Stop Talking About Chicago’s Defense as a Strength

| April 8th, 2021

There seems to be a prevailing consensus among Chicago fans that the Bears still have one of the best defenses in the NFL. Unfortunately, there is no reason to believe that is true.

The Bears had a great defense in 2018, but that was 3 years ago, an eternity in the NFL. They led the NFL in pretty much every defensive stat imaginable that season, but we’ll track their decline since then with a simple one: points allowed.

  • 2018: 17.7 points/game, 1st in NFL
  • 2019: 18.6 points/game, 4th in NFL
  • 2020: 23.1 points/game, 14th in the NFL

That’s right, Chicago’s defense was more average than good in 2020 (with 32 NFL teams, 16th is exactly average). That feels weird to say, right? I know I certainly didn’t think of them that way last year. But a broader look at the statistics paints exactly that picture, as you can see in the table below. DVOA is a measure of total defensive performance from Football Outsiders, and net yards/attempt (which factors in sacks and pass attempts) is from Pro Football Reference.

The only major stat where the defense ranked in the top ten was yards/run allowed. Everywhere else was mostly middle of the pack besides forcing turnovers, which they were bad at.

The Bears also lost Kyle Fuller this offseason, which will significantly hurt their pass coverage. According to Pro Football Reference, Fuller gave up 6.3 yards/target last year, while the rest of Chicago’s CBs combined to allow 8.6 yards/target. For context, the median NFL CB allows 7.4 yards/target. Fuller’s 6.3 mark puts him in the top 20%, while the 8.6 value slots into the bottom 30%.

In fairness, the Bears did sign Desmond Trufant to replace Fuller, but he’ll be 31 at the start of the season, has missed 17 games due to injury the last 2 years, and has been bad when healthy in that stretch. He gave up 8.1 yards/target in Detroit last year, and if you’re tempted to blame that on Detroit’s defensive scheme, please don’t; he gave up 11.5 yards/target in Atlanta in 2019. Trufant was good in 2018 (6.5 yards/target), but that carries about as much weight in 2021 as saying Chicago’s defense as a whole was good in 2018.

The only real personnel upgrade on defense this offseason comes in the form of nose tackle Eddie Goldman, who will return after opting out of the 2020 season due to Covid concerns. This will undoubtedly be a boon to the defense, but he helps more with run defense than pass rush, and they were already better against the run than the pass last year. Meaningful upgrades to the unit as a whole need players who will impact the passing game, which is not Goldman’s strength. Losing Fuller is likely to hurt the defense more than getting Goldman back will help them.

There is also another loss that might be coming at some point. It was reported earlier this offseason that the Bears were shopping Akiem Hicks. While nothing came of it at the time, the Bears currently only have about $500k in cap room. That means they will need to free up another $10M or so to sign their draft picks and make in-season moves, and cutting Hicks frees $10.5M. It’s possible he will still be a Bear in 2021, but I won’t be surprised if he’s not on the roster when training camp starts.

How has this once great unit fallen so far in the last 3 years? For starters, they’ve lost a number of great coaches since the 2018 season.

  • Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio left after 2018 to be a head coach elsewhere
  • Secondary coach Ed Donatell followed Fangio to Denver, where he became the defensive coordinator
  • Outside linebackers coach Brandon Staley also followed Fangio to Denver, then went to the LA Rams in 2020, where he was the defensive coordinator of the NFL’s best defense. He’s now the head coach of the LA Chargers.
  • This offseason, DL coach Jay Rodgers followed Staley to LA. He did a phenomenal job in Chicago both developing rookies (Eddie Goldman, Bilal Nichols, Roy Robertson-Harris) and consistently getting quality production out of journeymen (Akiem Hicks, Brent Urban, Mario Edwards, Nick Williams). His loss is a big blow to the defense that will surely be felt moving forward.

Nearly the entire defensive coaching staff from 2018 is now gone, and they have all gotten promotions elsewhere, which is a testament to the quality work they did in Chicago. We’ve seen the quality of play in the secondary and at outside linebacker decline after their coaches left, and I fully expect the defensive line to follow suit this year following Rodgers’ departure.

