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Defense and special teams: it’s the Bears’ way

The Bears’ defense and third phase are keeping them afloat. In other news, water is wet.

Chicago Bears vs Denver Broncos Photo by Timothy Nwachukwu/Getty Images

The last time the Bears enjoyed consecutive postseason appearances in 2005-2006, their defensive and special teams groups were the envy of the rest of the NFL. Then head coach Lovie Smith and special teams coordinator Dave Toub compiled an ugly but mostly successful winning formula. As their 2019 season kicks into full gear in the coming weeks, it’s no coincidence Chicago’s defense and third phase is again leading the way.

With two weeks of play under their belt—one against a Hall of Fame quarterback, the other under the constraints and rigors of Denver’s altitude—it’s remarkable the Bears’ defense has been able to hold it together so well. Through a little over 12 percent of the 2019 season, Chicago’s defense ranks No. 7 overall in Football Outsiders’ DVOA. They’ve been every bit the dominant force most expected them to be as the transition from Vic Fangio to Chuck Pagano’s stead has been a breeze.

It’s mainly thanks to the talent. Players such as Khalil Mack are enjoying career seasons with an astonishing 15 pressures in two games, according to Pro Football Focus. Kyle Fuller’s First-Team All-Pro campaign from last season was not a fluke based on the all-important eye test. And Leonard Floyd finally looks like a former top-10 pick as he’s flown around of late. This special Bears defense is yet to enjoy a cataclysmic performance defined by an abundance of forced turnovers and defensive scores. At this rate, with a myriad of mediocre passers like Case Keenum and Derek Carr soon crossing their path, their next coming out party should be expected sooner rather than later.

Where the Bears’ defensive success isn’t surprising, their early glowing returns on special teams have been. A season after Chris Tabor’s unit was inarguably one of their primary weak links, Chicago’s third phase ranks No. 5 overall in DVOA. Stellar coverage on punt and kick returns are welcome and two independent factors. When your kicker and punter are on the mark, the rest of your players need little work. Tabor, a Toub disciple, must have pushed the right buttons for once.

The reigning NFC Special Teams Player of the Week in Eddy Pineiro has yet to miss a field goal on four attempts. After a glowing performance where the young kicker made two 50-plus yarders—one the game-winner in the closing seconds—Pineiro has given the Bears stability at kicker they haven’t enjoyed since the early part of this decade. His two 50-yard makes in his second start gives him only two less than Connor Barth and Cody Parkey combined in the last three seasons. It’s early, but Pineiro appears to be the placekicking answer the Bears have been desperately seeking since releasing Robbie Gould in 2016.

Originally drafted with the moniker of “Mega-Punt,” Pat O’Donnell has struggled to live up to his nickname since joining the Bears in 2014. After five seasons of getting his leg(s) under him, the 28-year-old punter is living up to his over-the-top billing. Not only is O’Donnell averaging a career-high 48.3 yards per punt—eighth in the NFL—he’s routinely buried the opposition with poor starting field position. When the Bears’ offense (currently a robust 26th overall in DVOA) is struggling as much as it has to this juncture, the defense needs as much help as it can stomach. O’Donnell offering much needed breathing room can’t be overstated in that respect. It’s clear someone has been playing old-school Madden and nailing the Coffin Corner player drill.

In the offensively-driven powerhouse known as the 2019 NFL, it’s difficult to sustain a winning record with the dead weight of an offense acting like shackles around the ankles. But the merits of possessing a quality defense and special teams in the manner the Bears have become known for means they can keep their season afloat until, or if, their offense becomes competent.

Somewhere in the cornfields surrounding Champaign, Illinois and in a random barbecue restaurant in Kansas City, Smith and Toub are wearing the widest grins on their faces. They see what the Bears have become and they relish in the fact that their brand of football hasn’t gone completely extinct.

Robert is wondering whether the Bears made a clone of Devin Hester that they’ve kept cryogenically frozen all these years. It might be time to break the glass and defrost him. It’s a football emergency: the only kind people seem to recognize any more.

Follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski. You can’t take a picture of this, it’s already gone.