1st-and-10: Bears’ ‘D’ under the gun vs. Saints

Under Chuck Pagano, the defense has lost much of its bite — just 10 interceptions (tied for 23rd in the NFL). But it almost alarmingly also has lost its mental edge — the ability to buck up in tough situations.

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Bears linebacker Danny. Trevathan chases down Packers receiver Davante Adams during the Packers’ 35-16 victory over the Bears on Sunday at Soldier Field.

Bears linebacker Danny. Trevathan chases down Packers receiver Davante Adams during the Packers’ 35-16 victory over the Bears on Sunday at Soldier Field.

Nam Y. Huh/AP

When the Bears face the Saints in a wild-card playoff game Sunday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, all eyes will be on . . . Chuck Pagano and the Bears’ defense?

Indeed. While Matt Nagy, Mitch Trubisky & Co. kind of are what they are at this point, the Bears’ once-vaunted defense is on the spot another disappointing performance against the Packers. It allowed five touchdowns, including three on the Packers’ first three possessions to dig an early 21-10 hole.

This is no longer a case of being unable to uphold the incredibly high standard the Bears set under Vic Fangio in 2018. It’s a case of the Bears’ defense being a liability against above-average offenses — the kind they’ll face in the postseason — and trending downward. Not even the return of Akiem Hicks from a one-game absence because of a hamstring injury has been able to spark a resurgence.

The Bears’ defense allowed nine touchdowns in its first six games. It has allowed 30 in the last 10. The defense has lost most of its bite with only 10 interceptions (tied for 23rd in the NFL) and 16 takeaways. But it alarmingly also has lost its mental edge — the ability to buck up in tough situations.

The Bears led the NFL in red-zone efficiency in the first half of the season — allowing 12 touchdown on 30 red-zone possessions (40.0%). They plummeted to 31st in that category in the second half — allowing 17 touchdowns on 23 red-zone possessions (73.9%).

The Bears also led the league in third-down percentage in the first half of the season (29.8%) — nearly 10 points ahead of the second-best Buccaneers. They dropped to 31st in that category, too (47.9%), in the second half of the season.

The chain reaction of the downturn has robbed the defense of its playmaking ability. Khalil Mack had nine sacks and 13 quarterback hits in a Pro Bowl season, but he’s not the every-down terror he needs to be. And with Mack muted, the lack of a pass rush has turned safety Eddie Jackson from a touchdown-scoring weapon to just another guy, if that.

This defense is still young enough and talented enough to make an impact, but it might take more than the return of nose tackle Eddie Goldman to regain its lost luster. Pagano has consistently accepted the blame for the demise of the Bears’ defense. He might end up taking the fall, as well. Pagano, a veteran coach with credentials, doesn’t sweat much, if anything. But this could be a huge game for him.

2. After back-to-back 8-8 seasons, the Bears are treading water at best under Nagy. But making a coaching change is always dicey for them because they’re not equipped in the front office to find a better coach. That they could do worse is actually a legitimate argument with this franchise.

Or let’s put it this way: The Bears are in the playoffs because the Cardinals collapsed in the last two weeks — in part because Kliff Kingsbury is not the culture-building, CEO type of coach that Nagy is. The total package is hard to find. Even harder when you don’t quite know what you’re looking for.

3. The Bears backed into the playoffs for the first time since 1994, when they made the postseason as a wild card despite losing to the Patriots in Week 17.

But just getting into the playoffs doesn’t have quite the potential it used to. From 2005 to 2012, five teams seeded fourth or lower won the Super Bowl. But in the last seven seasons, no team seeded lower than second has even made it to the Super Bowl.

4. The Bears are 10-point underdogs against the Saints — and really in a bind if injured linebacker Roquan Smith can’t play. But for what it’s worth, the Saints have their own playoff crosses to bear, with three distasteful losses the last three seasons.

In the 2017 postseason, they lost to the Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium on Case Keenum’s improbable 61-yard touchdown pass to Stefon Diggs on the final play of the game. In 2018, they lost to the Rams at home in the NFC Championship Game after an egregious pass-interference penalty that wasn’t called. And last season, they lost to the Vikings at home in overtime.

5. Unlike the Vikings last year, the Bears won’t have to battle a full house at the Superdome. The Saints have limited attendance — from 3,000 to 6,000 fans — at their home games this year. Dome teams were 22-26 (.458) at home this season, compared to 83-53 (.610) the previous five seasons.

The Saints were 6-2 at home this season but 1-2 against playoff teams. They are 9-11 at home against playoff teams since 2014.

6. That Aaron Rodgers plays Jedi mind tricks against the Bears is a joke, but you have to wonder after another series of uncanny plays Sunday. Jackson, Barkevious Mingo and Kindle Vildor all missed golden opportunities for interceptions against Rodgers, continuing his amazing ability to avoid interceptions or make the Bears pay for the ones they get.

In 2010, Brian Urlacher intercepted Rodgers in the NFC Championship Game and had a clear path to a huge return before Rodgers tripped him up. In the de facto NFC North championship game in 2013, Chris Conte intercepted Rodgers in the end zone — then was burned by Rodgers for the winning touchdown in the final minute.

In the 2018 opener, Kyle Fuller dropped a sure pick that would have clinched a victory at Lambeau Field — the loss cost the Bears the No. 2 seed in the NFC and a playoff bye they needed. In the rematch at Soldier Field, Jackson intercepted Rodgers in the end zone — and suffered an ankle injury on the return and missed the Bears’ playoff game.

7. The List — Recent Bears coaches’ records vs. the Packers: Nagy (1-5); John Fox (1-5); Marc Trestman (1-3); Lovie Smith (8-11); Dick Jauron (2-8); Dave Wannstedt (1-11); Mike Ditka (15-5).

8. Cairo Santos’ franchise-record streak of 27 consecutive made field goals won’t stop Bears fans from holding their breath if Santos has to boot a field goal to win a playoff game, but it ranks with Allen Robinson’s 102 receptions for 1,250 yards and Smith’s 18 tackles for loss as the Bears’ best individual accomplishments in 2020.

Santos’ streak broke Robbie Gould’s record of 26 in 2005 and ’06. Gould’s streak ended when a 45-yarder was blocked (after a false start pushed it back).

Santos and Gould averaged 35.7 yards per kick during their streaks, but Santos hit from 55 and 51 yards. Gould’s longest kick was 49 yards twice. (Gould only attempted two kicks of 50-plus yards in his first four seasons and missed both, but then made 23 of 29 (79.3%) from 50-plus in his last seven seasons with the Bears.)

9. Josh McCown Ex-Bear of the Week: Washington linebacker Jon Bostic had eight tackles, a sack and two quarterback hits in a 20-14 victory over the Eagles that clinched the NFC East title. Bostic led Washington with 118 tackles this season.

10. Bear-ometer: 8-9 — at Saints (L).

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