On the hunt: The Bears’ 2019 defense may regress, but they can close better
By Robert Zeglinski
A perfect storm is an event brought about by a series of seemingly random occurrences, happen stance, and sometimes an all-important final mix of hard work and talent. First officially coined in 1718, a perfect storm is an analogy used in not only literature, but popular culture. A perfect storm doesn’t have to be negative, it only has to possess a rare mix of what look like unpredictable circumstances in hindsight.
For the first time in years, a perfect storm – the most serendipitous turn of events – hit the 2018 Bears defense.
It was difficult to find much issue with what the Bears defense was able to accomplish last season. Everywhere you looked their resume was polished and well-kept. If they were to go in for a dream job interview based on the final four months of 2018, it’d be a shock if they didn’t walk out with a vibrant career path.
For most of the regular year Chicago was Football Outsiders’ No. 1 overall defense. The Bears led the NFL in takeaways with 36 and had the most points off takeaways with five defensive touchdowns contributing to that lofty figure. They were the league’s fourth-best third down defense allowing a mere 34.91 percent conversion rate to opponents, and allowed the second-least amount of explosive rushing plays and least amount of explosive passing plays. In terms of a defense that actively tilted the field against the grain of a largely offensively driven league, no one was better than the Bears. On the whole, the Bears had the fourth-best defense in accordance with adjusted net yards per pass attempt in the last 11 seasons. That they were only second to the Super Bowl champion Steelers (2008) and Seahawks (2013), and NFC champion Panthers (2015) speaks volumes.
On the surface, you’d be forgiven if you expect a traditionally special Bears defense with seemingly minimal room to improve to regress next year. The Bears have a new defensive coordinator in Chuck Pagano with the curt Vic Fangio the new lead man in Denver. They had tremendous luck with injuries and in regards to turnovers as each of the last five NFL teams to lead the league in takeaways experienced a precipitous drop off the following year.
You might wonder how a defense like the Bears that routinely stifled most respective offenses could actually stand to take a step forward. On an independent level, you could consider that injury and turnover regression will be too much to overcome for anyone, which is sensible. It’s far easier to sustain terrific offensive play from year to year based on factors of continuity and elite quarterback play, than it is on defense inherently because of how a successful defense often thrives. If it took the Bears four years to build an elite level of play under Fangio, they could fall off just as quickly due to matters out of their control.
As talented and deep as the Bears are on defense, luck plays a factor. Unfortunately, luck doesn’t always carry on from season to season.
Upon further review, putting a ceiling on where this Bears defense can go under fresh leadership next season would be shortsighted. Where Khalil Mack, Akiem Hicks, and Eddie Jackson among others might see the flashy team statistics take a dip, their situational awareness at the end of games together should take on a hearty life of its own.
One of the biggest faults of the Bears’ defense during the Fangio era was how they managed, or rather, failed to effectively close games. As consistent and capable as they were altogether, second half scoring was a rampant issue for the defensive guru’s unit throughout most of his tenure.
In 2015, the Bears allowed 10.8 points per second half: 14th in the NFL. In 2016, the Bears allowed 12.9 points per second half: 25th in the NFL. In 2017, the Bears led the NFL and allowed the least amount of points in second halves at just 8.1 points a game. In 2018, with an All-Pro game-wrecker like Mack in the fold and the ascendance of several promising players on defense, the Bears curiously dropped off to 16th in the NFL in second half scoring defense at 11.4 points allowed per game.
For a defense that led the league in scoring defense at 17.7 points allowed per game that fact matters. For a defense to get most of it’s production in the early parts of contests and then almost completely fade down the stretch is a glaring oversight. The Bears’ second half defense was rescued by now trademark Jackson pick-sixes against the Vikings and Lions, but it capitulated in eventual crushing losses to the Packers, Dolphins, and Giants. Each a poor defeat any contender or good team can have over the course of a grueling season, but particularly ended up costing the Bears what ended up being a first-round NFC playoff bye.
Now condense the second half and take it quarter by quarter. The Bears had the league’s 21st-worst fourth quarter scoring defense, averaging an allowance of 7.1 points in the final stanza of games. In the losses to Green Bay and Miami, the Bears gave up 21 and 18 (plus overtime points in the fourth quarter, respectively. A little over a touchdown doesn’t sound like a lot, but it stands out when it’s almost half of what you allow over the course of entire games and when it happens in crunch time.
This isn’t to say the Bears great defense didn’t have the ability to close. They did. You don’t have the fourth-best overall NFL defense in over a decade if you can’t finish games. You don’t win the the NFC North for the first time since 2010 if your defense can’t humiliate quarterbacks. It’s more that Pagano’s players have the capacity to develop more of a collective killer instinct Fangio’s best Bears defense rarely had. Fangio’s perfect storm just so happened to leave out fading down the last 30 minutes of games. It gives the Bears a target to focus on. As good as they were in Fangio’s last year in Chicago, they have a place to strive for better.
If you don’t think Pagano and his ensemble cast of superstars knows they can learn to close games at a more efficient and palatable rate, you’re not paying attention. The perfect storm may have passed. Now it’s time to appropriately deal with the aftermath.
“Our vision for this defense is to be the best,” said Pagano at his introductory Bears press conference in January.
“Can we be the best in the history of the game? The pieces are there and they’ll continue to add pieces. Can we continue to be better than we were last year? Absolutely.”
Robert is an editor, writer, and producer. Follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.