The Bears proved Sunday they have the NFL's best defense, again

The Bears proved Sunday they have the NFL's best defense, again

A three-pronged narrative existed about the Bears’ defense prior to the season about why it was due for a regression.

Chuck Pagano couldn’t replicate Vic Fangio’s deft playcalling. It’d be unlikely the Bears could have 30-plus takeaways for a second consecutive season. The injury luck this group had in 2018 wouldn’t carry over to 2019.

Through four games? The Bears still have the best defense in the NFL. There hasn't been a hint of regression. What this group did in smothering the Minnesota Vikings, 16-6, Sunday at Soldier Field proved it.

“I think we sent a message today,” defensive lineman Nick Williams said.

Pagano’s defense has 17 sacks, the second-highest total in the NFL, thanks to not only the elite play of Khalil Mack but the well-designed and well-timed blitzes called by the Bears’ new defensive coordinator. Those sacks have accounted for a loss of 143 yards, too, and also don't account for the consistent duress opposing quarterbacks have been under. The transition from Fangio to Pagano has been nothing but smooth.

So toss that one out. Turnovers? They’re still coming. The Bears have eight in four games, good for a season-long pace of 32. Only the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New England Patriots have taken the ball away more than the Bears’ defense.

And only the Patriots — who’ve had the fortune of playing the intentionally-bad Miami Dolphins — have allowed fewer points per game on average than the Bears’ 11.3.

But the Bears, yes, have had worse injury luck. Bilal Nichols has missed the last two games with a broken hand. Pro Bowl defensive lineman Akiem Hicks couldn’t play Sunday with a knee injury. Inside linebacker Roquan Smith was a late scratch due to what the Bears said were personal reasons.

Those three losses looked to be critical ahead of facing Dalvin Cook, who entered Sunday as the NFL’s leading rusher. Cook gained 35 yards on 14 carries. The Vikings had 90 yards of total offense through three quarters. 

Replacing Nichols and Hicks were Williams, Roy Robertson-Harris, Abdullah Anderson and Jonathan Harris. That’s three former undrafted free agents and one 2013 seventh round pick who was out of the NFL in 2017 -- guys who've had to live on the margins of NFL rosters. 

Williams and Robertson-Harris were outstanding, combining for 3.5 sacks and three tackles for a loss. They were strengths, not weaknesses.

And inside linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski was all over the field in place of Smith, leading the Bears with 10 tackles as well as chipping in with a strip-sack and two tackles for a loss. No play better represented the Bears’ defensive effort on Sunday than Kwiatkoski bull rushing on Cook and shoving the Vikings’ running back into quarterback Kirk Cousins, resulting in a sack recorded by Williams.

“You put these guys on any other team, they’re starters,” safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix said. “So I don’t call them ‘not-starters.’ They’re just second team. Our backup is really strong.

“Like I said, our second team could be starters on other teams right now. That’s what makes us special is we have depth.”

The sense inside a jubilant locker room at Soldier Field Sunday was that this defense was just getting started. The coaching is there. The elite top-end talent, as well as the depth, is there. The turnovers are still coming. This group’s collective ability to rattle opposing offenses remains as strong as it was a year ago.

More challenges await this defense over the season’s final 12 games. There may be more injuries. They’ll have to contend with Phillip Rivers and Carson Wentz and Patrick Mahomes (and Daniel Jones).

But those quarterbacks will have to contend with Mack and Kyle Fuller and Eddie Jackson and, when he comes back, Hicks. And, too, they’ll have to contend with Robertson-Harris and Williams and a bunch of backups who are playing like starters.

Everything is hard for an offense when it goes against the best defense in the NFL. And that’s what the Bears sure look like they have, again.

“It’s the standard that’s been set,” Mack said. “Still got guys out there that can play ball. Got Pro Bowl caliber players. It’s the level of expectation that we expect. It’s not a shock to us.”

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Gov. J.B. Pritzker on if Bears', 2020 NFL season will start on time

Gov. J.B. Pritzker on if Bears', 2020 NFL season will start on time

On Saturday, President Trump talked to several commissioners of professional sports leagues and reportedly told them that he believes the NFL season will start on time despite the ongoing pandemic. A day later, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker was asked about that possibility.

On CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday, Jake Tapper asked Pritzker if the Bears would be playing in Soldier Field in September, and if there would be fans. Pritzker did not give a definitive prediction.

