TWO SIDES TO THE EQUA­TION

Pace’s Su­per Bowl talk means noth­ing if Bears’ of­fense is no bet­ter

Chicago Sun-Times - - SPORTS - jlieser@suntimes.com | @Ja­sonLieser JA­SON LIESER

The Bears have been on a volatile ride the last few years, and they might be com­ing to the end of it.

They broke train­ing camp in 2018 with very lit­tle idea of what to ex­pect, then swung big on a last-minute trade for star line­backer Khalil Mack and roared to a divi­sion ti­tle. They went into last sea­son think­ing they were the team to beat — one player even hailed it as the be­gin­ning of a dy­nasty — and quickly fell flat be­fore stum­bling to 8-8.

So now what?

Play­ers have been no­tice­ably qui­eter, still smart­ing from the st­ing of talk­ing a good game but not play­ing one. But in­ter­nally, the ex­pec­ta­tions are just as high. It’s not enough to win nine or 10 games when the de­fense is this great. Mack isn’t plow­ing through dou­ble-teams ev­ery week just for the Bears to sneak into the play­offs for a one-and-done.

They must aim higher, and gen­eral man­ager Ryan Pace didn’t hes­i­tate to go pub­lic with his goal.

“Ev­ery year, we have cham­pi­onship ex­pec­ta­tions, and this is no dif­fer­ent,” Pace said Mon­day. “I re­ally feel like we can ex­cel in this [un­usual sea­son] be­cause of the peo­ple that we have, the con­ti­nu­ity that we have, so our ex­pec­ta­tions are cham­pi­onship ex­pec­ta­tions. And they are ev­ery year.”

They re­ally aren’t ev­ery year — there’s no way the 2017 team was think­ing Su­per Bowl — but the Bears’ de­fense al­ways gives them hope. It has been one of the scari­est in the league the last two sea­sons and could outdo even that dis­tinc­tion if de­fen­sive tackle Akiem Hicks stays healthy and out­side line­backer Robert Quinn goes for dou­ble-digit sacks.

Pace’s blue­print starts with those two and Mack, who ac­count for 20 per­cent of his pay­roll. If you can be good at one thing, make it quar­ter­back. If you can’t be good at that, make it de­stroy­ing other teams’ quar­ter­backs.

That has a rip­ple ef­fect through the de­fense and — very help­fully — low­ers the bar for the of­fense.

It’s no co­in­ci­dence that when the Bears were third in the league in sacks in 2018, they were also No. 1 in take­aways.

“It’s a pass­ing league, [and] if you hit the quar­ter­back, your cor­ners are bet­ter, your safeties are bet­ter,” Pace said. “If you’re hit­ting the quar­ter­back, those balls are go­ing to get thrown up . . . . We've loaded up the sec­ondary with guys that have ball skills. With a de­fense that can gen­er­ate that kind of pass rush, that can equate to a lot of turnovers.”

That’s what has Pace think­ing cham­pi­onship, much more than hop­ing he and coach Matt Nagy have patched all the holes in a leaky of­fense.

They aren’t good at quar­ter­back.

Pace’s trade for Nick Foles didn’t fix that, and it’s hard to buy that Mitch Tru­bisky will be markedly bet­ter than he was last sea­son.

“I like our quar­ter­back room right now,” Pace said — a quote that’s likely to be dragged back up in De­cem­ber.

Tight end is cru­cial, and Pace is bet­ting on best-case sce­nar­ios: rookie Cole Kmet be­ing an in­stant weapon, Jimmy Gra­ham re­vers­ing his de­cline and Demetrius Har­ris break­ing out in Year 7.

The Bears think their of­fen­sive line, where Pace sank high draft picks and big money, will sud­denly turn around thanks to new po­si­tion coach Juan Castillo.

As sturdy as the de­fense is, it’s that shaky on of­fense. This has been the prob­lem through­out Pace’s six sea­sons, and it’s why the Bears are 34-46 un­der him — tied with the Dol­phins for the eighth-worst record in that span, with only the Jets and Browns scor­ing fewer points.

If Pace has fi­nally fig­ured out the of­fen­sive per­son­nel, he has ev­ery rea­son to tar­get the Su­per Bowl. But if he’s wrong, it’s go­ing to be an­other sea­son of hop­ing two touch­downs and a field goal is enough, and that’s hardly the for­mula for a cham­pi­onship.

PA­TRICK SE­MAN­SKY/AP

Khalil Mack and the Bears’ de­fense are ready to ter­ror­ize op­pos­ing QBs. But good de­fense alone hasn’t been get­ting the job done.

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