When the Chicago Bears hired Matt Eberflus to be their Head Coach in January 2022, they were hiring one of the better Defensive Coordinators in the NFL. Eberflus' defense while he was the coordinator at Indianapolis was among the best in the League. He played a scheme very similar to the one the Bears played when Lovie Smith was the Head Coach of the Bears a decade ago, so Bears fans were familiar with it.
What hurt the Bears' defense a year ago was there were not enough good players on the roster for the scheme to work properly. General Manager Ryan Poles went out to fix that problem during the 2023 off-season with both NFL Draft and Free Agent acquisitions.
In free agency, the Bears brought in Will linebacker T.J. Edwards and Mike linebacker Tremaine Edmunds. Along the defensive line the Bears signed one-tech Andrew Billings, tackle/end DeMarcus Walker, and defensive end Rasheem Green. During camp, the Bears added pass rusher Yannick Ngakoue. In the Draft, the Bears selected defensive tackles Gervon Dexter and Zacch Pickens in the second and third rounds, respectively.
In the secondary, the Bears added corners Tyrique Stevenson and Terrell Smith, both of whom have contributed greatly as rookies. While on paper, the defense looked as if they were vastly improved, early in the season, they still didn't play that well together.
The reason for that was basically the front seven was all new players except for defensive tackle Justin Jones. None of these players had ever played together during their pro careers. It takes time to build cohesiveness, and it took almost half of the 2023 season for the Bears' defense to develop and become a consistently good unit. Early in the year, it didn't help that Defensive Coordinator Alan Willimas resigned, and there was an abundance of injuries. All that contributed to the defense taking a bit longer than usual to come together as one.
Over the last five or six games, the defense has played much better in all areas. They are stopping the run and pass, rushing the passer with consistency, and creating turnovers. The addition of Edge Montez Sweat at the trade deadline was also an important piece of the puzzle. Up until that addition, opponent offenses could concentrate on stopping Ngakoue (and they did), as the Bears did not have another strong pass rusher. Sweat gave the Bears a dynamic player who, in a short time, has become the defense's most valuable player. His addition has made everyone else that much better, and that's what a top player is supposed to do. Right now, the Bears' defense is playing well in all areas.
Rookies Dexter and Pickens seem to improve by the week, with Dexter looking as if he will become a dominant force in the not-too-distant future.
At this stage of the season, the Bears' defense is arguably one of the Top Five in the League. It's not just because of the addition of good football players; it's also because they have learned how to play with each other. Each player knows the strengths and weaknesses of his teammates, and that helps them grow together as a unit. Frankly, as good as the D has played in recent weeks, they still haven't scratched the surface as to how good they can become. We'll still see improvement over the final four games of this season.
You can bet that more additions will be made to the defense during the upcoming off-season. While Ryan Poles has addressed defensive end in free agency and trades, he still hasn't drafted an edge in a premium round. Both for development and cap purposes, that will be done in the April Draft. Ngakoue is out of contract at about $10M per year. Do the Bears want to spend to keep him or Draft a young, dynamic pass rusher who has the traits to become an excellent NFL player?
What I can't see happening is the Bears going out and spending top dollar on another veteran free agent Edge. With the contract that Sweat received after the Bears traded for him, it doesn't make much sense. The smart way to do it is through the Draft. If they can get Ngakoue back at a reasonable price, then keeping him and drafting an edge with one of their first three picks makes too much sense.
The only other big decision that needs to be made is what the Bears will do with Eddie Jackson and Jaylon Johnson. Jackson's cap number next year is over $18M. In order to keep Eddie, he has to give them back $18M in production. We haven't seen that in recent seasons, so he could be let go. If that were to be the case, the cap savings would be over $12M if cut pre-June 1 and over $14M if he is designated as a post-June 1st release.
I feel it's a given that the Bears will either extend or tag Johnson. He has become one of the better corners in the League and not only deserves to be paid, but the Bears can't afford to lose him. The money saved by releasing Jackson could go a long way toward a Johnson contract.
Needless to say, it will be an interesting final four weeks of the season and an even more interesting off-season. The Bears have always been known for their strong defenses, and that strong defense is back!