One of the biggest reasons Bears pundits believe the team’s defense can play at an elite level again in 2021 is the impending return of Eddie Goldman to the middle of the defensive line. At the nose tackle position, he eats up blocks, can move the pocket to generate pressure on the quarterback, and generally makes everyone else’s job easier. But it’s looking increasingly likely that Goldman’s return to the field will be delayed at least a week.
Goldman did not practice all week with a knee injury as the team prepares to take on the Rams and is officially listed as “doubtful” for Sunday night’s game. Nagy said that as of Friday afternoon it was doubtful whether or not Goldman would even make the trip out to Los Angeles with the team. If that is the case, then the team will have to turn to some combination of Bilal Nichols, who filled in for Goldman at nose last season, and seventh-round draft pick Khyiris Tonga.
Either way, Matt Nagy and the Bears aren’t sweating it.
“Probably of all positions on our team that's (a position where) we've got a lot of depth at right now,” Nagy said. “So we'll see the next two days, but I feel good with what (defensive line coach) Coach Rumph has done with those guys, and the other guys will have to step up if that's the case.”
“There ain’t a doubt in my mind there won’t be a dropoff,” said Khalil Mack. “But at the same time, it’d be great to have Eddie in there.”
There’s good reason for the Bears to have faith in players like Nichols, since he played admirably filling in for Goldman last season. Replacing a player of Goldman’s caliber is no small task, yet Nichols more than got the job done when he lined up at nose tackle.
“Just whatever I got to do to help us win,” Nichols said. “If that’s going in there and playing inside, then I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do. To me, it really doesn’t matter, as long as I’m out there giving everything I’ve got to give us a chance to win.
“The good thing about playing on the D-line here is that all of us train for all positions. Just in case anything ever happens, we have versatility.”
If Tonga sees some action in his first NFL game too, the Bears have faith in the rookie, too, partly because he doesn’t act like a rookie.
“Very mature guy,” said Nichols. “You wouldn’t think that he was a rookie. You would think that he’s been in the league for a couple years the way he carries himself. And another thing I noticed about him is he works hard. He wants to be great. He comes in everyday with the intent to get better and better, always asking questions, always looking for a way to get better and, you know, player to player, you respect that. Those are the type of guys you love to go to war with because you know he’s going to give it everything he’s got.”
“I’m really happy and pleased with where he is right now and his growth,” said Rumph last month. “Funny story, he told me the other day, he was getting frustrated, so I showed him some stuff from the beginning, how it started and where it ended, from OTAs. Well, he did it recently and went back and watched his first few practices and he’s like, ‘Coach, I don’t know how you put up with me, man. I was awful.’ So it’s just really impressive to see his growth.”
The Rams were top-10 in the league in both rushing attempts and rushing yards last season, and even with gunslinger Matthew Stafford now under center that dedication to the run shouldn’t change drastically this year, so limiting their production on the ground will be paramount to limiting their offense as a whole. Given that the Rams primarily run outside zone schemes, the defensive line and linebackers will have to be in sync even more than usual to prevent Darrell Henderson and Sony Michel from gashing the defense.
Taking on the Rams’ dynamic offense, in prime time, with fans allowed inside SoFi Stadium for the first time is a tough test, and possibly playing without Goldman will make it tougher. But the Bears are up for the challenge.