The defense has also lost a ton of quality players. Gone from that 2018 unit are Kyle Fuller, Adrian Amos, Bryce Callahan, Prince Amukamara, Leonard Floyd, and Roy Robertson-Harris. That represents nearly half their starters (including 4/5 of what was the NFL’s best secondary), and it is a significant talent drain considering those players are now making a combined $48M per year on their new teams (more than 25% of the NFL salary cap). In that same time span, they’ve only given out one big free agent contract on defense – which went to a massive bust in Robert Quinn – and spent only 1 pick in the first 4 rounds on defense.

The result of this lack of investment is that, while it still has a number of talented players (especially in the front 7, where Akiem Hicks, Eddie Goldman, Bilal Nichols, Roquan Smith, and Khalil Mack are all excellent), Chicago’s defense now contains several weak links in coverage that opposing offenses can take advantage of:

  • The aging Danny Trevathan clearly lost a step last year and is now a coverage liability. He gave up 9.7 yards/target in 2020, among the worst marks of any LB in the NFL since Pro Football Reference starting tracking the stat in 2018.
  • At cornerback, they don’t have a single player they can confidently rely on. Jaylon Johnson is the one you’re probably most hopeful about, but he was abused as a rookie to the tune of 8.9 yards/target (bottom 20%). Kindle Vildor (7.5 yards/target) and Duke Shelley (8.4 yards/target) were mediocre to bad in limited action late in the year, and as mentioned above, Desmond Trufant has been bad for the last 2 years. Having 0 reliable players is a big problem for a position that will have 3 guys on the field for most snaps.
  • Deon Bush, a longtime backup who has never been good enough to earn a meaningful role on defense, is currently slotted as a starting safety.
  • The only player in the secondary who you can reasonably feel good about right now is Eddie Jackson, but he is coming off what was easily the worst season of his career. Jackson gave up 9.0 yards/target last year, a bottom 30% mark for safeties, but it is reasonable to expect him to bounce back after he was consistently excellent in coverage the prior 2 seasons.

This is what happens when you lose a ton of talent and don’t invest in their replacements. The Bears were so busy trying to fix the offense (which they still haven’t come close to doing) that they let the defense fall off. Now they have a unit that is:

  • Old: The Bears were the 2nd oldest defense in the NFL last year, and aren’t likely to get much younger in 2021. Swapping out Buster Skrine for one of Kindle Vildor/Duke Shelley is pretty much the only spot where they got younger, and 5 starters – Danny Trevathan, Akiem Hicks, Desmond Trufant, Robert Quinn, and Khalil Mack – are at least 30 years old.
  • Expensive: Chicago has $88M in 2021 cap space is allocated to the defense, the 10th highest amount in the NFL, and that doesn’t include substantial amounts of money moved to the future from Khalil Mack and Eddie Jackson’s contracts.
  • Not particularly good: see the stats above. Sure, if you squint your eyes, you can see this being a good unit. That will require key guys (many of whom are 30+) staying healthy, Robert Quinn, Danny Trevathan, Desmond Trufant, and Eddie Jackson bouncing back, nobody who’s old declining with age, and 2 of Jaylon Johnson, Duke Shelley, and Kindle Vildor taking a big leap forward. That’s not asking for much, right?

The Bears are trying to win now while this defensive window is still open, but in reality the window already closed after 2019. Their defense was merely average in 2020, and right now appears to have downgraded for 2021. Sure, they could still add talent in the draft, but the odds of a rookie CB upgrading Kyle Fuller seem very, very slim, and the bulk of their most pressing needs (QB, OT, WR) are on offense, so the majority of their draft capital will likely be spent on that side of the ball yet again.

Thus it’s time for Bears fans to adjust their expectations accordingly. Expecting a top-10 defense, much less an elite one that can win them games, is not realistic. While a number of players could exceed expectations and push them to that level, the secondary currently looks like one of the worst in the NFL, which means the Bears will be doing quite well to keep their defense in the middle of the pack in 2021.

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