Bears

How does Bears defense stay elite? And is being even better possible?

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USA TODAY

How does Bears defense stay elite? And is being even better possible?

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.

 

'You said you were good. You lied to us'—Understanding the harsh reaction to Bears, Mitch Trubisky struggles​​​​​​​

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USA TODAY

'You said you were good. You lied to us'—Understanding the harsh reaction to Bears, Mitch Trubisky struggles​​​​​​​

John Fox was right as far as looking ahead to how things can or might unfold for an NFL team (or quarterback): “Understate, overproduce,” was Fox’s operating mantra.

Why that matters or comes to mind at all is a step-back sense of what’s going on around the Bears and quarterback Mitch Trubisky. Their struggles through two games have loosed waves of bad feelings about at least the offensive portion of local professional football.

Much of that was not anything that he or his coach probably anticipated. But perhaps they should have, given various utterances, all offseason led much of BearsNation were led to believe by what coach Matt Nagy was putting forward.

Plus some long and painful pieces of Chicago sports history, Bears and otherwise.

Consider: Nagy this offseason frequently referred to where his quarterback and offense were as “2.0,” meaning the next step up from what was a respectable first year for players in Nagy’s offense, and for Nagy as a first-time, first-year Bears head coach. That said, “good things coming.”

So when “2.0” turned out to be alarmingly close to the yards-per-pass-play through two games, the negative response shouldn’t have been surprising, nor its intensity level. Call it the “You told us you were good! You lied!” reaction. More on the history of this psychological scarring shortly.

Fair to Trubisky? No, but….

None of it is necessarily fair whatsoever to a young man playing the most difficult single position in all of sports, who is clearly a leader and a worker and is an obvious favorite of his teammates and gives the degree of effort that traditionally endears athletes to Chicago, regardless of sport.

And Trubisky has acquitted himself very well at the most crucial points in two of his last three games, a huge positive looking ahead and the kind of in-the-clutch thing that is at the core of real success.

“The thing we’ve got to keep in mind here,” Nagy said on Thursday, “Mitchell ended up, at the end of the season against Philadelphia, when everything was on the line, that kid took us right down the field and gave us a chance to win. Okay? I think we all agree with that.

“He was put in a position this last game to take us down the field with 31 seconds to go and [he] put us in position to win.

“Depending on what went on in the game before that, did he have that opportunity to do it? He did. So let’s figure out – I need to – where are we at.

“He has it in him at the end of the game."

Understanding the scarred “You lied to us!” psyche

Part of all this swirling negativity lies in Nagy’s default-setting positivity: His daily updates never include trashing a player, and he appears at times to be making excuses or covering for Trubisky.

Part of this also traces back to Ryan Pace trading significant draft capital to be sure of getting Trubisky in the 2017 draft. Pace’s statement that Trubisky portended greatness, more so than either Patrick Mahomes or Deshaun Watson. Regardless of the outcome, Pace did make the overall right move, leaving nothing to chance to get his guy. (Whether this was THE guys was the concern. And still is, although not really the point here.)

In any case, there’s a deeper psyche issue that neither Nagy nor Trubisky could reasonably be expected to understand. Call it a form of betrayed trust. Call it: “You said you were good and we believed you! You lied to us!”

It didn’t start with the ’69 Cubs, but that may have been an accelerant. Even the ’85 Bears brushed up against it.

Recall that in 1983 the “Winning Ugly” White Sox won the AL West by 20 games. 20. 2-zero.(“You said you were good…”) They then proceeded to lose in the ALCS to Baltimore in four games, scoring 0, 1 and 0 runs in the three losses. (“You lied!”)

Come forward to 1984. Cubs blast out to a 2-0 NLCS lead, outscoring San Diego 17-2 in the two games (“You said you were good…”), then fade to black with three straight losses, the last two despite leading in each. (“You lied!”)

A year later Mike Ditka made liberal use of the “nobody believes in us but us” mantra even as his Bears were running away and hiding with a 12-0 start.

Even after that, Chicago paranoia reigned. Actor and Chicago native Joe Mantegna told this writer that even during the Super Bowl he just KNEW something would go wrong. So when Walter Payton fumbled on the second play and the Patriots recovered and kicked a field goal to lead 3-0, Mantegna said he proceeded to go around the corner into another room because he just couldn’t watch but still wanted to listen to the game. (He did come back in the TV room after halftime).

What the Cubs are going through right now is another booster shot of “You said you were good! You lied” juice. They win that World Series in 2016, Joe Maddon was deified (“You said you were good…”), then have proceeded to slide, to the point now where they are closer to falling all the way out of the postseason, which would represent a capstone “You lied!”

Belief betrayed

BearsNation was all in on Nagy from the beginning, with his foundation in offense, coaching tree (Andy Reid) and just the fact that he wasn’t John Fox. That was taken to new levels by 12 wins and an upbeat persona, creative offbeat plays, Club Dub, all the rest. The buy-in was there.

Now Nagy may be finding out what Fox and Dowell Loggains saw in first-year Trubisky, that he just wasn’t overly accurate down the field, and conservative game plans may be required until Trubisky grows to another level, if that happens.

Underlying the Trubisky brouhaha right now is the sentiment that faded for some last year, that the Bears had taken leave of their personnel senses when they traded up to be sure they got Trubisky in the 2017 draft. How strong was that feeling? Trubisky went to a Bulls game not long after the draft and was booed.

Trubisky had an obvious major hand in the Bears winning 12 games last year (“You said you were good…”), although the defense had an exponentially bigger hand in that and in Nagy, an offense-based coach, winning coach of the year honors with an offense ranked in the 20s.

Then Trubisky turns up on the cover of Chicago Magazine with a headline “The Bears Are Back” (“You said you were good…”) and on the story inside, the headline “Mitch Trubisky Grows Up” (“You said you were really good…”).

So when Trubisky bumbles to a combined passer rating of 65.0 through two games and looks to be turning out to be well short of “really good,” the reaction almost predictably has been tinged with that distant whiff of betrayed trust: “…You lied! You’re NOT good!).

Fair or not, Chicago has been through this sort of thing before.

 

Bears Week 3 injury report: Eddie Jackson, Trey Burton limited in practice

Bears Week 3 injury report: Eddie Jackson, Trey Burton limited in practice

The Chicago Bears have a favorable matchup Monday night against the Redskins in a game that could be just what the offense needs to get back on track. Washington will be the worst defense Mitch Trubisky has faced (by far) this season and should present opportunities for big plays in both the passing and running games.

But as is the case every week in the NFL, injuries could play a part in the outcome. And the Bears have a few notable names on their injury report.

The most notable is DL Bilal Nichols, who's expected to miss the game with a broken hand. Trey Burton was limited in practice once again with a groin injury, but he should be good to go Monday night. He returned to action in Week 2 and played 26 of 60 snaps on offense.

Kyle Long (hip), Eddie Jackson (shoulder) and Eddie Goldman (oblique) were also limited Thursday, but none appear at risk of missing the game.

The long week should help the Bears climb closer to full health with the exception of Nichols.