The most valuable and devastating weapon a defense can have is an unstoppable pass rush. And even after trading Khalil Mack, the Bears should still be pretty good in that aspect.
They have the franchise’s single-season sack king in defensive end Robert Quinn on one side, and Al-Quadin Muhammad — hand-picked by coach Matt Eberflus from their days together with Colts — opposite him. And they can sprinkle in promising upstart Trevis Gipson, who had seven sacks last season, and rangy rookie Dominique Robinson.
Yet the Bears have just seven sacks in their first four games. Just one of those was by Quinn.
They’re creating pressure on 29.7% of opponents’ passes, which ranks fourth, but rarely taking down the quarterback. Pressures are good, but sacks change games. Sticking an opponent with third-and-16 creates prime time for takeaways.
“It’s really just staying motivated and not getting too discouraged,” Gipson said. “It’s just continuing to work hard. It’s going to click for these guys.”
As always in football, everything is interdependent.
If the Bears tightened up their run defense, for example, one byproduct would be more frequent and more advantageous pass rushing opportunities.
As the Bears have been bulldozed for an NFL-high 183.3 yards rushing per game, they’ve faced the fewest passes in the league. Why drop back against Robert Quinn and throw into a secondary that has safeties Eddie Jackson and Jaquan Brisker scanning for interceptions when running is relatively safe and easy?
“You have to create good situations for them to rush in, which is something we’ve got to do better — and that would tie into the run defense,” Eberflus said. “You get your run defense going and you’re better in first-down efficiency, now you have the right to rush the passer. Now it’s second-and-longer, third-and-longer, and you get the situations that you like.”
Every defense craves obvious passing scenarios, and every offense is desperate to avoid them.
The Bears opponents have had an average of 6.8 yards to go on third downs, which ranks 15th in the NFL. The Bears are allowing 5.5 yards per play on first down and have given up a first down on 26.6% of their first or second downs.
The Giants had five or fewer yards to go on seven of their 15 third downs last week, which eliminated that predictability that a pass rusher wants. They ran on five of those. The Bears’ run defense was so bad that the Giants were able to run for 262 yards and six per carry despite playing without a healthy quarterback.
When a problem like that persists this long, it’s not an aberration. So with this much video of the Bears flailing at running backs, defensive coordinator Alan Williams anticipated that being the Vikings’ plan Sunday.
“They’re gonna come in and say, ‘Hey, they’re coming in our house and we’re gonnaruntheballdowntheirthroat,and then play-action pass and get overtheirhead,'” Williams said. “That’s whatthestats say to do. So we’ll see ifthestats lie or not.”
They usually don’t.
And while the Vikings’ offense hasn’t been remarkable, it has the potential to present a lot of problems.
Running back Dalvin Cook doesn’t have a 100-yard game yet and is averaging a career-low 4.4 yards per carry, but he’s surely looking at this as an opportunity to ignite his season. And the ripple effect of his success would affect the Bears’ other deficiencies and minimize their opportunities to rush Kirk Cousins.
Every quarterback prefers to avoid pressure, but few see their performance swing as wildly as Cousins’. Pro Football Focus rated him the No. 1 clean-pocket passer in the NFL last season, but 17th when pressured.
Which version will the Bears see? That depends, of course, on whether they create pressure. And that depends on whether they can finally stop the run.