too much money on the table and the Justin Fields excitement should make a fun year for club dub in 2021.  

Akiem Hicks

Akiem Hicks missed 1 game last year after missing 11 games in 2019. Hicks has been a charismatic face of the Bear’s resurgent defense the last 4 seasons but father time is catching up. In 2018 there was a case that Akiem Hicks and not Khalil Mack was the most important defensive player on the team. His tape showed a powerful man knowing his position and wreaking havoc on opposing interior fronts. Akiem Hicks is not that any longer.  With Goldman’s absence, Hicks could not anchor a defensive front that was often gashed and gassed at the end of the games. 

Hicks was seen as a possible trade or cut candidate entering the offseason and many are both surprised and elated he is still a Bear. In what is more than likely Hicks’s last year in Orange and Blue the Bears will need him to find the fountain of youth and be disruptive enough for Mack and Quinn to go to work on the outside.  

Nichols Must Climb

Not only will the Bears need Hicks to find his groove once again but they will need Bilal Nichols to continue his ascent as one of the better interior defenders in the league. Nichols is another late-round gem found by Ryan Pace that may be in line for an extension. Nichols will have to become everything Hicks was in 2017 and 18’ in order for the Bears to get back to making noise in the NFC North. 

Backing up Hicks, Goldman, and Nichols will be newly signed Mike Pennell, 7th round rookie Khyris Tonga, Angelo Blackson, and the always solid Mario Edwards. Gone are hard-working Brent Urban and talented Roy Robertson Harris. RRH played his way into a nice contract with the Jaguars and he simply is better than the backup role he had with the Bears.  

Overall

The 2021 Bears Defense has a lot of holes. Most do not see improvement but rather a regression. This was not a good defense in 2020 but they showed when they are at their best they can be dangerous. Holding Tom Brady and the eventual Super Bowl Champion Tampa Bay Bucs to only 19 points in an exciting week 5 win shows the Bears have the ability to put it all together. In that game, Khalil Mack looked unstoppable. He got home to Brady twice and was constantly in the GOAT’s face. That is the kind of pressure the Bears will need to apply in 2021 in order to have consistent success.  

The hiring of an insider in Sean Desai will be an upgrade to a defense that needs to reinvent itself. The Bear’s future will now fall onto Justin Fields’ right arm. He is the straw that will stir the drink for the next decade but the Bears can not waste his talent. They have to field a good defense while Fields is on his rookie contract. No one knows when Fields will start, or if he will start at all in 2021. That will mostly depend on this defense. With a tough schedule, the Bear’s defense will have to set the tone on the season. They will have to show they can get to the quarterback and cover the back half of the field with inexperienced and flawed players.  

2021 Season

Desai brings the schemes, communication, and energy needed to fire up his troops. Quinn and Mack know they had a down year and Eddie Jackson is fired up to take more tuds to the house.  

The Bears can take a step up, although a modest step.  Given their lack of financial and draft capital in order to infuse some youth and talent into the defense, this is not an elite defense.  However, they do not need to be elite in order to win 9-10 games. Like every other team, the Bears need to stay healthy, get their stars back to star form, and have role players and rookies provide enough plays to keep them in their games. 

Finishing

Most importantly the Bears need to finish. There were far too many times the offense stayed on the field on 3rd down in 2020. The defense also had a nasty habit of blowing leads late in the game and took home the loss. A late-season loss to the Lions comes to mind. This will need to be correct. The Bears defense will have to finish in 2021, or it could be a long season.

This Bears defense still has talent, the 1985 Bears defense or even the 2018 defense they are not.  Roquan Smith should begin to make his mark in the NFL and finally become a household name. Khalil Mack should be able to get back to 12-14 sacks (given a now 17 game schedule). The biggest question mark will be the Bear’s young corners Vildor and Shelley. They will have to progress, make players, and not give up explosive plays in order for the Bears to become a top 12 unit. This is possible, the question now is will the Bears defense make it happen? Will the Bears be elite?  I don’t think so, but they can be good enough to win a lot of games.

Written by Keith James

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