Bears let their pass rush slip this offseason…or did they?


Bears let their pass rush slip this offseason…or did they?

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.

Pass-rush upgrade

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.”

Studs and Duds from Bears' season-ending Week 11 loss to Rams

Studs and Duds from Bears' season-ending Week 11 loss to Rams

The Chicago Bears fell to 4-6 after losing to the Los Angeles Rams, 17-7, in Week 11's Sunday Night Football. And while there may be a mathematical possibility for the Bears to make the playoffs, it's likely around 1 percent. 

It's time to accept the harsh and painful reality of the Bears' 2019 season, one of the most disappointing and shockingly bad years this franchise has endured in a very long time. 

Heartache like this is often the result of unrealistic expectations to begin with. Were the Bears really prepared to make a Super Bowl run with a second-year head coach and a third-year quarterback who still wasn't a finished product? The defense certainly appeared ready for a special season, but there was never the kind of overall team balance to make this year's goals a reality.

So here we are. With six games left on the schedule, the Bears are three games out of a wild card spot. The offense is still a mess and the defense is steadily getting less reliable.

Chicago managed just seven points against the Rams on Sunday night while the defense allowed running back Todd Gurley to eclipse 100 total yards for the first time since Week 1. And then there's the whole kicking situation.

Here are Week 11's Studs and Duds:

Stud: LB Roquan Smith

Smith led all Bears defenders with 11 tackles and an interception. He didn't play a perfect game and often got bullied on the second level when the defensive line couldn't keep him clean, but the sideline-to-sideline burst that made him a first-round pick was on display for four quarters. 

Dud: K Eddy Pineiro

Pineiro left six points on the field for the Bears with two killer misses early in the game. In fact, those misses seemed to take the life out of Chicago's offense. Pineiro hasn't been good the last two weeks and even though Nagy said the Bears aren't looking to bring in competition, it doesn't appear Pineiro is the long-term answer.

Stud: SAF Eddie Jackson

Jackson was playing noticeably faster Sunday night and had one of his best plays of the season when he penetrated the backfield for an explosive tackle for loss. He ended the game third on the team with six tackles and looked like he got some of his mojo back.

Dud: RB David Montgomery

Montgomery hasn't had any help from the offensive line or play-calling this season, but at some point, he needs to flash the ability to pick up more yards on his own. He managed just 31 yards on 14 carries and his longest run of the game covered just five yards. There are a lot of reasons to be excited about Montgomery's future, but it's time for him to prove he can really be a special running back.

Stud: RB Tarik Cohen

Cohen made the most of his workload against the Rams. He had 14 touches for 74 yards and a touchdown and looked explosive along the way. An argument could be made that Cohen should've received the lion's share of the carries Sunday night. He was simply more effective.

Dud: Offensive line

It's become glaringly obvious that the Bears' offense is hindered by the problems along the offensive line. Aaron Donald didn't do them any favors; he embarrassed every Bears lineman he faced. And while that's a pretty common occurrence for Donald, it only accentuated the need for Ryan Pace to pay close attention to the position group this offseason. 

Bears' tight ends invisible once again in Week 11 loss to Rams

Bears' tight ends invisible once again in Week 11 loss to Rams

When the Bears hired Matt Nagy as head coach in 2018, the vision was that he'd bring to Chicago much of what he learned during his time as Andy Reid's offensive understudy in Kansas City. He was supposed to be the Bears' version of Doug Pederson, who like Nagy was a Reid disciple with the Eagles and Chiefs from 2009-2016.

Pederson won the Super Bowl in his second season as Eagles coach. Not so much for Nagy.

The Lombardi Trophy isn't the only difference between Pederson and Nagy since becoming head coaches. Pederson, much like Reid, has the luxury of a superstar player filling the role of one of the Reid offense's most critical positions: tight end.

The Eagles field Zach Ertz. The Chiefs have Travis Kelce. Meanwhile, Nagy and the Bears have Ben Braunecker?

Braunecker was the only tight end to record a reception in Chicago's 17-7 loss to the Rams Sunday night. And it was just one catch for eight yards. 

Trey Burton was placed on injured reserve (calf) after Week 10's win over the Lions; it brought an end to a brutal season for last year's free-agent prize. Burton's 2019 will finish with just 14 catches for 84 yards.

Remember: Burton is the player who Ryan Pace and Nagy dubbed as Chicago's version of Ertz and Kelce. 

Ertz has 55 catches for 621 yards and two scores while Kelce's registered 56 catches for 741 yards and three scores so far this season. 

Burton will enter the third year of a four-year, $32 million contract in 2020 and might be too costly for the Bears to cut loose this offseason. He'll cost the team $7.5 million against the cap if they decide to part ways. An argument can be made that he's been limited by injuries all season (he's played in just 50.1 percent of the team's snaps this year) and deserves another shot to prove he's the kind of playmaker he was signed to be. At this point, there may not be much of a choice.

Former 2017 second-round pick Adam Shaheen has been a massive bust. His career with the Bears has been defined by a series of nagging injuries. And even when he's been healthy, he's played like 'just a guy.' He has one year left on his rookie contract but doesn't appear likely to factor into the position moving forward.

Even if Burton remains on the roster next year and Shaheen is given another chance to develop, Pace has to make tight end a priority position over the next few months of roster reconstruction. There will be some intriguing Day 2 prospects in the NFL Draft, like Purdue's Brycen Hopkins, and veteran options like Eric Ebron and Vance McDonald should find themselves on the open market in free agency. At least one of those avenues should be explored.

Sunday night's disappointing and likely season-ending loss was the result of a year of underachievement by the Bears. And no position has underachieved more than this tight end group.