The Chicago Bears are off in Week six meaning it’s time for a bye week breakdown. Their 3-2 record is the same as it was through as many games last season but they are tied for third in the division. The defense has been just as ferocious as last year’s iteration but the offense has regressed. Of course, it isn’t as simple as defense good, offense bad.
So over the next week, this space will be used to assess the performance of each position group so far. First up is the defense. Long the calling-card of the Bears as a franchise, they have once again been tasked with carrying an underwhelming offense. But even one of the strongest units in the NFL has its flaws.
Chicago Bears Bye Week Breakdown: Defense
It all starts up front and the Bears defensive line is among the best in the NFL. Week 5’s gashing at the hands of the Oakland Raiders notwithstanding, the Bears have allowed 61.5 rushing yards per game. Football Outsiders has the Bears line ranked as the sixth-best unit in yards allowed to the opposing offensive line and third in yards by running backs.
They don’t just shut down the run either. Credited as the third-best pass-rushing unit, they have seven of the team’s 17 sacks this season. Led by Akiem Hicks and the steady Eddie Goldman, they currently sport the seventh-best pass-rush win rate in the NFL, per ESPN. Roy Robertson-Harris and Nick Williams have been great role players against both the run and pass.
Hicks is currently dealing with an elbow injury that will likely have him out for some time. Williams and Abdullah Anderson will have to hold down the fort in the meantime. Luckily, Bilal Nichols is expected to return to the lineup soon. The team has depth at the position, but the loss of Hicks was noticeable against the Raiders. It also showed a blueprint to get around this defense.
The Raiders smash-mouth approach was much more effective after Hicks went down. Per Sports Mockery’s Erik Lambert, their average per run went from 2.6 with Hicks in the game to 5.23 with him out. They also made sure to pay *special* attention to Goldman. Video has emerged of them using illegal chop blocks on the big run-plugger.
A reminder: Both Mack and Leonard Floyd are listed as linebackers. Most will obviously refer to them as pass-rushers. Whatever the label, it oversimplifies what they are asked to do. Both players can be tasked with setting the edge against the run, dropping into coverage, or the traditional chasing the quarterback.
Mack is second in the NFL in ESPN’s Pass-Rush Win Rate metric. He has 4.5 sacks, four forced fumbles, and one recovery. Floyd has not developed into the sack machine (two in 2019) fans probably envisioned when he was drafted ninth overall in 2016. But he has grown into a competent all-around player who does seem to always be around the ball.
The inside backers deserve a ton of love as well. Danny Trevathan is third in the NFL in solo tackles and 10th in combined tackles. Roquan Smith dealt with a personal issue that kept him out of the Bears Week 4 win. He is currently fourth on the team in solo tackles, a stat he led them in last year. Whether or not that caused his poor showing in London is a mystery.
The backups are a mixed bag. Nick Kwiatkoski played well in Smith’s stead in Week 4. So much so that many were pondering out loud why he wasn’t put in as Smith was struggling versus Oakland. Aaron Lynch has a sack but the backup trio of he, Isaiah Irving and Kevin Pierre-Louis (who committed a backbreaking penalty against the Raiders) have 12 total tackles between them.
The unit that experienced the most turnover has maintained solid if unspectacular play over the first five weeks. Perhaps no group was more positively affected by Chuck Pagano’s arrival than them. He along secondary coach Deshea Townsend has a secondary allowing the sixth-fewest passing yards per game and third in yards per completion.
At corner, Kyle Fuller tied for the NFL lead in interceptions in 2018, has been to a Pro Bowl and named an All-Pro but he has gotten off to a mixed start. He has been beaten by double-moves a few times and missed some tackles. Pro Football Focus has given him a grade of 62.1, below average. His less-heralded teammate, Prince Amukamara, has graded better (69.6) but is allowing 75 percent completion.
Safety Eddie Jackson is in the conversation for the best in the league. The Pro Bowl and All-Pro defender has yet to force a takeaway (he has recovered a fumble) but is fifth on the team in tackles. His safety mate, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, has come over from the Green Bay Packers (via the Washington Redskins) to aptly replace the reliable Adrian Amos. Clinton-Dix is third on the team in tackles, has two of the team’s four interceptions, and recovered a fumble.
Buster Skrine was nearly the hero in London. He appeared to recover a fumble (which was overturned) on the fateful faked punt that extended the Raiders drive and led to the game-winning touchdown. He has been just as feisty as his predecessor, Bryce Callahan, and has only been penalized once this season. That latter point is far from his reputation coming in.
Pagano came in as the biggest question mark on the defense. He was dealing with history and with turnover at key positions. The numbers suggested the Bears turnovers would drop off dropping their level just enough to sink the team. They are currently tied for third in the league with 10 takeaways.
A lot of the credit obviously has to go to the players for not letting their success (or the offense’s lack thereof) get to them. But the biggest thing working in Pagano’s favor was his ability to relate to players. Having only one year of success as a coordinator, that had to play a major role in guys buying into his message.
Not only has Pagano gotten good results out of his studs on defense. In the wake of numerous injuries, he has gotten solid play from Kwiatkoski at linebacker and Williams on the line. The turn arounds from Clinton-Dix and Skrine are also, at least in part, due to Pagano putting guys in position to succeed.
It hasn’t all been good, though. The Bears are seventh with 43 penalties this season and the defense has accounted for 23 of those. There have been drives this season where the defense has walked the opposing team down the field with calls. They are averaging 8.6 calls per game for 71.5 yards per game.
The specialists (kicker and punter) have been rock-solid. Eddy Pineiro has battled a leg injury the past couple of weeks but has hit eight of nine field goals and all nine of his extra-point attempts. It is a welcome sight in Chicago after the well-documented struggles of Cody Parkey (who recently signed with the Tennessee Titans) last season.
Pat O’Donnell is seventh in net yards and 15th in net average. He is a more of a directional punter than a guy with a booming leg. He has allowed 12 returns (tied for 4th) but has allowed the second-fewest return yards on his punts. Now, much of that is to the credit of the coverage unit, but O’Donnell still has to not outkick the coverage.
Neither returner has been anything special this season. It has actually been an issue for the Bears for some time. The Bears have the fourth-highest kick return average and the highest punt return average. But they are tied for 21st in kick returns, tied for 11th in punt returns, tied for third in fair catches on punt returns, and are 14th in average starting field position.
The coverage units have allowed opponents to start at about the 28.5-yard line. That has the Bears ranked 19th. The unit is heavy on linebackers so it would be nice to see them force opponents into longer fields. Also, this is as good of a time as any to rehash how awful Pierre-Louis’s penalty was on that fake punt.
This is a championship-caliber unit that has carried a putrid offense this season. The grade belies the talent here. They haven’t had the interceptions but are forcing plenty of fumbles and getting to the quarterback. Hopefully, the bye allows for them to get some reinforcements along the line (Nichols) and Smith gets back to his 2018 form.
There might be more carrying of the offense to do. But it won’t matter if the defense can’t get its tackling act together and cuts down on the penalties. The only thing worse than the sheer number of calls is the timing of them. The good news is that part is correctable. And can even be boosted if the offense gets it in gear.
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