’Tis the sea­son for stuff­ing

Daily Southtown (Sunday) - - SPORTS - Brad Biggs bm­[email protected]­bune.com Twit­[email protected]

The sack is back, and the Bears are once again gen­er­at­ing take­aways as one of the NFL’s best de­fenses. It all starts with stop­ping the

run.

Since gen­eral man­agerRyan Pace traded for KhalilMack on the­week­end of fi­nal cuts, the fo­cus has been on a dra­mat­i­cally up­graded pass rush that has 30 sacks, one off the league lead en­ter­ing Week 11. The Bears are sec­ond in the league with

24 take­aways, sur­pass­ing their 2017 to­tal of 22 and trail­ing the Browns by one, and they rank first with 16 in­ter­cep­tions— twice as many as they to­taled in each of the last three sea­sons.

All of it is pos­si­ble thanks to the dirty­work in the trenches. What sets the Bears apart is they’ve been stout against the run— only the Pa­tri­ots (161 yards, 5.2 per carry) and Dol­phins (108, 4.0) have topped 100 yards and 4 yards per carry— de­spite the fact they’ve been in the nickel de­fense 79.4 per­cent of the time, the fifth-high­est per­cent­age of any team. Over­all, the Bears rankNo. 2 ver­sus the run, al­low­ing 84 yards per game and trail­ing the Saints (80.1).

For the Bears, be­ing in nickel usu­ally means re­plac­ing a line­man fromthe base de­fense with nickel cor­ner­back Bryce Cal­la­han, but the lighter front has not been sus­cep­ti­ble to run­ning games. The Bears areNo. 1 in the league in nickel run de­fense, al­low­ing 3.56 yards per carry.

“Wow,” cor­ner­back Prince Amuka­mara said.

The mas­ter­mind be­hind the de­fense, co­or­di­na­torVic Fan­gio, isn’t as eas­ily im­pressed just past the half­way point of the sea­son. The Bears are on pace to al­low only 1,344 rush­ing yards, not far off the club record for a 16-game sea­son of 1,313 set by the 2001 NFCCen­tral cham­pi­ons.

“Ob­vi­ously, the amount of take­aways we have had has been great and our run de­fense has been good,” Fan­gio said. “Butwe did have those twoweeks there wherewe lost that the run de­fense­wasn’t as good.”

The old adage is you have to earn the right to rush the passer, and the Bears have done that. They’re putting op­po­nents in pass­ing sit­u­a­tions by win­ning on first down (4.46 yards al­lowed per play, sec­ond in the NFL) and then build­ing leads.

It starts up front, and­while Mack has proved dis­rup­tive against the run and skilled at set­ting the edge, the credit goes first to nose tackle Ed­die Gold­man and de­fen­sive end Akiem Hicks. They’re play­ing at a high level and al­low­ing lineback­er­sDan­nyTre­vathan andRo­quan Smith to flow be­hind them and make plays.

“(Gold­man) is an un­sung hero,” Hicks said. “He’s eat­ing up blocks in the mid­dle for both ends, for both lineback­ers. Ed­die has been do­ing that for a num­ber of years. I knowthat he’s bat­tled some ad­ver­sity as far as play­ing through­out the sea­son, but he’s strong— man, he’s strong— and he has a will to be there for us. I knowhe doesn’t get a lot of at­ten­tion, but he’s a great player.”

Smith’s range from­side­line to side­line fits pre­cisely with what the Bear­swant to do, and the rookie has shown im­prove­ment, to­tal­ing a team-high 22 tack­les (19 solo) in the last two games. Cal­la­han is the light­est de­fen­sive player on the ros­ter at 188 pounds but ranks fourth with 32 solo tack­les —

12 more than he had last sea­son.

Corner­back­Kyle Fuller has al­ways been stout in run sup­port, and the Bears cred­itA­muka­mara with im­prov­ing ver­sus the run so they don’t have the kind of cover cor­ner who gets out of a game with a clean uni­form, un­will­ing to tackle.

“Prince­was that guy,” Fan­gio said.“We have shamed him into tack­ling bet­ter.”

“Vic­would al­ways poke fun at me,” Amuka­mara ad­mit­ted. “Iam not fly­ing in now. Kyle is su­per ag­gres­sive. Me, Iam just try­ing to get you dow­nand make the play.”

Cer­tainly it helps that the Bears are in their fourth year in Fan­gio’s scheme with lit­tle turnover from last sea­son be­yond the ad­di­tion of Mack and Smith. Fan­gio has done a good job of defin­ing roles and putting play­er­swhere their strengths are ac­cen­tu­ated and weak­nesses min­i­mized. While play­er­swere slowto un­der­stand some of the con­cepts in­Years 1 and 2, they’re play­ing fast and down­hill now.

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