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Reality Check: The Chicago Defense is Average

The Chicago Bears are struggling on offense, but it seems like their defense has them just one step away from being contenders. That might have been true in years past, but the defense is no longer a unit that can take over games.

Chicago Bears v Detroit Lions Photo by Mike Mulholland/Getty Images

Supposedly, the defense is the strength of the 2021 Chicago Bears. Superficially, this seems to be true—they are tied for third in the league with 31 sacks, and they are tenth in the league in yards allowed per game (334.4). However, yards allowed is one of the least meaningful stats in football, and the slightest scratch beneath the surface reveals a paper bear.

Sean Desai’s takeaway bucket and the summer focus on turnovers has only resulted in eleven total takeaways, tied for the 24th-best result in the league. Chicago’s experience with Lovie Smith aside, turnovers are typically a very hard thing to predict, and they are remarkably inconsistent on a year-to-year basis.

Of course, that doesn’t matter if the Bears are able to hold down their opponents’ scores compared to the norm. The cold hard reality is that they are not doing so. The Bears are 18th in the league in allowing 23.1 points per game. Tellingly, the Bears’ opponents have averaged 23.3 points all season long, across all of their games. In other words, there is no meaningful difference between how the Bears’ opponents play versus them and how they play versus the average team in the NFL.

These trends have played out in individual games as well. In the eleven games to date, Chicago’s opponents have been at least two points ahead of their seasonal averages five times. Meanwhile, three games (both Detroit games and the Green Bay game) have been within 2 points either way. Finally, only in three games have the Bears held their opponents to a score more than two points below seasonal averages: Baltimore, Cincinnati, and Las Vegas. Note those three teams—they’ll be worth revisiting later.

Why aren’t they able to stop teams from scoring if they have such a great pass rush?

Because they don’t have a great pass rush. Sacks are an incomplete measure of how much pressure a defense puts on a quarterback. This is one of the key reasons that sacks are inconsistent year-to-year. They are “unusual” (and thus fluky) plays almost by definition. On the other hand, total pressures—all quarterback hits, knockdowns, and sacks—are a slightly more reliable and comprehensive indicator of what is repeatable skill and what is luck. They also do more to show the total level of disruption a defense creates, and here the Chicago pass rush is revealed to be decidedly lacking. The Bears have successfully pressured rival quarterbacks on only 19% of plays. That’s the fifth-lowest percentage in the league. That low pressure rate is likely part of why Chicago has allowed a 101.3 passer rating, the fifth-highest in the league.

Believers in the Chicago defense might argue that a quarterback simply completing short passes is not a big deal so long as they aren’t actually scoring. Unfortunately for this line of reasoning, the Bears have allowed 42.9% of offensive drives to end in a score, and that’s the 6th-highest rate in the NFL. These are not meaningless completions that are being allowed. To drive this point home, the defense has allowed a passer rating of 118.3 when leading with two minutes or less to go, and they have allowed first downs on 6 of the 14 plays run under these conditions, including 4 touchdowns. Simply put, this is not a defense that can shut down a quarterback when handed a lead, nor are they a defense that can take over a game.

Things are admittedly better when facing the run. Chicago has allowed 4.3 yards per rushing attempt, making them part of a 6-way tie at 14th (for essentially a middle-of-the-league performance). However, they do not hold against the run when it matters. They allow opponents to pick up the first down on the ground 35.56% of the time (the 7th-worst rate in the league), and they have still allowed 7.3 rushing first downs per game, the 9th-worst rate in the league.

It is fair to admit that the sack rate could be helping in one regard, in that the Bears are only allowing 2.5 offensive touchdowns per game, and that puts them in the middle of a 9-way tie for 11th place (or 19th). The pass-rush might be getting home often enough that individual plays are breaking Chicago’s way, and that is keeping the touchdown total from getting too high. However, another possibility that needs to be considered is that other teams simply do not have the need to score touchdowns. Five of Chicago’s losses have been by at least two scores. The Steelers opened a two-score lead as well, only to lose it and then come back out on top.

It’s worth returning to those three games where the Bears actually constrained another team’s offense. In the Bengals game, the Bears managed to truly derail Joe Burrow in the second game of the season. The Raiders underperformed during the same week that their head coach was under fire for past transgressions (leading to his ultimate removal). Finally, the game against the Ravens saw the first career start of Tyler Huntley. In other words, only one of these games (the Bengals game) demonstrates a clear victory over a competent offense. However, even counting these three games (anyone can spin a narrative), the defense is pedestrian.

Some of this might be the fault of the offense. The Bears are 8th in terms of total points allowed in the first half (9.7 points per game). They are 27th in terms of total points allowed in the second half (13.4 points per game). Perhaps the defense is simply tired from carrying the offense. Or, perhaps, the defense is not able to keep up with the halftime adjustments that other teams are making (once again, anyone can spin a narrative). When it matters, the defense is not closing out games.

The defense might be the strength of the 2021 Bears, but if so it is only because the offense is inept, not because the defense is capable. In 2018, a dominant defense carried the Bears to their only winning season since 2012. This is not that defense. This defense is a thoroughly average assemblage of players and talent, with a small number of stars (like Roquan Smith) and a lot of guys who are just playing football. They are doing just well enough, just often enough, to be unremarkable.

That’s not good enough.

*All stats come from TeamRankings and Pro Football Reference.