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Regression thy name is Bears defense

Another analyst thinks last year’s best NFL defense is due to take a step back. It’s a high bar that might be difficult to clear.

NFL: Chicago Bears-Minicamp Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

For a new defensive coordinator like Chuck Pagano, there aren’t many jobs better than taking over the loaded Bears defense. Any time you have Khalil Mack, Eddie Jackson, and Akiem Hicks, among others, you’re going to be in fantastic shape. Ask Sports Illustrated, though (as well as a general underlying consensus), and last year’s No. 1 defense in pro football is due for more lapses in the 2019 season.

On Friday, analyst and noted “tape-grinder” Andy Benoit published his latest round of preseason predictions with the arrival of NFL training camps looming. His main contention with the Bears was that their defense will regress for mainly two reasons this fall.

There’s the slight scheme shift from the noted surly Vic Fangio—now head coach of the Broncos—to Pagano. Then there’s the slight dip in secondary talent and reliability as the Bears replaced departed free agents Bryce Callahan and Adrian Amos with Buster Skrine and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, respectively. Benoit believes the small change in scheme and secondary talent dip makes the Bears defense a prime candidate to lose their No. 1 mantle.

Benoit elaborates on both points:

Losing coordinator Vic Fangio to the head job in Denver proves huge. Fangio’s scheme, which was built on blurry matchup-zone coverages, was the soundest in football. Its presnap two-deep safety looks and complex coverage rotations protected corners Kyle Fuller and Prince Amukamara, who in turn could aggressively play the ball. New coordinator Chuck Pagano is an accomplished defensive play-caller, but his system is built more on blitzing, which means one deep safety and man coverage on the outside. This exposes Chicago’s secondary, which is also simply less talented after replacing safety Adrian Amos and slot corner Bryce Callahan with erratic free agents Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix and Buster Skrine, respectively.

Even with any regression, Benoit contends that Chicago’s supreme front seven talent should somewhat mitigate any issues the Bears have on the back end. It doesn’t get much better than Mack, Hicks, and Roquan Smith, after all.

The front seven masks some—though not all—of the defense’s back slide. Because it’s not like Khalil Mack and Akiem Hicks aren’t still superstars. And around them are a host of dirty work run defenders like dexterous nose tackle Eddie Goldman and outside linebacker Leonard Floyd, who is skinny for his position but improved greatly at setting the edge in 2018. Plus, electric second-year linebacker Roquan Smith, with his sensational all-around playing speed, flourishes under Pagano.

These reasons are valid enough to illustrate why the Bears defense could likely be worse in 2019. Throw in the unpredictability of turnovers into the mix (the Bears probably aren’t going to intercept 27 passes again) and injuries—a dip from being the third-healthiest team in 2018, even minute, should be expected. It’s football, players tragically get hurt when you least want them to and there’s nothing anyone can do to intervene. But this supposition ignores a general overarching point: the 2019 Bears defense should regress purely because the numbers they produced last season were historic. And historic defensive play, historically, is unsustainable and volatile from year to year.

In the last decade, only the 2008 Steelers, 2013 Seahawks, and 2015 Panthers had a better ANY/A pass defensive value than the 2018 Bears. Each of those teams, of course, went on to play in the Super Bowl. Over the last 32 seasons, the Bears’ 2018 defensive performance also firmly ranks in the 20s among other elite defenses ... ever. To expect the Bears to replicate a No. 1 level output in back-to-back seasons would essentially expect them to stem the tide of an offensive league and to ignore the backlog of good fortune mixed with blips in history. By exact literary definition of the word (I would love to see contrary arguments for this), the Bears defense will likely regress this year if only because they were so good, statistically, last season.

But “regress” does not have to mean “porous” and it probably won’t. The Bears defense can take a step back to being, let’s say, a top-five unit and the rest of their upcoming season can otherwise chug along as planned.

Robert is the Editor-in-chief of The Blitz Network, the managing editor of Windy City Gridiron, and the Bears beat writer for The Rock River Times. Follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski. You can’t take a picture of this. It’s already gone.