Bears

The Bears' plan to improve their NFL-leading defense

The Bears' plan to improve their NFL-leading defense

When you’re the best defense in the NFL, can you get better? The Bears and their new defensive coordinator think so.
 
But with the NFL’s highest-paid defensive player and without a pick in the first two rounds of the draft (the rounds in which they procured four starters over the last five drafts), the opportunities for the exponential leap that came with the trade for Khalil Mack and the selection of Roquan Smith last offseason are next to nil.
 
Still, “our vision for this defense is to be the best,” said Chuck Pagano upon arrival to succeed Vic Fangio as defensive coordinator. “Can we be the best in the history of the game? The pieces are there and they will continue to add pieces. Can we continue to be better than we were last year? Absolutely.”
 
The Bears can’t improve on their defensive ranking; hard to go up from No. 1. But the ’86 Bears put up better numbers than the more celebrated ’85 group – under a different coordinator. The Seattle Seahawks ranked No. 1 in scoring defense four straight years (2012-15), No. 3 in 2016, and Top 5 in yardage allowed all five years from 2012-2016, reaching at least the divisional round of the playoffs all five years, going to two Super Bowls and winning one (2013) – with three different defensive coordinators.
 
So excellence is sustainable. But if you aren’t moving forward, you’re falling behind, because someone (Minnesota? Dallas? The Chargers? Broncos? All are on the Bears’ 2019 schedule). “It's an old cliché’,” said GM Ryan Pace, “but you're never staying the same. You're getting better or getting worse. We need to make sure we're getting better.”
 
Before the 2018 season, defensive lineman Akiem Hicks stated that a Top 10 Bears defense of 2017 could ascend into the Top 5. And it did, with talent additions in the persons of Mack and Smith. And what Pagano has heard (legally) from his players is, “'We can be better, I can get better,'” Pagano said.
 
But how can “better” happen?
 
Offseason talk is easy. In-season getting-better, not so much.
 
Consider:
 
The Bears led the NFL with 36 takeaways, five more than No. 2 Cleveland. Their 27 interceptions were more than their previous three seasons’ combined and the most in more than a quarter-century.
 
Mack in 13 games (two missed, one hobbled) posted the second-highest sack total (12.5) of his career, had a career-high 6 forced fumbles, and a career-best 4 passes defensed, to go with his second career interception and TD return.
 
Kyle Fuller’s 7 interceptions, one fewer than the total for the three previous seasons in which he played, tied for NFL honors and his 21 passes defensed led the league.
 
In just 14 games, Eddie Jackson delivered 6 interceptions (fourth in the NFL), two returned for touchdowns, plus a fumble return for a TD.
 
Prince Amukamara matched his career high with 3 interceptions. Adrian Amos’ 2 picks doubled his career total from three previous seasons. Roquan Smith went to the Pro Bowl with a team-leading 122 tackles.
 
All of which leading to a question as to how much better can a defense be after at least half of its starting members had equaled or exceeded their previous personal-bests.
 
A plan to for “better”
 
Interestingly, several players had “down” years, not as strong as previous peaks hit. Therein lie the obvious potentials for “better.”
 
Hicks was voted to the Pro Bowl after compiling 7.5 sacks, down from 8 the previous year. He felt he was stronger in 2017.
 
Leonard Floyd needed surgery to repair a fractured right hand, resulting in his starting the season with his hand in a large, cumbersome wrap. He went eight games without a sack, then had four in the next six games. The four sacks fell well short of the 7 over his 12-game rookie season.
 
“Even if he’s not flashy in the way you would want to see your outside linebacker flashing,” Hicks said, “he’s scaring offenses. So he already put that intimidation factor in there, and then to come up with the plays on top of that, the sky’s the limit for that guy.”
 
Nickel corner Bryce Callahan was lost to IR for the final three and playoff games. Rookie tackle Bilal Nichols had 2.5 sacks and 5 quarterback hits over the final eight games, earning a starting spot by game 10.
 
The Bears lost more than one-third of their 2017 sack total over the 2018 offseason, then offset most of it back with Mack. Since he has had four straight seasons of double-digit sacks, that range of production ls a reasonable expectation. More from Floyd, Nichols and Smith (5) project as the source of “better” for an already elite unit. 
 
To that end, Pagano has brought with him a plan.
 
“Our goal and our mindset will be to come in here and get better every single day at something,” Pagano said. “We will be intentional and we will be deliberate with everything that we do and the coaches will come up with a prescription and just like to the doctor and you're sick and he writes you a script for something.
 
