The Bears are the only defense to not allow a rushing touchdown in 2018, an impressive statistic for an impressive defense.
But in today’s NFL, which is so heavily skewed toward the importance of passing offense, how much does it really matter that the Bears have one of the league’s best run defenses?
“It’s still important because most offenses in this league, if they can bludgeon you with the run, they will,” defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. “Now sometimes there isn’t as much patience as there used to be around the league with that. But if you’re not doing well against the run, now you start playing stuff that makes the passes even better for them. So the answer to your question is, the value of the run has gone down a little bit just because of the way teams are playing, but if it’s not there it will bother you.”
Consider this, though: The top 10 run defenses in 2018, by rushing yards allowed per game, are allowing about a point and a half more per game (22.8) than the top 10 passing defenses are (21.3). Diving into the world of advanced stats, the average overall rank of the 10 best rushing defenses by DVOA is 11th, while for the top 10 passing defenses average 7tth in overall defensive DVOA.
The point being: It pays more to be a good passing defense than it does to be a good rushing defense.
It’s intuitive, given the passing explosion seen in the NFL this year and the league continuing to implement rules to benefit quarterbacks and passing offenses. And that’s why Bears defensive end Roy Robertson-Harris framed the importance of a run defense like this:
“You gotta stop the run (to) earn the right to rush the passer,” Robertson-Harris said. “We all want to get sacks. (Defensive backs) want to get picks. But in order to do that, we gotta stop the run first and second down, third and short, all that — we gotta do what we can to earn that opportunity to make the plays we want to make.”
Through eight weeks of the 2018 season, teams are averaging the fewest rushing attempts per game (25.6) the NFL has ever seen, down from a range of 26.0-26.9 from 2013-2017. The last time teams averaged 28 or more rushing attempts per game was 2006. It’s been 30 years since teams last averaged 30 or more rushing attempts per game. When the Bears won the Super Bowl, offenses averaged 30.4 rushes for 124.9 yards with one rushing touchdown per game.
Now? Beyond those 25.6 rushing attempts, teams are averaging 111 rushing yards per game and 0.8 rushing touchdowns per game.
“It’s not (the same),” defensive lineman Akiem Hicks said. “There aren’t guys like Casey Hampton, Vince Wilfork, Tony Siragusa — there aren’t those guys anymore. To play defensive line in this league and to be effective and play for a long time, you gotta be able to rush the passer and play the run. I think the emphasis has been taken away a little bit from guys who can just step in there and be run cloggers.”
This isn’t to say that stopping the run no longer matters. It very much still does — the Miami Dolphins hung 31 points on the Bears with Brock Osweiler as its quarterback thanks, largely, to Frank Gore gashing the Bears’ defense for 101 yards. Conversely, the New York Jets barely managed 10 points with the Bears’ smothering Isaiah Crowell and Trenton Cannon for 35 yards on 19 carries.
The Bears invested in stopping the run, too, in drafting an inside linebacker with a top-10 pick and guaranteeing a little over $44 million to Hicks and Eddie Goldman in their respective four-year contract extensions. Muting the production of Buffalo Bills running backs LeSean McCoy and Chris Ivory will be the key to clamping down on an otherwise sub-optimal opposing offense this weekend.
“When you have a good feeling that you can (stop the run) it frees you up mentally, meaning me, as to what we can call,” Fangio said.
For the Bears’ defense, stopping the run not only is key from a pass rushing and defensive productivity standpoint, it’s important from a psychological one, too. There’s a certain pride factor that comes with stopping the run — usually, it means the front seven’s power and strength is beating the opposing offensive line’s power and strength. Winning that battle gives the entire defense confidence; losing it can be a tone-setter in a negative way.
And so stopping the run remains important for the Bears’ defense, just as it is for the other 31 defenses in the NFL. It’s just not as important as it used to be.
“If you can’t stop the run, they’ll run on you all day,” Hicks said. “And it’s demeaning to a defense.”
It didn’t take the Bears long to see how valuable Khalil Mack is to their defense, elevating the group from the moment he first stepped on the field.
He’s been among the league’s best outside linebackers since he first broke out in 2015, and the analytics back up the eye test.
He was the highest edge defender on Pro Football Focus’ list of the top 50 players in the NFL, and their “wins above replacement” metric shows why.
It’s Mack and Von Miller, then everyone else.
“Foremost, Mack is a slightly more complete player than Miller when it comes to defending the run,” PFF’s Ben Linsey wrote. “Yes, run defense is significantly less important than an edge rusher’s ability to disrupt the quarterback, but with so little difference between the players, everything gets put under the magnifying glass.”
