Bears coach Matt Eberflus must deliver strong defense regardless of personnel

From the day the Bears introduced him as the 17th head coach in franchise history, Matt Eberflus has been talking about holding players to standards. The whole basis of his H.I.T.S. philosophy is using it as quality control to make sure everyone on the field is meeting the expectation every moment.

But what about Eberflus?

There’s no H.I.T.S. application for a coach, but he will no doubt be under evaluation as soon as the Bears kick off their season next weekend against the 49ers. Eberflus was hired to run the whole team and has given defensive coordinator Alan Williams autonomy, but he still must demonstrate the defensive expertise that helped get him this job.

When teams hire an offensive genius or quarterback whisperer, they demand that coach enliven the offense and fix the quarterback. Eberflus’ predecessor, Matt Nagy, did neither and got fired.

Eberflus is supposed to be an exceptional defensive mind even among a league full of them, so there will be no excuses about limited personnel even in a rebuilding year. He’ll insist that this roster as it stands play to his standards, but it’s his responsibility to ensure that it does.

It’s no excuse that he’s going to start at least two rookies in second-round cornerback Kyler Gordon and safety Jaquan Brisker. Eberflus made it work with the Colts in 2018 when Shaquille Leonard was a rookie and he had young, first-time starters in safety Kenny Moore and middle linebacker Anthony Walker.

It’s also no excuse that the roster needed some deconstruction, leading to the departure of Khalil Mack and the lingering possibility of trading Robert Quinn for draft picks.

Shouldn’t be a problem for a defensive mastermind. It wouldn’t have required anything of Eberflus to get a big season out of Mack. He can coach himself at this point. Let’s see Eberflus develop Mack’s former understudy, Trevis Gipson, into a fearsome pass rusher.

With general manager Ryan Poles prioritizing the future over this season, the Bears filled in their defense with budget friendly players like linebackers Nick Morrow (one year, $2.5 million), Matt Adams (one year, $1 million) and Joe Thomas (one year, $1 million), as well as defensive end Al-Quadin Muhammad (essentially one year, $3.5 million).

Their biggest splurge was dropping $40.5 million over three years for defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi, but that deal fell through on a failed physical. The Bears shifted to Justin Jones for just $12 million over two years.

The returning defenders they kept, particularly the pricier ones, have their own question marks, and again, Eberflus is charged with turning those into rock-solid answers.

Will linebacker Roquan Smith be ready to play after missing so much time because of his contract dispute? Eberflus said he’ll be fine.

Will cornerback Jaylon Johnson continue his progression toward stardom, and can Kindle Vildor be his running mate? Will Quinn play like he did last season (18.5 sacks) or the season before (two)? Which version of safety Eddie Jackson will we see?

Answering those questions is tricky, but an elite coach should be able to do it.

The last defensive coordinator, Sean Desai, was good. Eberflus is supposed to be great. His Colts defense was second in takeaways and 10th in points allowed from 2018 through ’21. He was hired to replicate that here, regardless of the personnel.

And since he’s overseeing the entire operation, he knows as well as anyone that the defense will have a significant impact on quarterback Justin Fields — the most important person in the organization.

Fields was constantly playing from behind last season and didn’t have the benefit of takeaways setting him up with short fields. Neither did Andy Dalton, Nick Foles or Mitch Trubisky before him. Changing those parts of the equation would almost automatically make him better.

It’s a lot to ask of Eberflus, but that’s the job. If he can deliver on those imperatives amid the rebuild this season, that’ll give the Bears a lot of confidence in his future.

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