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.”