By Robert Zeglinski
To say the NFL has moved past emphasizing hard-hitting defensive play would be an understatement.
The league, and sport of football itself, has never seen higher scoring or a higher caliber of offensive production spread out this much across the board than this season. Quarterback play and make-up is better than ever. Skill position talents are more athletic and naturally gifted than ever. Offensive play-callers are turning conventional schemes into creative, dynamic blueprints. It’s the recipe for, at times, Arena level Football at the arcade. Passing and offensive efficiency is at an all-time high, and it won’t slow down any time soon.
More glaringly, no NFL defense has had an effective answer to this almost mandated offensive onslaught.
That is, no defense except for the Bears.
After their 15-6 walloping of the explosive Rams on Sunday night, the Bears have proven to be the lone exceptional exception to the offensive wave that’s hit pro football. Where most everyone has crafted their offense around spread schemes and crossing routes galore, the Bears are built on a championship level defense tailor made to combat the chic trends of the NFL. Their performance from Sunday night may as well have been an organizational middle finger to the rest of the league. Effectively a “we’re going to do it this way, it won’t be pretty, and you can’t stop us” declaration from the top of Willis Tower.
The Bears are a defense that left both respective head coaches from Sunday night at a loss for words.
Rams boy wonder Sean McVay called his team’s defeat to the Bears, particularly their astute offensive failures, “very, very humbling.” When you’re held without a touchdown for the first time in 30 games as a coach, all you can do is fall on the sword and grasp for answers. There are undoubted intangible factors most often at play, but not here.
This Bears defense is so good, they made the young genius face of the offensive movement in McVay flustered unlike he’s ever been before.
Meanwhile, offensive guru Matt Nagy recognized that Sunday night wasn’t an offensive show. It was about his elite defense coming to play and set the tone on every snap. Asked to highlight any one performance from a Bears defender, the rookie head coach didn’t mince words as to the special collective effort on display.
“I couldn’t pick one person on defense. It was too good across the board,” said Nagy in the postgame at Soldier Field. “I just think for what Vic (Fangio) symbolizes, our defensive coaching staff, our players, that whole unit. They played on another level last night.”
Another level of a dominant defense that no one in the NFL can touch.
According to Optimum Scouting, the Bears’ ANY/A value, which measures the overall effectiveness of a passing defense from things like sacks and sack yards to pass deflections, is 1,227.3. That’s almost more than double the second-ranked Ravens defense at 669.1. It’d be one thing to say the Bears have the best defense among a group of mediocrity, but that isn’t the case. They have an actual meaningful defense making a true difference against almost an entire league attempting to win with a completely different style of play.
There’s veering away from the crowd, and then there’s completely flipping the script on it’s head. There’s no other NFL defense that can match the Bears’ level of defensive play at the moment, and they transcend above as contenders because of it.
Historically, the Bears’ ANY/A value stacks up to par far better, which is a great sign of Chicago’s upcoming postseason prospects. Since 2004, the 2018 Bears’ projected ANY/A value of 1,227.3 ranks fourth among all the best defenses in the last 14 years. Only the 2015 Panthers, 2013 Seahawks, and 2008 Steelers rank higher than Chicago. Each of those three teams ended up playing in the Super Bowl, with the Seahawks and Steelers eventually capturing the Lombardi trophy.
The main difference between those three teams and the Bears, is that each ended up enjoying home-field advantage in their respective conference’s playoffs en route to February’s big game. The Bears, as it stands based on seeding, are likely to have to play and win at least two road games in Los Angeles and New Orleans if they want to follow suit behind Carolina, Seattle, and Pittsburgh.
Fortunately, in a game now predicated on offense, defense still travels. Where a poor performance from your quarterback or off-rhythm play-calling can sink an offense, a defense only needs to bring it’s cliche hard hat and lunch pail. A great defense, a truly great defense, can go into any stadium and give itself a shot at victory, no matter how ugly of a mugging it ends up being. It’ll be a difficult path for the Bears, but one that doesn’t seem so daunting with how their defense can lock in.
On Sunday, the Bears can win their first NFC North title since 2010 against the Packers. That’s in large part due to how the NFL’s most prolific defense has carved it’s own path towards relevancy. A path that seems more and more clear by the day. What should be frightening for Chicago’s opposition is that if you think this growing all-time Bears defense wants to stop at humbling the Rams, you’re sorely mistaken.
“You kept a high-flying offense out of the end zone,” said NBC’s Michele Tafoya to Akiem Hicks in the postgame Sunday night. Hicks growled like a bear, and responded in kind: “That’s it, that’s all you can say to that. We want more.”
Robert is an editor, writer, and producer. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.