Over the past four seasons, both players have exactly 49 sacks, although Mack missed two games over that span. The Bears outside linebacker has the edge in interceptions, forced fumbles and tackles for loss, most coming with a lower quality defense around him than what Miller has had in Denver.
It’s no surprise Ryan Pace was willing to trade multiple first-round picks to make Mack the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history. He’s the best in the league.Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of the Bears.
Eddie Jackson is hosting a charity softball game this Saturday, June 15th at Schamburg Boomers stadium at 5:05pm. It’ll be offense vs defense so let’s take an early look at what these lineups might look like for both teams.
1. Eddie Jackson
Has home run hitting ability in the leadoff spot and a flair for the dramatic. This rising star puts the pressure on the opposing pitcher from the very first pitch. Plus it’s his game, so of course he’s batting first.
2. Kyle Fuller
Tied for the NFL interception lead in 2018, Fuller’s combination of speed, instincts and film study at the top of the lineup helps set the table for the big bats.
3. Akiem Hicks
As Ed O’Bradovich said at the 100 year celebration this past weekend, Khalil Mack “is a man-eater, but (Akiem Hicks) is the man who makes it happen.” It’s long been said you put your most important hitter in the 3-hole.
4. Khalil Mack
The quintessential cleanup hitter. Who else would you want in this spot?
5. Danny Trevathan
Provides world champion protection behind Mack in the likely event that the opponent tries to pitch around #52.
6. Roquan Smith
Just when an opponent think they’ve gotten thru the heart of the lineup, the 2018 rookie who came up just shy of Brian Urlacher’s franchise tackling mark is there to “break a man,” as he said right after his Bears intro press conference.
7. Ha-Ha Clinton Dix
Sliding this new addition into the 7-hole takes some of the pressure off of him to make an immediate impact, while also trapping pitchers into thinking they might get a break against a guy who has shown big play ability in the past.
8. Bilal Nichols
One of the most underrated players in the entire league is perfectly fine lurking at the bottom of the order. A second cleanup hitter, he’s happy consistently performing and making his teammates better. Everyone in this lineup knows how valuable he is.
9. Leonard Floyd
Still in a bit of a prove it spot, but if he consistently plays the way he’s shown shown flashes of, he could not only be dangerous in this spot, but he could climb up the lineup pretty quickly.
10. Prince Amukamara
Veteran who knows he’s there to do a job and turn the lineup over. His speed and ball skills make him a threat.
11. Buster Skrine
Another newcomer, let’s see what he’s got at the bottom of the order.
1. Taylor Gabriel *Anthony Miller
We can all agree there’s no reason for Miller, a guy who dislocated his shoulder multiple times to be swinging a bat amiright?? Miller has the Willie Mayes Hayes swag you want from the leadoff man when healthy tho.
As for ‘Turbo’ Taylor Gabriel, of course you’re putting a guy who’s been clocked at 23 mph at the top of the lineup.
2. Tarik Cohen
Perfect spot for the swiss army knife of the offense. Could lay down a bunt and beat it out, move the runner, or even hit one to the gap and clear the bases.
3. Mitch Trubisky
The obvious spot for the leader of the offense and Akiem Hicks’ pick (outside himself) to win the home run derby part of this event. Let’s just hope he breaks out the punky QB headband and sunglasses look again this weekend.
4. Kyle Long
The most veteran member of the offensive line is there to protect the QB. Whether or not he’s even in the lineup, if anyone goes high and tight on # 10, better believe they’ll answer to #75.
5. Cody Whitehair
Some more muscle in the middle of the order. Has made it clear he’s good with moving around the lineup if the coaches think it’s best for the team.
6. Allen Robinson
Based on what we saw in the playoff game, he could be on his way to putting up big numbers anywhere in the batting order. Definitely a guy you want up late with the game on the line.
7. Charles Leno
Flies under the radar at one of the most important positions in football. If a pitcher thinks he’s in the clear after getting past Robinson, Leno will be there to throw a big block into that thinking.
8. Trey Burton / Adam Shaheen
When healthy, they provide some pop towards the bottom of the lineup. Let’s have Anthony Miller ready as the designated runner if these guys can get on base.
9. Bobby Massie
The ultimate team guy as he showed by signing a team friendly deal to stay in Chicago much earlier in the offseason than he had to.
10. James Daniels
As the new man in the middle on the offensive line, the burden falls on him to turn the lineup over and set the table for the speedy top of the order.
11. Mike Davis
Good spot to start for this new addition. Could easily see him towards the top of the lineup if he produces the way Matt Nagy & company thinks he can.
The defense has been ahead of the offense for pretty much the entire Pace/Nagy regime. But if Matt Nagy is involved, there’s sure to be no shortage of hidden ball tricks, squeezes and other trick plays with awesome names, so I might have to give a slight edge to the offense in this game.