Even with all eyes on quarterback Justin Fields and the rest of coordinator Luke Getsy’s emerging offense, it’s still hard to ignore a nagging issue with the rebuilding Bears: What’s the deal with this defense?
When coach Matt Eberflus was introducing the H.I.T.S. principle as a first-year defensive coordinator with the Colts in 2018, this was the time of the season it really started to kick in.
The Colts allowed 376.2 yards and 23.3 points per game in the first nine games but 292.7 yards and 14 points per game in the final seven. The Colts finished 10th in the NFL in points allowed and 11th in yards allowed.
The Bears have been heading in the opposite direction in their first season under Eberflus and defensive coordinator Alan Williams. In the first seven games, the Bears’ defense was encouraging, if not actually good: 12th in the NFL in yards (330 per game) and tied for seventh in points (18.9 per game). Even the worst game — 27 points allowed against the Packers in Week 2 — would have been good enough to win any of the last three games.
But since defensive end Robert Quinn was traded Oct. 26 and linebacker Roquan Smith was dealt Oct. 31, the bottom has dropped out. In the last three games — the last two without both those players — the Bears’ defense has allowed 381 yards and 33.7 points per game.
Even the Bears’ second-half excellence has faded since Quinn and Smith left. The Bears allowed only five points per game and two total touchdowns in the second half in the first seven games. They’ve allowed 14 points per game and six total touchdowns in the second half in the last three.
This seems like new territory for Eberflus and definitely is in one aspect: With Smith and Quinn gone and defensive end Al-Quadin Muhammad out with an injury, four rookies started against the Lions (cornerback Kyler Gordon, safety Jaquan Brisker, linebacker Jack Sanborn and defensive end Dominique Robinson).
”Those guys getting the work that they’re getting is invaluable,” Eberflus said. ”Those guys are getting experiences they can’t replicate [in practice] and that they need to get. Every year’s different. You’re dealing with a different skill set, a different bunch of guys you’re working with on defense or offense or kicking, and it’s our job to make sure we put the best product out there.”
As much as any coach, Eberflus is willing to give rookies and inexperienced players a chance. Gordon and Brisker are second-round draft picks who were all but handed starting jobs the moment they arrived at Halas Hall. Robinson, however, not only was a fifth-round pick but a long-term project because he had played only 16 games on defense after playing receiver at Miami (Ohio).
And Sanborn is an undrafted free agent who was impressive during the preseason on defense and special teams. With Smith traded, Eberflus has more experienced options in Matt Adams and Joe Thomas, but Sanborn has earned the opportunity.
There’s no telling where this thing will go, but the Bears are giving themselves the best chance to grow. The only position where a veteran who doesn’t figure to be on the next playoff team is playing in front of a young player is right tackle, where Riley Reiff has supplanted Larry Borom.
Equanimeous St. Brown and Dante Pettis playing ahead of rookie receiver Velus Jones might fit that category, but you can’t take as many chances on offense, where mistakes can impair Fields’ development — or get him injured.
On defense, however, Eberflus is more willing to take some lumps now for a bigger payoff later — and maybe even this season.
”You’re building a foundational floor,” he said. ”The H.I.T.S. principle, we want to build on that. Obviously, we want to take the ball away more. We’re going to work diligently to get those things done. But the experience those guys are getting is invaluable.”