Countdown to Bourbonnais: Mack and defense a constant Bears should count on

By Robert Zeglinski
Contributor

A half year ago, the Bears defense was one of the toasts of the NFL. They brought life to a football-starved city. Starting fast and never losing much steam over the course of four months, the Bears defense was a stark jump away from the new norm: where most of the rest of the league focused on tenets of offensive efficiency to maximize every last blade of grass, the Bears were the black sheep leaning on laurels of disciplined defense. The Bears led the league in takeaways (36) and were first in Football Outsiders’ all-encompassing efficiency metric known as DVOA. They were not the eventually-coronated 1985 Bears, 2000 Ravens, 2008 Steelers, 2013 Seahawks, or 2015 Broncos because they never wore the crown. But they remain one of the most intimidating and overpowering NFL defenses of the last four decades, especially when considering how distinctive their accomplishments were.

It’s easy to forget about how uniquely special the Bears defense was last year when for six months the conversation centers on their ill-fated swipes at kicker and fixing their hole at running back: two of the least important positions in football in the grand scheme of things. It’s easy to make a buzzsaw of a defense an afterthought when the insistence that they don’t have to change much hangs in the air. (You can, after all, put in earplugs.) Which, is a fact: they don’t have to change. What the Bears and their defense were able to uncommonly manifest in 2018 should be what defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano and each of his underlings focuses on maintaining for as long as they can. What they have to do is lose little and keep the ship sailing smoothly.

The question of how much the Bears defense can maintain the integrity of their defensive ship while letting every other aspect of the team grow up is the primary question that should loom over training camp in Bourbonnais a month from now. It’s the question that should either bring the tightest of knots to their stomachs, or inspire beautiful butterflies to rise to the occasion.

Key players

Khalil Mack: The reigning First-Team All-Pro and 2018 Defensive Player of the Year runner-up is the face of the Bears. A trade for the superstar last summer awakened a doormat. There’s nothing for Mack to improve upon. His penchant for breaking the will of offensive tackles and putting his teammates on his back is the one variable the Bears can always count on. Playing highlights of Mack’s first season in Chicago while the Raiders used the first-round pick they acquired from the Bears encapsulates an infatuation the entire organization has with the 28-year-old.

Eddie Jackson: A free-wheeling mercenary of a safety the Bears have been seeking for most of this century, Jackson’s rise has served as one of the catalysts for their Renaissance. He’s on the fast track toward not only becoming the best safety the Bears have ever had, but the best safety in the NFL. The catch-22 is whether he can play in January this time around.

Roquan Smith: As a rookie, Smith accrued 121 tackles: second-most in Bears history only to Brian Urlacher. You may have heard of the latter or at least seen dozens of his hair restoration billboards while driving around Chicago. Despite a reasonable contract dispute that kept Smith out for all of training camp and despite not receiving his first start until Week 2 of the 2018 season, the “Montezuma Missile” lived up to the hype. In accordance with a heavy-handed prophecy, another small progression in Smith’s game will have him take over the star-studded Bears defense as his own. It’ll also have his name embroidered firmly alongside legendary Bears linebackers.

Money quote: “I’ve always thought of myself as the best defensive player in the league and I want to play like the best defensive player in the league,” – Khalil Mack on his ambitions.

Rebels without a cause

The Bears for the time being embody zagging while everyone else zigs. They are the defensive rebel most around the league are probably confounded still exists given heavy investments into the offensive revolution. The results of those investments don’t lie.

The NFL’s four top offenses by most metrics last year in the Saints, Chiefs, Patriots, and Rams were the four teams to reach Championship Sunday. The only team of the top four defenses to even see the playoffs was the Bears. 2018 saw the second-most points ever scored in a 16-game NFL season, with an average of 23.1 points scored per contest. Offenses averaged over 350 yards a game in 2018, with 2015 (352.7) acting as the only time any offense has ever averaged more. To top it off, a median of 5.6 yards a play—the epitome of efficiency—is the most the NFL has ever seen in its century of play.

Well over 300 yards of offense in any game was once a mythical bar only juggernauts could dream of. They were “Madden” numbers, only attainable in virtual contexts. Now, well over 300 yards is a mediocre baseline standard. Something that is inherently expected out of everyone and inspires disappointment when it doesn’t arrive. Three yards and a cloud of dust, as Woody Hayes and his stubborn reincarnated form in John Fox would attest to, is no longer acceptable by modern parameters.

