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Three things we learned about Bears’ defense, from rush struggles to standout Josh Woods

Backup outside linebackers Kylie Fitts and Isaiah Irving started and played more than half the Bears’ snaps; the former assisted on one tackle, while the latter didn’t appear in the box score.

Bears linebacker Josh Woods celebrates after forcing a first-half fumble Thursday.
Brian O’Mahoney/For the Sun-Times

Safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, who needs preseason playing time to get to know his new teammates, started Thursday. So did the Bears’ rookie starters from last year, Roquan Smith and Bilal Nichols. Steady nose tackle Eddie Goldman, too.

They lasted five plays before sitting the rest of the game.

Still, there was plenty to glean from the Bears’ defensive performance in the preseason opener.

Here are three things we learned:

WHERE’S THE EDGE RUSH?

It took the Bears four plays to manufacture a pass rush — Smith had a sack on a blitz. Chuck Pagano figures to do a lot of that, even if his vanilla game plan Thursday looked a lot like everyone else’s. Former Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio blitzed on 31.8 percent of the downs in last year’s preseason opener, according to Pro Football Focus. Pagano blitzed on 33.3 percent against Carolina.

Of the Bears’ three sacks against the Panthers, two came from inside linebackers: Smith and backup Nick Kwiatkoski. Defensive end Roy Robertson-Harris’ sack was the most impressive of the night — on a bull rush, he shoved Panthers center Tyler Larsen into the backfield, then out of the way.

Not pictured: any Bears outside linebacker. With Khalil Mack, Leonard Floyd and Aaron Lynch out, backups had a chance to gain the inside track on a roster spot. Kylie Fitts and Isaiah Irving started and played more than half of the defensive snaps; the former assisted on one tackle, and the latter didn’t appear in the box score. James Vaughters, 26, a former CFL player, had a fumble recovery.

“That clump of guys, with Kylie, Isaiah and James Vaughters, those guys are all right there in the mix for a roster spot,” outside linebackers coach Ted Monachino said earlier this week. “They’ve got four great opportunities coming up in the preseason.

‘‘If they come out, they make a difference in games and change plays in our favor, they’ll have a chance to be in that discussion.”

BRINGIN’ THE WOODS

Josh Woods had himself a game. He forced an Elijah Holyfield fumble in the second quarter and finished with five tackles, second-most on the Bears.

His 44 snaps were third-most on the defense; only two Bears were involved in more than his 14 special-teams plays.

It was the biggest step yet for Woods, a safety at Maryland whom the Bears converted to inside linebacker last year. He made the 90-man roster out of a tryout camp but broke a finger last preseason. The Bears cut him but carried him on the practice squad.

“Every day he gets a little bit better,” inside linebackers coach Mark DeLeone said this week. “He sees a play he hasn’t seen before, and he adjusts to it. And that’s part of being a pro.”

He has an uphill climb to make the team. The Bears will keep starters Danny Trevathan and Smith, but they also value the special-teams prowess of backups Joel Iyiegbuniwe and Kwiatkoski. Iyiegbuniwe led the team with 317 special-teams plays last year. Kwiatkoski was second with 304.

COVER THE PUNT

Javon Wims led the NFL with 228 receiving yards last preseason. He has been one of the best receivers in training camp this year. But the most important stat he posted was simple: 12 special-teams plays.

Wims, who just missed a solo tackle on punt coverage, never played special teams in college. The learning curve is steep.

“Just understanding the rules,” special-teams coordinator Chris Tabor said earlier this month. “And understanding why I’m dropping the way I am, to influence this person, yadda-yadda-yadda. Now he has a grasp of that. So that helps him.”

Wims wouldn’t say that he needs to play special teams to make the Bears, but he came close.

“I think special teams are important,” he said.