Four years ago, the Bears had so much going for them in Week 16. They were coming off back-to-back victories, quarterback Jay Cutler and linebacker Lance Briggs were back from injuries and the NFC North title was in sight.
Then they got walloped on the road.
The Eagles humbled the playoff-minded Bears in Philadelphia. Quarterback Nick Foles led an offensive onslaught that produced 514 yards and a 54-11 victory.
“Defensively, it was a poor performance,” former coach Marc Trestman said.
A week later, safety Chris Conte blew his coverage against the Packers, quarterback Aaron Rodgers took advantage, and the Bears watched their rivals prevail 33-28 at Soldier Field and advance to the postseason.
As awful as the Bears’ finish was in the 2013 season, more bad days were ahead under former defensive coordinator Mel Tucker.
Once a proud, takeaway-driven bunch under former coach Lovie Smith, the Bears’ defense ranked 30th in 2013 and remained there in 2014. In addition, it was ranked 30th and 31st in scoring, respectively, in those years.
Coach John Fox and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio haven’t always seen eye to eye during the process of cleaning up the defensive mess they inherited in 2015. But it was cleaned up, nonetheless.
Even though the Bears only have four victories in their third year together, their efforts with general manager Ryan Pace have produced a turnaround on defense.
“They were bad for two consecutive years,” Fangio said. “And we’ve got it back to being respectable — in some cases good, in some cases not good enough. Overall, the defense is in a lot better shape moving forward than it was those two years.”
The reasons for optimism start with defensive linemen Akiem Hicks and Eddie Goldman, safety Eddie Jackson and outside linebacker Leonard Floyd, viable building blocks for 2018.
None of the players that started for the Bears during their 43-point blowout loss to the Eagles on Dec. 22, 2013, was on the team by the 2016 season. Cornerback Kyle Fuller is the only full-time starter from 2014 who’s playing this year.
Overall, it has been quite the overhaul.
It wasn’t a perfect process, though. Last season, the Bears tied an NFL record for the fewest takeaways with 11. This season, they’re tied with the Browns at 29th in the league with only six interceptions.
But with two games left, the Bears still rank eighth in total defense — and that’s despite having one of the league’s toughest schedules. They rank second in strength of schedule, trailing only the Redskins.
In 2016, the Bears were actually ranked seventh in total yards and sixth in passing defense in Week 14 against the Lions before injuries played a factor in losses the last three weeks and ruined their top-10 rankings. They finished 15th in total defense in 2016 after being 14th in 2015.
In the end, the defense’s progress likely won’t be enough to save Fox’s job. Fangio also is in the last year of his original contract after turning down an extension in the offseason.
Change is on the horizon. But meaningful progress on defense did take place after being so awful.
“We’ve done a tremendous job in reworking the defense,” Fox said. “We were [30th] in the league the year before getting here, and over this period of time, almost a complete three seasons, we’re in the top-10 range.”
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