Bears

View from the Moon: Bears defense still looking for turnovers – and an identity

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USA TODAY

View from the Moon: Bears defense still looking for turnovers – and an identity

Great defenses, even individual units within some defenses, can engender nicknames: Doomsday Defense. Orange Crush. Killer B’s. Purple People Eaters. Steel Curtain. New York Sack Exchange. Legion of Boom.

The 2017 Bears defense doesn’t have a nickname. The reason is the problem:

“We haven’t earned one,” said defensive end Akiem Hicks.

Nicknames come with winning, and they also are reflective of a group identity. Bears haven’t won much of anything. More important than any clever moniker, however, the Bears haven’t particularly established a clear defensive identity that comes with being dominant somewhere, beginning on the scoreboard and pegged to the one stat universally cited as defining a defense.

“We need to get more turnovers,” said linebacker Pernell McPhee.  “Coach has been emphasizing that from day one and that has to be our main focus if we want to get to another level and be a dominant defense. “If you do that, people might start calling you ‘The Turnover Machine’ or something.

“But you’ve got to win some games. No matter how dominant your defense is, you still got to win games to get recognition.”

The overall has been serviceable. The Bears rank 10th in yardage allowed, the stat most used for ranking defenses but not the best for defining a defense. And turnovers by the offense have led to opponents’ points and difficult defensive situations. Of the 73 opponents’ scoring possessions last season, less than one-third (31.5 percent) needed longer than 50 yards for points. This year, that figure is up sharply: of 22 opposing possessions, nine (41 percent) have needed to go less than 50 yards.

Perhaps the absence of a collective identity shouldn’t come as a complete surprise. The unit has lost its leading tackler and inside linebacker (Jerrell Freeman); its sack leader over the past three seasons (Willie Young); and its projected interception leader via free agency (Quintin Demps).

Regardless of reason, the Bears’ defense is not a ball-hawking one; they are one of only three teams (Oakland, Miami) with zero interceptions.

Theirs is not a unit that terrorizes quarterbacks. The sack total (13) is in the top 10, and the Bears are 10th in sacks per pass play. Opposing quarterbacks are posting an average passer rating of 101.5; only four defenses are being thrown on to that degree. Perhaps most alarming: The Bears are allowing third-down conversions at a rate of 45.5 percent, ahead of only Tampa Bay, Oakland, San Francisco and New Orleans. None of the five worsts on third downs have winning records.

They do not present not a run-stuffing wall, in the middle of the pack allowing a respectable but nothing-special 3.9 yards per rush and 101 rushing yards per game.

Forging an identity isn’t entirely within the control of the defense. Offenses can define themselves largely along lines of their own choosing: West Coast, run-based, vertical-passing, whatever. Defenses are tasked weekly with being the antidote to whatever offense breaks the huddle.

“We just need to be able to stop the different types of offense that we see week in and week out,” said defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. “Offensively, you can do what you want, week in and week out. Defensively, we’ve got to be able to stop the various different offenses that we see from week to week. Some weeks, that’s going to be playing a lot of zone. Some weeks, it’ll be playing a lot of man. Some weeks, it’s going to be playing more of a loaded box. Some weeks, it’s not.

“I guess the identity is we need to be a versatile defense that can handle the variety of offense that we’ll see.”

Not flashy, but accurate and realistic.

2017 Bears position grades: Inside Linebacker

2017 Bears position grades: Inside Linebacker

2017 grade: B+

Level of need: Low

Decisions to be made on: Christian Jones (free agent), John Timu (free agent), Jonathan Anderson (free agent); Jerrell Freeman has reportedly been cut

Possible free agent targets: Demario Davis, Preston Brown, Anthony Hitchens, Avery Williamson, Navorro Bowman, Derrick Johnson

How the Bears rate Nick Kwiatkoski will be the key to figuring out what this unit will look like in 2018. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio thought Kwiatkoski finished last season strong, but strong enough to rely on him in 2018 as the starter next to Danny Trevathan?

The thing with the Bears’ inside linebackers, though: Trevathan makes whoever is playing next to him better. The problem is Trevathan hasn’t been able to stay on the field — he missed time in 2017 with a calf injury and a one-game suspension, and missed half of 2016 after rupturing his Achilles’. Trevathan hasn’t played a full 16-game season since 2013, so durability is an issue for the soon-to-be 28-year-old.

