’Tis the season for stuffing
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
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.