“We will give these players, every one of them a ‘prescription’ and it will be just three precise, condensed things. We all can get better physically, mentally, knowing an understanding the game, knowing and understanding the playbook, the calls, the opponents. Guys will grow, guys will become better pros, we will get better off the field, we will get better on the field.”

Eric Ebron interacts with Akiem Hicks' NFC Championship tweet, causing free agency speculation

Eric Ebron interacts with Akiem Hicks' NFC Championship tweet, causing free agency speculation

Just as Bears fans were finally coming to terms with their disappointing 8-8 season, Akiem Hicks decided to pour some salt on the wound and take to Twitter, imagining what it would’ve been like if the Bears had made it to the NFC Championship game.

While we were all imagining how indeed “lit” it would’ve been to see the Bears play in the post-season at Soldier Field, Indianapolis Colts tight end Eric Ebron decided to quote tweet Hicks with a thinking face emoji. Curious behavior.

Ebron has played for the Colts since 2018, when he had a stellar first season in Indianapolis, scoring 14 touchdowns. In 2019, Ebron’s season ended after 11 games due to an ankle injury. He scored three touchdowns, reeling in 31 catches for 375 yards. Colts GM Chris Ballad has said that the organization is likely to move on from Ebron in 2020, meaning he would be available in free agency.

Tight end is one of the positions on the Bears long offseason do to list, and Ebron seems he could be a potential fit. Judging by their Twitter interactions, Akiem Hicks and Tarik Cohen seem to think so.

Hicks replied to Ebron telling him he could hear Bears fans calling his name. Cohen echoed this sentiment in his own tweet, albeit more cryptically.

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Ranking the most painful moments for Bears' fans during the 2020 Championship weekend

Ranking the most painful moments for Bears' fans during the 2020 Championship weekend

You may have noticed that none of the four teams that played this weekend were the Chicago Bears. They haven't played since the last week of December, but since this disastrous season won't end for another two weeks, there's been plenty of time for some especially painful parting shots. And weirdly enough, there were multiple moments through the two games on Sunday that reminded Bears' fans about the 8-8 season that absolutely no one is trying to remember. Shall we go through them? OK! 

4. Jimmy Garoppolo Beat The Packers To Go To The Super Bowl With 6 Completions 

Remember when the Bears were going to trade for Jimmy G? Back before they traded up to take Trubisky, rumors were swirling that the Patriots' backup was headed to Chicago. That is what it is -- everyone's connected to everyone at one point or another, and Bears have enough potential QB scenarios to give themselves a stroke over. The real kicker was beating the Packers, and Aaron Rodgers, while attempting eight pass attempts. Remember Nagy's I'm-Not-An-Idiot comment after running the ball 7 times against New Orleans. Imagine that, but it works, and it's in the NFC title game. The Bears couldn't beat the Packers on either occasion this season, and that included 98 pass attempts. That sound you hear is someone (you can choose, really) banging their head against the wall inside of Halas Hall. 

3. Raheem Mostert Rushing For 220 Yards and Four Touchdowns 

Truly an insane night for Mostert. He was briefly on the Bears during the 2016 season, which happened to be Jordan Howard's first and best. Mostert also was on three other teams (NYJ, SF, CLE) that year, and three OTHER teams (PHI, MIA, BAL) the year before, so it's not like the Bears are the only team sitting here with yolk on their face. Still, seeing an NFL journeyman get halfway to the Bears' total rushing touchdown number (8) in one game is the stuff that existential crises are made for. 

2. Robbie Gould's Kicking Well For A Super Bowl Team

Things were all well and good when Eddy Pineiro was hitting game-winners in Denver while Gould got off to one of the worst starts of his career. As the Bears' special teams unit watched from their rented South Beach group house, Gould went 3-3, including a franchise postseason record 54-yarder, in the Niners' 37-20 win. He started the season by being crowned champion of Chicago Football Madness, and now he gets a shot at ending it with another title, even if it's not quite as illustrious as the midwest's premier Bears-only online bracket challenge. 

1. Literally Everything Pat Mahomes Did All Day 

The decision to trade up for Trubisky was bad, but honestly, the endless stream of barely-distinguishable versions of the same snarky tweet may be worse. At some point Bears fans are going to have to come to terms with Pat Mahomes playing for the Chiefs, but it sure as hell won't be this year. In their defense, everything he does makes you physically stop whatever else you're doing and figure out what noise just came out of your mouth. Bears fans are robbing themselves of the best Mahomsian experience by insisting on slamming the Caps Lock button anytime the Chiefs play, but with each new height that Mahomes and the Chiefs reach, it becomes harder and harder to blame them.

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