So that leads to this question: Do the Bears need to find someone in free agency, regardless of how they value Kwiatkoski, who’s also missed time due to injuries in his first two years in the league?

Free agency could provide a few options. Demario Davis had a career high 97 tackles for the New York Jets last year and has never missed a game as a pro. Preston Brown had some decent production in Buffalo and also hasn’t missed a game since being drafted in 2014. Avery Williamson may not be a world-beater but has only missed one game in his four years in the NFL.

The Bears could also opt for someone who fits more of a rotational mold, like Dallas’ Anthony Hitchens, or try to lure a veteran linebacker like Navorro Bowman (who played for Vic Fangio in San Francisco) or Derrick Johnson (who Matt Nagy knows from his Kansas City days) to play next to Trevathan and/or Kwiatkoski.

The Bears could opt to keep the status quo and re-sign Christian Jones and John Timu for depth, and enter 2018 with Kwiatkoski and Trevathan as the team’s starters (Jerrell Freeman, who suffered a season-ending injury and then was hit with his second PED suspension in as many years, was cut on Tuesday). Signing a starting-caliber free agent isn’t out of the question, either, but there is a third option for the Bears if they appear to stand pat in free agency: Draft an inside linebacker in April. If that’s the route they go, Georgia’s Roquan Smith could be the guy. But again, those more pressing needs at other positions could mean the Bears don’t burn a first-round pick on an inside linebacker.

With Josh Sitton on his way out, what’s next for the Bears’ offensive line?

With Josh Sitton on his way out, what’s next for the Bears’ offensive line?

The first major move of Ryan Pace’s 2018 offseason hit on Tuesday, as NFL Network reported the Bears will not exercise Josh Sitton’s $8 million option for 2018. 

The move accomplishes two things for the Bears: 1) It frees up about $8 million in cap space and 2) Removes a veteran from the offensive line and creates a hole to fill, presumably by a younger free agent or draft pick. 

The 31-year-old Sitton signed a three-year deal with the Bears after Green Bay cut him just before the 2016 season, and was a Pro Bowler his first year in Chicago. Sitton played 26 of 32 games in two years with the Bears, but him being on the wrong side of 30 was likely the biggest factor here. If the Bears saw his skills eroding, releasing him now and netting the cap savings while going younger at the position does make sense. 

“Going younger” doesn’t guarantee the Bears will draft Notre Dame brawler Quenton Nelson, though that did become a greater possibility with Tuesday’s move. Nelson might be one of the two or three best offensive players in this year’s draft, and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand knows him well from the four years they spent together at Notre Dame. 

There’s a natural fit there, of course, but a few reasons to slow the Nelson-to-Chicago hype train: Would he even make it to No. 8? Or if he’s there, is taking a guard that high worth it when the Bears have needs at wide receiver, outside linebacker and cornerback? Still, the thought of Nelson — who absolutely dominated at Notre Dame — pairing with Hiestand again is tantalizing, and Nelson very well could step into any team’s starting lineup and be an immediate Pro Bowler as a rookie. 

If the Bears go younger in free agency, Matt Nagy knows 26-year-old guard Zach Fulton (No. 25 in Bleacher Report’s guard rankings) well from their time in Kansas City. Fulton — a Homewood-Flossmoor alum — has the flexibility to play both guard positions and center, which could open the door for Cody Whitehair to be moved to left guard, the position he was initially drafted to play (though the Bears do value him highly as a center, and keeping him at one position would benefit him as opposed to moving him around the line again). There are some other guys out there — like Tennessee’s Josh Kline or New York’s Justin Pugh — that could wind up costing more than Fulton in free agency. 

Or the Bears could look draft an offensive lineman after the first round, perhaps like Ohio State’s Billy Price, Georgia’s Isaiah Wynn or UTEP’s Will Hernandez. How the Bears evaluate guards at the NFL Combine next week will play an important role in how they go about replacing Sitton. 

The trickle-down effect of releasing Sitton will impact more than the offensive line, too. Freeing up his $8 million in cap space -- which wasn't a guarantee, unlike cutting Jerrell Freeman and, at some point, Mike Glennon -- could go toward paying Kyle Fuller, or another top cornerback, or a top wide receiver, or some combination of players at those positions (as well as outside linebacker). The Bears were already in a healthy place cap-wise; that just got healthier on Tuesday.