Bears defense looking for 'mindset,' 'doing a little bit more' as 2016 ebbs

Bears defense looking for 'mindset,' 'doing a little bit more' as 2016 ebbs

Linebacker and leading tackler Jerrell Freeman was answering the by now-weekly question on possible explanations for why the Bears have been unable to generate the hallmark of great defenses: takeaways. In the process he arguably hit upon a crack that has developed in the Bears defense after what had looked to be establishing itself among the NFL’s better units.

“It’s a mindset,” Freeman said. “Being conscious of it, trying to get to the ball, making tackles. Just doing a little bit more.”

“Mindset.” “Doing a little bit more.” Keys to what the defense has lost in the closing days of 2016?

For a defense that looked to be steadily if incrementally improving amid the collective carnage of the 2016 season, the past couple weeks have been jolts. And a something of a mystery.

Picking themselves up after the blowout at Green Bay, and even including the interception-fueled crushing in Tampa Bay, the Bears allowed an average of fewer than 300 yards and barely 20 points per game over the six-game streak beginning with the Oct. 31 win over Minnesota. They’d moved into the top 10 in yardage allowed and sacks.

Then came 400-yard games against Green Bay and Washington with 30 and 41 points allowed. Intensity appeared to be flagging, evidenced by poor tackling and increasing big plays given up, both casual indicators of faltering want-to.

But the results, paralleled by a catastrophic continuing inability to jar footballs loose from the hands of opposing offenses, defy simple solutions.

[MORE BEARS: Evaluating John Fox's Bears based on Redskins game]

“I know defensive-wise we’ve been healthy,” said Freeman. “Through training camp on in, we’re a pretty good force. We get guys hurt and guys coming in you’ve got to bring them up to speed.

“That’s no excuse. Like I said before, when guys come in we expect them to come in and be a professional and do what they need to do to come and play. And we’ve had that through most of the year and then past two games, it’s just like, man, we’re not a team that gives up big plays, but last couple of weeks we’ve given up some big plays. And then offensive-wise, we’ve got a lot of weapons over there. Again, injuries and unfortunately, but that’s the NFL. You gotta deal with changes. That’s what the NFL is all about. Just got to go out there and prepare.”

Why Tom Waddle believes Nick Foles will be Bears' QB1, not Mitch Trubisky

Why Tom Waddle believes Nick Foles will be Bears' QB1, not Mitch Trubisky

The central issue surrounding the Bears heading into the upcoming season concerns the starting quarterback situation, and that previous statement could apply to many more seasons than just 2020. Longtime ESPN 1000 host Tom Waddle is no stranger to QB drama, as the former Bears receiver has been a leading voice in analyzing the team for over a decade on the station’s highly-successful “Waddle & Silvy” show. When the Bears made their move to trade for Nick Foles in March, Waddle’s immediate reaction was a strong one, as he recounted to Laurence Holmes on the Under Center podcast.

“You don’t trade a fourth-round pick and give up $20 million guaranteed to a quarterback and sit him behind a QB that you don’t have full faith in,” Waddle explained. “I immediately thought this is going to be their starting quarterback. I think the familiarity that Nick Foles has with John DeFilippo and Bill Lazor and Juan Castillo and obviously Matt Nagy, I think you put that all together and you couple the familiarity with the uncertainty that is in the mind of the head coach about what the existing quarterback is capable of doing, and to me, it all added up to they got a guy that they trust and a guy that they see as their starter from Day 1.”

That doesn’t mean Foles will be an automatic savior. Of course, he led the Eagles to a Super Bowl title with a brilliant string of play in January and February of 2018, eventually outdueling Tom Brady to win the title in a shootout. But Foles has started more than eight games in a season just twice in his eight-year pro career, the last coming in 2015 with the then-St. Louis Rams.

RELATED: 2020 Bears Roster Review: Breaking down the Mitch Trubisky-Nick Foles battle

However, the fact that the Bears were aggressive in identifying Foles and then trading with Jacksonville speaks volumes about how they feel about him and it’s that conviction that truly sells Waddle on Foles being the starter. “If you were just looking for somebody to compete with Mitch, you could have waited out the Bengals, who were more likely to release Andy Dalton,” hypothesized the former Boston College Eagle. “You could have signed Case Keenum, but I don’t think the Jags were releasing Nick Foles at any point because of the contractual obligation they had to him. They had to go get him and once they went and got Nick Foles, that was the surest sign of all, in my world, that Nick’s got the edge.”

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Khalil Mack didn't rank as high as you might think on PFF's top 50 players

Khalil Mack didn't rank as high as you might think on PFF's top 50 players

Chicago Bears edge rusher Khalil Mack didn't have the kind of season fans were expecting in 2019, but to be fair, Chicago's entire defense went through a bit of regression last year. Mack ended 2019 with just 8.5 sacks. It was the first season that he failed to crack double-digit sacks since his rookie year (2014).

Still, there's no denying Mack's place among the NFL's elite players, regardless of position. Barring injury, he's a surefire Hall-of-Famer and certainly one of the 10-best players in the league.

According to Pro Football Focus, that may not be the case.

In PFF's ranking of the NFL's top 50 players, Mack ranks 18th.

Pro Football Focus is counting down their top 50 on Twitter, and so far the following players have been ranked higher than Mack:

17: Bobby Wagner
16: Chris Jones
15: Fletcher Cox
14: Richard Sherman
13: J.J. Watt
12: Stephon Gilmore
11: Drew Brees

All of those names are worthy of being ranked in this range, especially following a 2019 campaign that brought Mack back to the pack. 

2020 should produce different results for Mack and the Bears after adding Robert Quinn in free agency. The healthy return of Akiem Hicks will be a huge plus, too, giving Mack some much-needed help along the Bears' front-seven.

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