Vic Fangio

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.

Depth check: How injuries and suspension will have a major impact on Bears-Vikings

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USA TODAY

Depth check: How injuries and suspension will have a major impact on Bears-Vikings

A month ago, the Bears could reasonably describe their depth at inside linebacker as strong, and maybe as the strongest unit on the team. 

But on Monday, the Bears will be without the trio of players who comprised that depth: Jerrell Freeman is on injured reserve with a pectoral tear; Nick Kwiatkoski’s pec injury isn’t as serious but will keep him sidelined; and Danny Trevathan will serve his one-game suspension for the helmet-to-helmet hit he leveled on Green Bay Packers wide receiver Davante Adams last week. 

Trevathan will be back next week and Kwiatkoski appears to have avoided injured reserve, meaning he can be expected back at some point this season. But without them, the Bears will roll with Christian Jones, John Timu and Jonathan Anderson (the latter two began the season on the practice squad) against the Minnesota Vikings. 

“It's a concern, but at least we're playing with guys that were here that were in camp,” defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. “That was the one position on defense, when we went to the 53 and practice squad where we did have guys, we had four active and two on practice squad and now all six of them have played, so (we) feel good about that in that we're not having somebody in off the street having to learn a new system and I think they'll all do fine.”

Jones and Timu have seen a decent amount of snaps alongside Trevathan this year: In the last three weeks, Jones’ defensive snap counts are 47, 36 and 28 while Timu played 17 snaps against Pittsburgh and 19 against Green Bay (Anderson has not played a defensive snap since Week 2). 

Timu, who’s played in 20 games over the last three years, will handle the defensive calls on Monday.

“We’re confident in John,” Fangio said. “John knows our defense. He’s been here for three years. The game’s not too big for him. He loves to play. He is instinctive and smart. So we think he’ll go in there and do fine.”

Added linebacker Pernell McPhee: “Timu’s a very good player, a very smart player, a very patient player. I think his play on the field shows how much he’s studying and how much he’s really locked in throughout the week.”

The Bears may be without two other starters, too: Saturday’s final injury report listed outside linebacker Willie Young (tricep) as doubtful, while cornerback Marcus Cooper is questionable with back spasms. Going back further, the Bears are also without veteran safety Quintin Demps, who handled a lot of the communication duties for this defense. 

But the Vikings will be without rookie Dalvin Cook (74 carries, 354 yards, 2 TDs), who tore his ACL last week. Backups Jerick McKinnon (2.6 yards/attempt) and Latavius Murray (2.7 yards/attempt) haven’t inspired much fear in 2017. And the expectation at Halas Hall is that quarterback Sam Bradford will start, though he’s listed as questionable on the Vikings’ final injury report. 

So in the matchup of the Bears' defense against the Vikings' offense, the group that gets the most out of its depth guys may be the one that swings that battle on Monday. 

“Any time you lose a starter — I think there's a reason they're the starter — but you know I feel good about our backups,” coach John Fox said. “I feel good about the replacement people we've had in there. We've got more depth this season than we've had in the past so I feel confident in the people we'll have out there and the options we have.”

Showing physicality and throwing a thousand balls: Where does the Bears' safety battle stand?

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AP

Showing physicality and throwing a thousand balls: Where does the Bears' safety battle stand?

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. — For Eddie Jackson and Adrian Amos, the things they need to show during training camp to win a starting job in Week 1 are different and clear. 

Jackson needs to prove he can be a physical tackler, a common ding to his game coming out of Alabama. And Amos needs to prove his ball skills have improved after not recording a single interception his first two years in the NFL. 

The Bears’ competition to start alongside Quintin Demps at safety isn’t limited to just Jackson and Amos, of course. Also part of that battle: Deon Bush, Harold Jones-Quartey, Chris Prosinski, Deandre Houston-Carson and Deiondre’ Hall. But Jackson (the rangy fourth-round pick who played with Pro Bowlers Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix and Landon Collins in Tuscaloosa) and Amos (the third-year pro with 30 career starts) are the headliners of the competition so far. 

“You’ve got to earn your spot, earn your keep,” Amos said. “There’s so many good players. It’s probably better that this year there’s a lot more competition. That just shows we’ll have a lot of depth coming forward this year.”

Jackson has flashed early in camp, picking off a handful of passes and showing the strong ball skills that led to nine interceptions during his four years at Alabama. Those have been promising for the 6-foot, 174 pound Jackson, given that his senior year ended last October when he fractured his leg against Tennessee. 

“Battling back and seeing, all right, I come back out, I still make plays on the ball — It’s just something fun,” Jackson said. “And just to see the guys, how they react to it and how the coaches react to a turnover here is just big.”

But similar to the Bears’ other fourth-round pick — running back Tarik Cohen — the bigger test for Jackson will come when the Bears begin preseason play on Thursday against the Denver Broncos. That’ll be Jackson’s first chance to truly let loose and show that he can be more physical than he was in college.  

“We’ll just have to see him tackle,” defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. “We can’t afford to have anyone out there that can’t tackle, so tackling will be a determinant factor for him.”

“I just got to come here, be real physical and that’s something I can say I’ve really been working day in and day-out at practice, especially since pads come on,” Jackson said. “Everyone’s been taking notice.” 

Amos, on the other hand, has been a serviceable starter but hasn’t shown good ball skills. To put his interception drought another way: He’s played over 1,800 snaps with the Bears and hasn’t picked off a pass. 

For a defense that only had 11 takeaways, Amos’ lack of interceptions and ball skills is a glaring problem. So what can Bears coaches do?

“Just throw him a thousand balls,” Fangio said. “Throw him a thousand balls that are realistic, not just playing catch. Breaking off the deep zone and breaking to the sideline and catching the ball. Breaking on an inside cut. Just trying to throw him as many balls as possible that are realistic. Playing catch isn’t going to get it done. You’ve got to make it football like during the game.”