On paper, the Bears have a penalty problem. Through seven weeks, both the number of flags (51) they've drawn and the yardage it's cost them (483) rank third in the NFL; the winless (0-7) New York Jets are the only team outpacing the Bears in both. Interestingly enough, the problem is almost exclusively a defensive one – seven of the Bears' 10-most penalized players are on that side of the ball, and Chuck Pagano's unit ranks 2nd in defensive pass interference calls (5) and currently sits in and eight-way tie for 1st in defensive holding (5).
There's clearly plenty of room to improve, but as rookie cornerback Jaylon Johnson explained, some of those penalties are actually by design.
"At the end of the day, we’re going to keep being aggressive," Johnson said this week. "You don’t want to start off soft, and end up giving up plays. You’d rather be on a high and have to turn it down a little bit. I thought that’s more of the attitude that we have. Make them call it and we’ll adjust our game from there."
As an aggressive, ball-hawking corner who also, you'll remember, happens to be a rookie, PI's are going to be a part of Johnson's game. He and fellow starter Kyle Fuller, whose physicality needs no explanation, are tied with three a piece. (Only Tampa Bay's Carlton Davis, a standout corner in his own right, has more.) In that way, the Chicago secondary has shades of Seattle's renowned 'Legion of Boom', a unit infamous for playing so physically that it's fair to wonder whether they ultimately got away with more calls than they received.
"I’m not even worried about the flags until I see it," Johnson added. "I just try and play the ball. Being a defender, I never think that there’s a flag. So I don’t really expect too many flags."
Chicago's most penalized player, however, isn't in their secondary. It's Akiem Hicks. Hicks has seven penalties this season, the second-most in football. (In case the point of this article isn't clear, Fuller's third.) Admittedly, the stat's a bit misleading: Hicks more than doubled his season total with a four-flag performance against the Rams. Three of those – an unsportsmanlike conduct, a roughing the passer, and a neutral zone infraction – all came in the third quarter.
"This is the most I’ve been penalized in my career," he tweeted the day after. "I’ll never complain, I’ll just adjust my game. But one thing I won’t do is not play hard. It’s part of why I fell in love with the game. The struggle, the hustle, the battle. I’m still in love.
Pagano said on Tuesday that the penalties are something that's "gotta be cleaned up," but did concede – in a subtle, please-don't-fine-me way, that the team's taken issue with some of the calls this year. "Officials are gonna officiate and we coach and we play the game, so I want our guys — Akiem, along with everybody else — to play hard, play fast, play physical and take it right to the line," he said.
Some of the technical penalties, like not putting all your body weight on a QB when falling down, or taking your hand off a face mask, made sense. Others, like the personal foul that Hicks picked up for jumping on a moving pile that was (confusingly) not blown dead yet, didn't.
"The scrum where they don’t blow it dead — I don’t know why, but they don’t blow it dead," Pagano said. "The forward progress is done, but they don’t. So they’re pushing. He’s like a kid in Pop Warner, jumping on a pile, having fun … seriously. The guy throws a flag like he just hit a sliding quarterback in the head. So I better stop there."
Being among the most penalized teams in football is never a good place to be, and even if they're on the ticky-tacky side of things, there's no denying their impact – Hicks' penalties alone gave the Rams first downs on two of their three touchdown drives. Still, as the defense racks up penalties, even a cursory glance at their stats show that it's hard to argue with their approach. If the Bears' defense can play like this while being relatively undisciplined, imagine what they could be when they do clean it up.
"I think all my plays are clean," Johnson said. "Until they’re not."