Something is happening in the Windy City.
A majority of the stories that have come out of Chicago in the last couple of years have focussed on how Jay Cutler was to blame for everything from the 3-13 record in 2016 to the Great Fire in 1871, the amount of money paid to bring clipboard carrier Mike Glennon on board and the draft picks sacrificed in order to move up one spot to get Mitchell Trubisky. While those topics hogged the limelight, Bears DC Vic Fangio has patiently been building the next version of the ‘Monsters of the Midway’. And in the last couple of weeks, that defense has finally arrived.
Back to back stand out performances underline Ryan Pace/ Vic Fangio’s successful rebuild since 2015
In consecutive games against Baltimore and Carolina, the Bears defense scored three touchdowns, recorded eight sacks, six turnovers and – possibly the most important defensive stat – held the opposition on third down, allowing only nine first downs from 33 attempts. That’s a 72% success rate on third down.
Fangio has built the unit over the last three years into one of the leagues most solid units – and that’s always going to be appreciated in a town with a rich tradition of defensive play. In the first season of head coach John Fox’s tenure in 2015, Fangio got a good look and began his transformation of the Bears from a base 4-3 to a 3-4 defense. A move which was initially received with a healthy amount of disdain… how dare he change the Bears, who have been a 4-3 team since the dawn of 4-3 defenses (in fact, the Bears invented the 4-3 when Bill George stopped lining up over the center, dropped off a couple of steps and stood up in order to disrupt the passing game better). But he did, and it meant a lot of turnover.
The first big name victim of Fangio’s conversion was DE Jared Allen, who in the twilight of his career would struggle at OLB. Whilst Allen was shipped out to Carolina, fellow DE Willie Young gradually learnt to play out of a two-point stance and has crafted a role as a situational pass rusher, recording 16 sacks since 2015 (until a season ending triceps injury this year). The interior guys went through an overhaul, as the Bears brought in rookie Eddie Goldman and ex-Bronco Mitch Unrein. Baltimore Raven Pernell McPhee was the big splash in free agency, and locked down one OLB position.
The defense was still patchy in 2015, often giving up big plays and too easy to run on as players settled into the new system. There were still a few round pegs in square holes too, and Bears GM Ryan Pace set out to remedy that in the 2016 draft and free agency.
Pace’s haul of defensive talent in 2016
In came Georgia Bulldog Leonard Floyd – a rangy pass rusher in the mould of Aldon Smith, a sure tackling (if unspectacular) Safety in Adrian Amos, Super Bowl 50 champion Danny Trevathan and Indianapolis Colts escapee Jerrell Freeman. man-mountain Akiem Hicks was signed and young draftees Jonathon Bullard, Deondre Hall, Nick Kwitkowski and Cra’von LeBlanc were added for depth.
The 2016 defense was a lot stouter against the run – and showed flashes against the pass too, but was susceptible to the big play once again. The young defensive backs were clearly the weakest part of Fangio’s unit as the emphasis had been on building from the front backwards. There were bright spots though – Floyd contributed 7 sacks, a safety, a forced fumble and a touchdown. The play of Akiem Hicks was a nice surprise as the Bears had a genuinely disruptive force on the defensive line to team with Eddie Goldman. Trevathan was playing at a high level until a knee injury derailed his season, and his partner on the inside, Jerrell Freeman ranked as the best overall linebacker in the NFL in 2016 (according to PFF).
Offense reigned supreme in Pace’s 2017 Draft class
Those young DB’s needed attention and many expected the Bears to select a play maker in the secondary at no.3 (Malik Hooker, Jamal Adams and Marshon Lattimore were all hot prospects). Pace instead looked towards Trubisky. In round two, he again ignored the glaring need and selected TE Adam Shaheen. It wasn’t until the fourth round where Pace had Alabama safety Eddie Jackson fall into his lap. For Pace and the Bears though, they had a cut price playmaker who was also a dangerous return man. And the bears have a recent, decent history of fourth round DB picks that can return kicks… (see: Devin Hester).
