Maybe all of the hand-wringing over the Bears’ “issues” in the area of pass rush is misplaced concern or something possibly just a little out of context. Some members of the Chicago defense think so.
Of course, maybe not, since the Chicago defense is approaching the 2018 season without the players who accounted for more than one-third (14.5) of the team’s 42 sacks last season. Sacks might be an overrated stat (thank you, Greg Blache), but seven of the top-10 teams in sacks were in the postseason and an eighth (San Diego) had 9 wins and missed the postseason in a tiebreaker.
And in life (with apologies to Mike Ditka), at least in NFL life, a problem can be that if you’re not getting better, then you’re getting worse.
But two points to consider in the matter of Bears pass rush:
Looking at takeaways holistically
One is that the pass rush doesn’t exist in some sort of isolation. The Bears were a plus-7 in turnover ratio in the 12 Mitch Trubisky starts, a significant indicator that the rookie quarterback grasped the notion of ball security. For the year, while they were a dismal tie for 29th in interceptions with a historic third straight year with just 8 interceptions, the Bears led the NFL in fumble recoveries and tied for eighth in fumbles forced.
“The biggest thing in my opinion on why we were so good at takeaways is that we really focused on it,” said outside linebacker Sam Acho. “The year before we were last in takeaways, so we made it a really big emphasis, almost every single day, on taking the ball away. We worked techniques and different strategies for taking the ball away, and kept believing that it would come.
“And the fumbles started to come, the recoveries started to come, and we believe the interceptions’ll come as well, the more pressure we get on the quarterback, the tighter the coverage is, the more we understand what the concept of the defense is.”
Even without anything close to dominance in the form of interceptions, the defensive unit finished top 10 in allowing points (9th), total yardage (10th) and passing yards (7th), on top of sixth in sack percentage and tying for seventh in total sacks.
The Bears chose wide receiver Kevin White over edge rusher Vic Beasley in the 2015 draft, but had made rush-linebacker Pernell McPhee their priority signing in that offseason’s free agency. GM Ryan Pace traded up in 2016 to draft Leonard Floyd No. 9 in the first round. Last year Pace stayed the course with Acho, Floyd, McPhee and Willie Young as edge rushers, and retrieved Lamarr Houston when injuries were taking down Floyd, Young and Isaiah Irving.
This year, with a thin crop of rush talent in the draft, Pace opted for inside linebacker Roquan Smith over a lesser-rated edge rushers Tremaine Edmunds, Marcus Davenport or Leighton Vander Esch (absolutely no way could Pace have taken another rush linebacker from Boise State).
This after taking a flyer on former San Francisco outside linebacker Aaron Lynch, who had 6 sacks as a rookie under now-Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. Lynch promptly missed time with an ankle injury in the Bears’ initial minicamp with veterans but is back for OTA’s and with a purpose.
“I’m going to bring, as far as skill set, a person who loves to compete,” said Lynch, who fits the template for outside linebackers in Fangio 3-4 schemes. “I pride myself as a pretty good pass rusher and can stop the run. I know this defense because I’ve played in it, so it’s bringing somebody in who has a background in this defense, and I know what I’m doing each and every play.”
Acho, whose 18 quarterback hits were second only to Akiem Hicks’ 20, also does not echo any sentiments that the Bears did not address their pass rush this offseason to offset Houston, McPhee, Young and others leaving.
“I think Aaron Lynch is a pretty awesome pass-rushing ‘specialist,’ to be honest,” Acho said. “I remember watching him when I was in Arizona, he was playing in San Francisco, and I was thinking, ‘Man, this dude is a beast.’ He reminded me of Aldon Smith, with the raw athleticism. So I’m happy they brought him in, Isaiah [Irving] is growing, Leonard is a beast.
“And I’m pretty good,” he added with a laugh. “And the young guys can contribute. But Aaron is pretty awesome.”