Matt Eberflus promised that Chicago Bears coaches would evaluate every player — as well as their own performances — during the team’s mini-bye weekend.
The Bears have 10 days between games leading up to Monday night’s road game against the New England Patriots. The Bears have a late bye in Week 14 this season, so the extra time this week makes for a good opportunity to assess what’s working through six games, what’s not and what’s next.
The Tribune also is making those assessments, starting with the defense.
Under Eberflus and defensive coordinator Alan Williams, the Bears have allowed 19.7 points per game, tied for 11th in the NFL, and the defense has been able to keep them in most games.
Coaches and players have shown an ability to make second-half adjustments, and the Bears have allowed just two touchdowns and seven field goals after halftime. The Minnesota Vikings and Washington Commanders had winning fourth-quarter touchdown drives the last two games, but the Commanders drive was set up by Velus Jones Jr.’s muffed punt return and Washington’s recovery at the Bears 6-yard line.
“We do make adjustments, obviously in-game adjustments, in-game tactics, where you’re changing, adjusting, fixing an issue that you might have in a series,” Eberflus said last month. “But halftime for us is very organized. We have a lot of information given to the players from up top.
“It’s very good, and the players know exactly what’s going to come in the second half in terms of what we’re going to call and how we’re going to attack an offense. We’ve had that in place for quite a few years now.”
Opponents are passing for only 178.7 yards per game, which ranks fourth in the NFL. But as we’ll talk about in the next section, that number is in part a function of teams being able to run easily on the Bears. And it’s in part a function of the Bears facing several young or inconsistent quarterbacks in the first six games: Trey Lance, Davis Mills, Daniel Jones and Carson Wentz.
There have been a few strong individual performances, most notably from safety Eddie Jackson, who has three interceptions, two forced fumbles and 43 tackles.
Three Bears have two sacks apiece: rookie safety Jaquan Brisker, defensive tackle Justin Jones and defensive end Trevis Gipson. Brisker also has 35 tackles, including three for a loss. Jones has two passes defended and six tackles for a loss, and Gipson has two passes defended and three tackles for a loss.
The run defense is where it all starts for the Bears, and they’ve given up 163 rushing yards per game, 29th in the NFL. They’ve faced some very good running backs, including the New York Giants’ Saquon Barkley and three others in the top 10 in rushing yards this season.
But it has been a consistent problem that needs to get better.
“A new defense, new guys, you chip away and you try to work on consistency and execution and not doing too much,” Williams said in Week 5. “With our guys, the problematic thing is everyone wants to make every play. Everyone wants to help out. And sometimes that can lead to, ‘Hey, I’m not in my gap because I’m going to help a guy over here.’ And that may lead to, ‘If I’m helping a guy over here, I may be out of my gap.’
“That can lead to some big plays or plays that should be a tackle for a loss or should be a 1-yard gain and it turns out to be a 5-yard gain. What we need to do is make sure that consistently guys are doing their job, consistently executing, consistently putting your eyes where they need to be. And when you make decisions to do those things, you’ll see the defense gets a little bit better, a little bit better, a little bit better each week.”
The inability to stop the run has played a part in the Bears notching just 11 sacks and 19 quarterback hits, though they have been successful at generating quarterback hurries. Most notably, defensive end Robert Quinn, who had 18½ sacks last year, has just one this year, as does free-agent addition Al-Quadin Muhammad.
Those stats play into another key number: The Bears defense is among the worst on third down with a 46.15% opponent conversion rate.
Eberflus’ defenses pride themselves on creating turnovers — it’s the “T” in H.I.T.S., after all — but the Bears could stand to do that more too. Their eight takeaways are tied for 12th in the league.
Jackson is the obvious answer as he has engineered a bounce-back season thus far. Playing with a promising rookie in Brisker, Jackson has produced more game-changing plays than anyone on the Bears defense and has looked more like he did in his first few years in the league than in the last two years.
Eberflus said Jackson set up such a season in training camp.
“Man, he worked,” Eberflus said. “He is in the best shape of his life. He really bought into it. He’s taking great angles. He’s tackling well. He’s obviously ball-hawking, understand the big part of the field there. He blitzed well the other day. He’s doing everything you ask a safety to do.”
Jackson has three of the Bears’ five interceptions, the others coming from Roquan Smith and Kindle Vildor. The Bears obviously would like to see more picks throughout the team, though the three-game absence of cornerback Jaylon Johnson because of a quadriceps injury didn’t help.
Second-half question: What development will we see from the Bears’ four 2022 defensive draft picks?
There’s so much talk about player development in this rebuilding season, most of it rightly about quarterback Justin Fields. But the Bears spent a lot of draft capital on some young defensive players whose growth will be worth watching: cornerback Kyler Gordon and Brisker (both second round), defensive end Dominique Robinson (fifth) and safety/special teamer Elijah Hicks (seventh).
The Bears have put a lot on Gordon’s plate asking him to play both outside cornerback and nickel. He has gone through some growing pains but also has made some nice plays while totaling three passes defended, one forced fumble and 37 tackles.
Eberflus singled out Gordon’s play against the Commanders as promising.
“It’s a learning process with a younger player, sure,” Eberflus said. “We know they are going to go through some ups and downs and some ins and outs as you go. For example, Kyler Gordon, you look at the way he played (against the Commanders), well, he played pretty good, didn’t he? So he’s had a couple ups and downs during the course, but he has stayed the course with his eyes and vision forward to improve. He made a lot of nice tackles, made a lot of nice plays on the ball.”
Also intriguing are Brisker and Robinson, the former college quarterback and wide receiver who has 1½ sacks and two tackles for a loss. Hicks has played solely on special teams in four games.
Bonus question: Will Roquan Smith play his way into a big contract?
The Bears defense will be better if Smith makes the type of game-changing plays that would help him seal the long-term deal he’s seeking, though it’s unknown if that would be with the Bears or elsewhere. He has had some good and bad while totaling a team-high 66 tackles, three tackles for a loss, 1½ sacks and an interception.
Most notably, he helped secure the win against the Houston Texans with 16 tackles, including two for a loss, and a fourth-quarter pick that set up the winning field goal.
“I always place emphasis (on not making mistakes), regardless of the year that I’m in, because essentially we all know it’s a one-year deal,” Smith said in Week 6. “But I’ll get to those things when I do. I’m just trying to control what I can right now, and I’m just trying to be the best linebacker in football every play.”