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Chicago’s Defense Still Needs Work

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Fans of the Bears who celebrate the defense are correct that it is the best unit on the team. However, it has a long way to go before it is elite.

NFL: Washington at Chicago Bears Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

When people mention the Bears, usually unkind remarks are made about kicker Connor Barth. Concerns are shared about the development of Mitchell Trubisky. The truly awful receiver corps is lamented. However, through it all, some fans are inclined to point the the defense. Even if Fox goes, Fangio needs to stay. The defense is on its way to being elite, some claim. Well, sure.

Everything being cyclical, it stands to reason that eventually any defense will be elite at some point. By that standard, the Bears are on the way to a lot of places. On the other hand, there’s a big difference between “on the way” and “there already.” The defense isn’t there already. It’s just not.

Football Outsiders pegs Chicago’s defense at 13th in the NFL in DVOA, and outside of the top 40% just doesn’t feel very “elite” to me. In fact, it seems to be above average on a technicality.

If I were to try to argue that the defense was elite, I would start with the sack rate (2.9 per game, or 8th in the league) and the sack percentage (8% or 7th). Those are good numbers, and “almost top 20%” sounds a lot better than “almost top 40%,” certainly. After that, though, the Bears struggle to crack a Top 10 list, coming it an 11th for the number of first downs allowed per play (.296). “Almost top third,” is not elite. In fact, “almost top third” is another way of saying “barely above average.”

Worse, that pass pressure isn’t stopping opponents from completing nearly 65% of their pass attempts (good for 23rd in the NFL), and letting teams convert almost 38% of their third-down attempts (13th in the league) suggests that the pressure isn’t exactly getting other teams off the field at an epic rate. Allowing the 16th-best passer rating in the league (88.7) seems, well, average. True, the Bears have played some quality opponents. They’ve also played some mediocre opponents, like Baltimore (24th in offensive DVOA), Carolina (22nd), and Tampa Bay (18th).

The allowed yards per rush (3.9, also 13th) paints the same picture. This is a good defense. It’s a competent defense. It is not elite—more like slightly above average. Likewise, the Bears are doing better on takeaways. Much better. They are averaging 1.4 per game, twice what they accomplished in 2016. Of course, 1.4 per game is tied for 15th in the NFL. This, then, is the problem. The Bears defense is not extraordinary. It’s just no longer bad.

To put it in terms of sweeping, brutal over-generalization: four of the Bears’ 8 opponents have been held to below their average points scored playing against Chicago and 4 have exceeded that average. The Bears have allowed their opponents 171 points; those same opponents playing average games over the season to date would combine for 174 points. Ahead of the mean by 1 field goal every 8 games is basically “competent”, not impressive. Some of this can be explained by the ineptitude of the offense, sure. Still and all, some of it has to be because of the defense itself.

The defense has been good. It is definitely an improvement over what was in place beforehand, and it is by any measure a good chunk of the reason the Bears already have 3 wins. Unfortunately, when a team relies on an “almost top third” unit to secure their wins, they end up with a 3-5 record.

There are some great players on this defense. Hicks, Floyd, Jackson, and Fuller all come to mind. Amos is playing like a man on fire. Amukamara isn’t as bad as feared. However, there is a massive difference between a unit that can make excellent plays and a unit that is, in reality, excellent. The defense is on the way. It’s not there yet, though.

Unless otherwise noted, all stats come from teamrankings.com. and Pro-Football-Reference.