For the Bears to enjoy one of the most nuanced defensive seasons in recent memory despite every conceivable obstacle stacked against them speaks volumes as to where they stand. It’s also what their focus should continue to be. As much as Matt Nagy may consider himself an offensive guru, the Bears are a defensive team. As much as they may be in the process of ideally turning Mitchell Trubisky into a lynchpin of their success, the Bears are, conspicuously, a defensive team. Their foundation rests on some of the game’s premier defensive talents – led by the likely future Hall of Famer in Mack – and it’s this steady variable that should comfort them, not dissuade.

What the Bears actively have on defense is rare. Given the way the NFL machine continues to shift with a largesse toward offensive play, it won’t last. It’s on them to make sure they wring out every last drop they can.

Battling regression 

One of the benefits behind the football analytics movement is in the use of statistics to predict future performance. It shouldn’t have to be stated, but yes, simple math based on basic trends combined with the realities of the fragile human body, can make evaluating a quality NFL roster far easier. No longer do coaches and general managers have to solely rely on the merits of the “eye test” – professional sports’ most common crutch to do less work. Analytics through its player tracking, personnel-defining, and play-polishing acts as the preeminent tool for preparing for the future. It’s unparalleled means for being ready for the terrifying and exciting mystery of regression and ascendance at the same time.

It’s the former principle of regression that’s been discussed most often with the Bears and their defense this off-season. What the Bears were able to accomplish last year is seen as unsustainable. On the whole, each of the NFL’s last four leaders in takeaways dropped off at least 25 percent in takeaway production the ensuing year. If the Bears follow this familiar trend based on surprise, that could mean one less magical Jackson pick-six. It could mean one less dispiriting Mack strip sack. A few less game-changing turnovers is a few less wins.

Injuries are the more troubling aspect to consider when it comes to this Bears defense. According to Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Games Lost Metric – which takes into account games lost to injury and when players who show up on injury reports still play – the Bears lost roughly 15.9 games on their defense in 2018, fourth in the league. Injuries play a clear factor in any team’s success in any sport. Given the grueling nature and length of most football seasons and the game itself, the last team standing is the team that won a war of attrition, not a healthy head-to-head. Even still and even with an upgraded strength and conditioning staff, the likelihood that the Bears lose less than 16 games to their defense in 2019 is minimal. Football is too violent of a game to see all 11 members, plus depth, enjoy the same injury fortune from year to year. It’d be a jarring statistical anomaly if it weren’t true.

Where the Bears can cross their fingers is that the inevitable serious injuries they end up suffering have better timing. Last year, late-season respective leg and groin injuries to Jackson and Trey Burton deflated a lot of what the Bears did well on both sides of the ball. It’s not about staying healthy for the long haul, though that helps. It’s about being as healthy as possible once the weather turns and the Soldier Field turf is more unusable than usual.

Confidence with a capital C

The chief quality of the Bears defense shouldn’t be viewed in binary terms. It’s the talent they have at their disposal, with depth and stars at all three levels. It’s not the coaching and experience on their side, with Pagano at the helm and a bunch of veterans that have been there and done that.

What makes the Bears defense distinguished, what allows it to survive in a football ecosystem that no longer wants it alive and kicking, is an intangible confidence. Every member of the Bears defense believes they’re either at the individual top of their profession, like Mack, or soon will be, like Jackson and Smith (though they’ll never say it). Every member of this defense, from role players to field-tilters, believes that when they come together no offense stands a chance. It’s that faith, that damned blind faith in the operation that sets them apart and reassures them they won’t fall off a cliff. No matter what anyone says to the contrary.

As they gear up for what’s shaping up to be one of the steepest roller coaster seasons in franchise history, this Bears defense isn’t going to shy away from criticism and doubt. Having them be a respective afterthought is what they need to get the crown they think they deserve.

“The level of expectation has been raised,” Danny Trevathan said at the Bears100 anniversary convention. “Let’s not care about what anybody thinks about us or what they say about us. Let’s just be that cocky group that wants to be the best defense ever to do this.”

Robert is a writer and editor. Follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski. 

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