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Primed for a big year, pressure is on Bears’ defense to carry the load

Outside linebacker Leonard Floyd is one of the Bears' few sure-thing pass rushers returning next year. (Getty Images)

Jerrell Freeman can’t wait to get started. But, then again, the Bears inside linebacker is one of those guys who can’t wait to step on any football field at any time.

“I’m excited, period. It doesn’t matter,” Freeman said Thursday in the Soldier Field locker room after the Bears’ 25-0 loss to the Cleveland Browns in the preseason finale. “I’m excited to go to practice, go through walkthroughs, go work out. If you know where I’ve come from, I’m just excited, always, to be out on the field and help my team in any way possible.”

While that in itself is great, the anticipation among key defensive players seems to be a little heightened after an encouraging preseason for the first-team defense. Even without outside linebacker Pernell McPhee and inside linebacker Danny Trevathan, the Bears’ first- and second-team defenders held opponents to four yards per play and 2.4 yards per rush in the first halves of their three preseason games. Led by Akiem Hicks, the front seven did nothing to dispel the notion it’s primed to be a top-10 unit under defensive coordinator Vic Fangio.

“The sky’s the limit,” Freeman said. “We were a top defense for a while last year [seventh in yards allowed per game, fifth in sacks per pass play through Week 14], and we got a lot of guys hurt. We have depth now because those guys were able to get some playing time last year. I guess we trust everybody that comes into the game . . . understanding [the defense] and knowing what Vic wants within the defense, and we play fast.”

Takeaways are the missing element. The Bears had only two in the preseason, and both were by reserves against reserves — cornerback B.W. Webb’s interception of the Cardinals’ Blaine Gabbert in the fourth quarter, and John Jenkins’ fumble recovery after a sack by Lamarr Houston in the fourth quarter against the Titans.

Health again is a concern heading into the regular season. McPhee and Trevathan didn’t play in the preseason. Nose tackle Eddie Goldman missed last week with a concussion. Cornerback Prince Amukamara was out last week with an ankle injury suffered early in the Titans game.

McPhee was on the physically-unable-to-perform list throughout training camp and the preseason. He worked out on the field in recent practices but still might start the season on the PUP list, which would force him to miss at least six games.

Trevathan, recovering from a torn patellar tendon he suffered in Week 12 last season, is more encouraging. He participated in team drills the last two weeks of the preseason but didn’t play in any games. He’s hopeful of starting in next Sunday’s opener against the Falcons, but there’s no other indication he will.

“You’ll have to ask Danny,” Freeman said. “I know he’s champing at the bit to get out there. And when he’s ready, he’ll be out there. I look forward to that day.”

But even on the injury front, the Bears appear to be in better shape this season than last, with more capable and tested replacements. Willie Young would start in place of McPhee. Nick Kwiatkoski, who started seven games in place of Trevathan and Freeman as a rookie last season, figures to start if Trevathan can’t play. Kyle Fuller is the likely replacement for Amukamara. When Fuller was the injured starter last year, his replacement was Jacoby Glenn, who lasted three weeks.

Now they have to prove they can live up to the preseason promise, take the ball away and stay healthy. With the offense looking like it’ll be a work in progress from the start, the Bears’ defense is going to have to hit the ground running.

Follow me on Twitter @MarkPotash.

Email: mpotash@suntimes.com

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