As important as the offensive line is to a team's ability to generate consistent production and points on offense, so too is the defensive line with its responsibility to keep second-level defenders clean to make plays against the run and pass.
The Bears have enjoyed so much success on defense in 2019 thanks in large part to the dominance and depth of their defensive linemen.
The Bears are currently fifth in total defense, sixth against the run and 11th against the pass. The run defense has been especially impressive until the hiccup in Week 5's loss to the Raiders when rookie RB Josh Jacobs ran for 123 yards. Prior to that pretty shocking performance, Chicago may have had the league's best run defense.
The Bears' down linemen are led by Pro Bowler Akiem Hicks, who's been battling through a knee injury early this season. It forced him out of Week 4's contest against the Vikings; he returned to the lineup in London against Oakland but exited the game early with a dislocated elbow. There's still no official word on how long he'll be out.
The Bears can't afford to lose Hicks for an extended period of time. He's a tone-setter upfront and has played that part early this season in the games he's played. He's been Chicago's best run defender and leads the team with an 80.0 run-defense grade from Pro Football Focus. He's also a critical piece in the Bears' pass rush; he has 23 sacks from 2016-2018. In a tad over three games this season, Hicks has one sack and eight QB pressures. If he's out of the lineup, someone like OLB Leonard Floyd has to pick up the slack.
Next to Hicks is arguably the Bears' most underrated player, NT Eddie Goldman. In fact, there may not be a more underrated defensive player in the NFL right now. Goldman is off to another fantastic start in 2019 and has been borderline great in all aspects of his game. He's thriving against the run — as always — and has contributed as a pass-rusher, too. He doesn't have any sacks this season but is tied for fourth on the team with eight QB pressures (the same number as Hicks, who's a more widely-recognized pass-rusher). He's worth every penny (and more) of the four-year, $42 million extension he signed before the start of the 2018 season.
Second-year defensive end Bilal Nichols ascended to the starting lineup in training camp but has been knocked off his path to stardom by a hand injury that's forced him out of the last three games. He's played just 42 snaps this season but was trending toward becoming another draft gem for GM Ryan Pace. The former Delaware Blue Hen was selected by Pace in the fifth round of last April's draft. He's inching closer to returning, but he'll have to fight for starter's reps because of the rise of Roy Robertson-Harris.
RRH has been fantastic in 2019. He's logged 180 snaps and is second on the team in quarterback pressures (11) and third in sacks (2.5). Beyond the stats, Robertson-Harris has been disruptive. He's been explosive off the snap and is proving to be an extremely difficult assignment for opposing offensive linemen. He's scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, and if his play continues at its current level, someone (maybe even Pace) is going to open the checkbook for him.
The most surprising standout from the Bears' defensive line this season has been defensive tackle Nick Williams. The fourth-year pro from Samford is enjoying a breakout season and is currently second on the team with four sacks. You read that right: Williams has more sacks than any Bear who isn't named Khalil Mack.
After entering the league as a seventh-round pick of the Steelers in 2013, Williams bounced around between Pittsburgh, Kansas City and Miami before finally signing with Chicago in April 2018. Who would've guessed that that transaction, which was nothing more than a blip on the news radar, would turn into such a critical piece of the Bears' defense in 2019. Williams, much like Robertson-Harris, has made himself some coin through five games.
Thanks to this collection of big uglies, the Bears have avoided a regression on defense under Chuck Pagano. In fact, they're playing more aggressive than they ever did under Vic Fangio. Assuming Hicks and Nichols make a healthy return for the final 11 games of the season, this defensive line will keep Chicago in the playoff hunt.
Bears DL grade at the bye: A