“Well, the Bears are a great team whether they’re playing or not, but I will say this, it’s not up to us,” Pritzker said. “We don’t know. None of us really knows. But what I do know is this; if the researchers are able to come up with a treatment, something that will save lives, something that will keep people off ventilators, maybe even keep them out of hospitals, then that will be an enormous development for our country and for the future. It may allow us to open things up in the way the president is describing. But the truth is that no one predicts now that we’re going to have that treatment any time in the next few weeks or even in the next month, and no one really knows if we’ll have it by September.”

“What we do know is that if you have a vaccine, that ultimately will help us deal with the problem,” Pritzker said. “Because it’s either going to be a treatment and herd immunity that ultimately allows us to open everything back up, or it’s a vaccine.”

The sports world will continue to hold its breath until there are more answers.

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Open competition might be what Mitch Trubisky needs to salvage Bears' career

Open competition might be what Mitch Trubisky needs to salvage Bears' career

I used this space on Friday to explain why I see Nick Foles as the clear favorite to be the Bears’ starting quarterback in Week 1 of the 2020 season. Based on the information we have, it’s easy to see why Foles should beat out Mitch Trubisky in the Bears’ “open competition.” 

And I very much believe that'll happen. But I do want to acknowledge something here, an unknown of sorts: We don’t know how Trubisky will handle a legitimate competition. 

“The competitor that Mitch is, the way that he was with us was really neat to see because he embraced it,” Matt Nagy said. “It wasn’t about excuses, it wasn’t about anything other than, ‘OK, I understand that, I’m gonna give you everything that I’ve got, we’re gonna compete, and you’re gonna get that best that I’ve got.’”

Nagy and Ryan Pace both talked up Trubisky’s competitive nature when discussing the Foles trade over about 40 minutes on Friday. It’s all they can talk up at this point — anything else about his game or past results would’ve been hot air. Maybe the competitiveness thing is hot air, too. 

But this brings up a question that’s lingered as Trubisky’s career has drifted into disappointing territory, so follow my tangent: Why wasn’t he North Carolina’s starting quarterback sooner in college?

Trubisky sat behind Marquise Williams for two and a half seasons before taking over as the Tarheel’s QB1 in 2016. Williams spent one training camp with the Green Bay Packers before being cut and spent the next few years as a backup in the CFL, AAC and XFL.

Trubisky — the second overall pick in 2017's draft — couldn’t beat that guy out? Huh?

The thing is, though, there wasn’t really a competition in Chapel Hill for the Tarheels’ starting gig. Williams QB’d five consecutive wins to get North Carolina to a bowl game in 2013, then was pretty good in six-win 2014. North Carolina went 11-1 in 2015, Trubisky’s third year on campus, with Williams as their guy. 

Former UNC quarterbacks coach Keith Heckendorf explained to me after the 2017 draft why there wasn’t truly a competition for Trubisky to win. 

“That success we had as a team with Marquise made it hard for us to pull him out of the lineup,” Heckendorf said. “And I think if (Williams’ success in 2013) hadn’t happened, there may be a completely different conversation. It was not for a lack of talent, it was not because (Trubisky) wasn’t capable, but it’s hard to take a guy who had the success — not only as the team winning but individually — as Marquise had and put him on the bench for an unproven commodity.”

Of course, if Trubisky were lighting things up in practice and limited game reps, he would’ve forced UNC’s hand. He didn’t.

But the point is Trubisky’s failure to win a starting gig in college sooner wasn’t necessarily the product of him losing an open competition. He pushed Mike Glennon as a rookie in 2017, but he didn’t show up to training camp in a true “battle” (especially as he QB’d the third-team offense so much). He took over for Glennon because, first and foremost, Glennon was a disaster.

So we don’t really know how he’ll handle a competition the Bears are framing as fair and even.

Could Trubisky all of a sudden grow with the challenge to his job? Could the mere presence of Foles get him to start hitting more deep balls, or make the right reads at the line, or help him avoid those head-scratching interceptions?

Probably not. Football types love to say competition brings out the best in everyone, but it’s hard to see it erasing three years of inconsistent tape.

But we don’t know for sure. For what it's worth, this worked for Kyle Fuller three years ago, when the Bears signed Marcus Cooper and Prince Amukamara and he wound up winning his old job back, and then keeping it.

Trubisky, too, still has more upside than Foles. The Bears would much rather start the version of Trubisky Pace hoped he was getting in 2017 rather than a 31-year-old with 13 starts over the last four years.

Still, Foles is most likely going to be the Bears’ starter when the 2020 season begins (hopefully on time). But the Bears should at least take a look at Trubisky in a true competition.

It may not need to be a long look. But it should be a look.

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