Conventional NFL wisdom is that if you’re not moving forward, you’re falling behind. But when you rank among the league’s best and lack picks in either of the first two rounds of the draft (actually three, since the 2019 third-round pick was going to be a running back), getting genuinely better will be problematic for the 2019 Bears, more likely to come from within rather than outside.
Players may talk about “getting better each and every day,” and that is everyone’s expected goal. But how much better, and just exactly how that happens, are quite literally easier said than done.
The loss of coordinator Vic Fangio to Denver as the Broncos’ head coach notwithstanding, the overall starting point at this point of the 2019 “season” is exponentially better than what it was one year ago. The Bears finished 2018 as the only defense ranking top five for both sacks and interceptions, all while leading the NFL in rushing defense and ranking fourth in rushing average allowed.
“The team that coach Nagy and Ryan [Pace, GM] have put together, front to back, you've got speed, you've got athleticism at all three levels,” said incoming coordinator Chuck Pagano, unquestionably the most significant defensive “addition.” “And they work great together, they communicate really well together. So you've got to have pass rushers; we've got that. You've got to have corners who can cover; we've got that. You've got to have guys that can run and hit. We've got that.”
Significantly, the chemistry and collective mood of the defense around Pagano has been perceptible all offseason, with an acceleration through the early weeks of camp as the defense effectively dominated the offense.
By some numbers
Using just one pass-defense metric for comparison purposes: Training camp last year began with the Bears having lost more than one-third (14.5) of their 2017 sack total (42) via departures (Lamar Houston, Christian Jones, Pernell McPhee, Mitch Unrein, Willie Young), and Khalil Mack was still working out on his own, still weeks away from being an ex-Oakland Raider.
This year 47 of the 50 sacks from 2018 are “back," losing only Bryce Callahan’s two and Adrian Amos’ one, virtually a wash with the additions of Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (1.0) and Buster Skrine (0.5).
The Bears tied for third in sack total with Minnesota, behind only Kansas City and Pittsburgh, both with 52.
“I just think we could be better,” said defensive lineman Akiem Hicks, whose 7.5 sacks last season have become virtually his “average.” “That’s my personal opinion.”
Hicks has traction as an evaluator: He unequivocally predicted the Bears’ jump from a top-10 defense in 2017 to top five last season.
As or more important, as the rush improved, so, too, did the play on the back end. The paltry 8 interceptions in each of 2015-16-17 more than tripled, to a league-leading 27, six more than runner-up Miami’s 21. A Chicago defense that had intercepted only eight passes three seasons in a row returned five for touchdowns last year. Amos and Callahan combined for four interceptions last season; Clinton-Dix had three, his fourth straight season of three or more picks. Amos has a total of three over his four-year career.
So, how does it get better? Who gets better?
The “problem” is that several key members of the defense already were producing at what may be their max levels. How much better they can become is a legitimate question. Mack’s presence for an entire off- and preseason projects as a positive. But his 12.5 sacks last season were the second-highest in his five NFL seasons, albeit accumulated in 14 games, the first time he’s played fewer than 16, and he has made it a stated goal to become the greatest pass rusher in the history of the game.
“I've always thought of myself as the best defensive player in the league and I want to play like the best defensive player in the league,” Mack reiterated during training camp. “I want to be the best at what I do.”
The defense got 5 sacks from a rookie Roquan Smith, remarkable if only because the total was on virtual par with the total (6.5) from his 15-game final year at Georgia. Smith’s overall play is reasonably expected to make the requisite year-1-to-year-2 uptick.
But Smith’s 5 sacks are the most by a Bears inside linebacker since Brian Urlacher’s run of five or more in three of the four years from 2004-2007. Bears inside linebackers simply do not pile up sacks, regardless of coordinator. Fangio’s sack leaders in San Francisco were outside linebackers Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks. Pro Bowl inside linebackers Navarro Bowman and Patrick Willis had highs of five and three sacks, respectively under Fangio.
Pagano’s sack leaders with the 3-4-based, 2011 Baltimore Ravens were outside linebackers Terrell Suggs (14) and Pernell McPhee (6). Ray Lewis totaled 2 in his one season with Pagano.
Smith did come away from the Bears’ 100th-anniversary experience with critical counsel from some true Bears greats at his position. “[Dick] Butkus was like, ‘Just be violent,’” Smith said, with a laugh. “’By all means be violent,’ that was his main thing. And pretty much Otis [Wilson], from the ’85 team, it was more saying the same thing, ‘get the quarterback, knock him out,’ stuff like that.”
Leonard Floyd’s play improved as 2018 went along even if the glamor stats didn’t. He started all 16 games for the first time but his sack total has dipped from 7 in 2016 to 4.5 in ’17 and 4 last year, plus one and a second QB hit in the playoff loss to Philadelphia.
The Bears picked up the fifth-year option on Floyd’s rookie contract, a vote of both confidence and expectation that come with a projected commitment to a $13.2 million base.
“I keep bugging Floyd about that, man he’s just got to rush harder,” Hicks said, not so much in criticism as support/encouragement. “That’s what I need from him. No, but he’s a good guy, and I think our overall defensive front is… we’re more jelled. We know what we’re good at. I know I keep bringing this back to what we’re good at and what we’re not good at, but you have to play to a player’s strengths, and I think that will make us improve a little bit more.”
Mack, Smith, Floyd and Hicks played near career-best levels in 2018, at least overall qualitatively if not straight statistically, as did Eddie Goldman, Danny Trevathan and members of the secondary.
But three other individuals offer intriguing upside possibilities.
Bilal Nichols won a starting defensive-end job in the base 3-4 late last season and delivered five of his seven QB hits and 1.5 of his 3 sacks over the final four games. Nichols provided a highlight in Tuesday’s practice with a diving interception of a Mitch Trubisky pass.
“He’s from Delaware so we expect that,” deadpanned Delaware grad Nagy.
Linebacker Aaron Lynch flashed during early offseason practices and projects to challenge for playing time at defensive end in both three- and four-man fronts, if he can stay healthy. And Roy Robertson-Harris enters his second season at defensive-line weight (294) after coming to the Bears in 2016 as a 255-pound undrafted outside linebacker for a 3-4 scheme.
“From an intangible standpoint we're still looking for the same things,” said GM Ryan Pace. “It's still 3-4 and we know we're in ‘sub’ 85% of the time so it's basically the same. There are no drastic changes.”
Just the “drastic” challenge of somehow getting better when you already are among the best.