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Community Sports

3 questions Bears defense must answer to build on 2018

Personnel largely unchanged, but matching last year's production a tall order

Chicago Bears inside linebacker Roquan Smith (58) sacks San Francisco 49ers quarterback Nick Mullens (4) in a game last December at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. Smith, the Bears top pick last year, is poised for a huge jump from his Pro Bowl alternate debut campaign after the benefit of an entire training camp this year.
Chicago Bears inside linebacker Roquan Smith (58) sacks San Francisco 49ers quarterback Nick Mullens (4) in a game last December at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. Smith, the Bears top pick last year, is poised for a huge jump from his Pro Bowl alternate debut campaign after the benefit of an entire training camp this year.

It’s been uttered almost as a matter-of-fact both locally and nationally since even before coordinator Vic Fangio’s departure for Denver that the Bears are destined to decline defensively this season.

Sure, words such as decline and regress and weaken have an inherently negative meaning, but less so in this necessary context: The Bears’ defense was so spectacular in 2018 that even with its supposed slide, it realistically could still be the NFL’s best again this season.

Only one defense in football over the past three-plus decades – the 2000 Baltimore Ravens, which, by the way, won Super Bowl XXXV – recorded a higher DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) than last year’s Bears, according to Football Outsiders.

Fewest points, rushing yards and total yards a play allowed, and easily the most takeaways generated, name only a few of the key categories in which they paced football.

Now, the Bears return 10 of 12 starters, the top reserve at every position and replaced Fangio with similarly revered Chuck Pagano.

Doom and gloom, hardly, but it isn’t without questions, either.

1 Adrian Amos is the only full-time starter to leave, but Jay Rodgers (D-line) is the only full-time position coach to stay – how will the Bears reconcile the disparity?

Yes, Bryce Callahan, who joined Fangio’s Broncos, also could have been listed as a starter, considering the Bears spent about 70 percent of their total defensive snaps in nickel; and new safeties coach Sean Desai had been a quality control coach since Marc Trestman’s first year.

But the point remains: the Bears “D” has enviable personnel continuity and almost no coaching carryover.

That’s why Pagano, in addition to sharing a lot of schematic philosophies with Fangio, changed the playbook as little as possible to ease the transition.

“It’s our job to put them in the best position to be successful,” Pagano recently said. “If we slow them down and they’re out there thinking and they can’t play fast, then that’s on me. … We’ve got too good [of] players to do that.”

Callahan’s replacement, nine-year vet Buster Skrine, was one of the most impressive players in Bourbonnais, and any concern over the Amos-Ha Ha Clinton-Dix swap should be mitigated by the ascent of another summer stud, Deon Bush.

2 Few statistics are more fickle than takeaways and return touchdowns; can Bears “D” maintain its stoutness, if not its playmaking punch?

The 2017 Baltimore Ravens under coordinator Dean Pees led the NFL with 34 takeaways. Last season, their first under Wink Martindale, that number was cut in half – with the total of 17 bested by all but five teams – but Baltimore went from No. 12 to first overall in yards and from sixth to second in points permitted, respectively.

On the other hand, over the past two seasons under the same coordinator, the Jacksonville Jaguars’ takeaways reduced from 33 to 17, but they also allowed an extra 25 yards and a field goal a game, contributing to their fall from No. 1 in DVOA to No. 6.

How can the Bears, at worst, stave off a slump in one area but not the other? Look at their room for internal growth.

From last year’s top pick, Roquan Smith, who’s poised for a huge jump from his Pro Bowl alternate debut campaign after the benefit of an entire training camp, to Bilal Nichols, the former fifth-round Delaware product who showed a knack for splash plays and enters Year 2 as a full-time starter, to Leonard Floyd, from whom everyone and their brother is predicting a true breakout.

“We have a lot of young players that are still getting better,” GM Ryan Pace said last month of what’s still among the NFL’s greener rosters. “A lot of these guys are talented, had success last year but are still improving.”

Lest we forget the addition of Clinton-Dix’s 17 career interceptions, or 13 more than that of his replacement in Amos.

3 Can they stay healthy again?

It’s easy to forget perhaps the Bears’ top two defenders, Eddie Jackson and Khalil Mack, missed a combined five games, with Mack severely limited in two more. Floyd wasn’t himself after breaking his hand in the preseason until the second half of 2018. And of course it was Callahan’s replacement, Sherrick McManis, who was beaten for the game-winning touchdown in the wild-card defeat to the Philadelphia Eagles.

The Bears’ depth in its defensive backfield has been reinforced. There’s obviously no replacing a Khalil Mack, but remember the beacon of dependability started 65 of a possible 65 games to begin his career, rarely leaving the field.

Most assume the Bears can’t possibly stay as healthy as last season, but if their most important players aren’t again beset by injuries, they could be OK.

In addition to much-needed improvements on offense, how the Bears’ defense answers these questions will help determine whether they culminate their centennial season in Miami in February.

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