The early season heroics of Tarik Cohen and quarterback controversy took the media attention away from the Bears defensive unit. A solid (if unspectacular) start against Atlanta was followed by a big defeat on the road in Tampa – with the offense (by that I mean Mike Glennon) and an awful decision to field a punt from Cohen soon saw the Bears down by multiple scores. Pittsburgh were next, and the first ‘W’ of the season as Chicago held Le’Veon Bell to 61 yards and the explosive Steelers offense to 17 points.
The Packers on a Thursday night would give the Bears their sternest test yet. In a strange game that included an hour long delay due to a storm, Glennon once again proved to be the opposition MVP with turnovers that gave the Packers great field position, and Rodgers duly tossed four touchdown passes as the Bears leaked 35 points. At this point nobody was paying much attention and only the most die-hard of Chicagoans may have noticed the improvement in play of the latest instalment of the Monsters of the Midway.
How has the 2017 defense fared?
After getting beaten by the ‘Bays’ (Tampa and Green) and conceding a hefty 64 points, it would be easy to tag the 2017 Bears as no better than any since 2012 – the final year of the Briggs/Urlacher/Tillman/Peppers defenses. But the offensive and special teams units combined with turnovers consistently left the Bears defense in a hole. With an 11 day lay-off John Fox took the decision that just about every Bear fan had urged him to take all season – Glennon and the turnovers were done; Mitchell Trubisky was getting the nod.
And on that Monday night against Minnesota, the Bears looked like a different team. With Trubisky, they didn’t set the world alight offensively, but they didn’t commit any turnovers until late in the game staying competitive. They looked like three units working together. The defense roared into life and recorded four sacks and a safety. Although they lost the game in the last few minutes, Chicago looked an all together better football team. Something to build on. And they really started to build on those foundations the next week in Baltimore.
Behind a ball control offense and the running of Jordan Howard, the Bears gained their second victory of the year. The defense was outstanding. Three sacks, two interceptions – one for Amos, his career first, that he took 90 yards for the score, and the the Ravens offense was kept out of the end zone all day. Cornerback Kyle Fuller was exceptional with a hand – literally – in both interceptions, and he shut down one side of the field.
Then last week, the same type of performance against Carolina – five sacks, two interceptions and rookie Safety Eddie Jackson scoring two defensive touchdowns on a 75 yard fumble return and a 75 yard interception return. The first player ever to do that from that distance in one game. Ever. In the history of the league.
I think that we can safely assume that Jackson is over his leg injury of 2016 (which incidentally came exactly a year before his record setting day – October 22). He was also NFC defensive player of the week. Not bad, rook… not bad. Reserve LB Christian Jones was everywhere. Akiem Hicks was Akiem Hicks.
Outlook for the rest of 2017
Going into week 8, the Bears face a hot team in New Orleans, with one of the leagues better offenses and an all time great QB. It will be interesting to watch this one – is this Bears defense really ready to make that jump into the leagues elite category? Will they be able to keep an offense out of the end zone again? They currently have gone nine quarters without being breached by an offense. They haven’t allowed a 100 yard rusher all season, and only one 300 yard passer (Matt Ryan, week 1).
The Bears second half schedule gets easier (on paper) too – there’s the Rodgers-less Packers, the 49ers, Bengals and Browns too. Division games against the Lions (twice) and finishing up against Minnesota on New years Eve. It probably won’t happen. But if it did, it would be great fun to see this defense in the snow at Soldier Field in the playoffs.
I’m not saying that the Bears will ride this D all the way to the Superbowl like they did back in 1985. I’m not even saying that this is the best defense in the league, or NFC even… but what I am saying is that there is a very talented, very young (eight starters aged 27 or under), very deep defensive unit that has found a way to stop the run, rush the passer, take the ball away and now has started to score it’s own points too.
Something is happening in the Windy City. The Bears are waking up… and not before time.
Follow Marc White on Twitter at @MarcWhite5.