Bears’ defensive decline over last 2 seasons starts with pass rush

How did the defense drop off from 2018, when it was overwhelming? There are several reasons, but the pass rush is No. 1.

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Mack is on pace for nine sacks this season.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

The Bears’ defense isn’t bad. Don’t overreact to the recent rough patch.

But this defense isn’t the overwhelming force it used to be, and its decline over the last two seasons has rattled the foundation of the team. When the Bears won the NFC North in 2018, it was their defense that carried them. It took over games by scoring or setting up the offense with a short field. It was terrifying.

Since then, the Bears have suffered personnel losses at every level and have dipped — slightly in some cases, dramatically in others — in every category.

They have said for two years they’d be a Super Bowl contender if they could just straighten out their offense. That’s not true anymore. Their defense has slipped from great to good — a major problem for general manager Ryan Pace’s blueprint.

While the Bears still rank 10th best in the NFL in points allowed at 22.7 (they were at 20.9 before sliding over the last four games) they have lost the threat of completely blowing up a game. Perhaps they’ll rediscover it Sunday against the Jaguars, who are one of the 10 most sacked and turnover-prone teams in the league.

The 2018 Bears were top-five in nearly every defensive category, and No. 1 in many of them, but now they fall closer to the middle. They rank sixth in third-down stops, third in preventing touchdowns once a team reaches the red zone and ninth in yards allowed per rush. But they’re also 25th in takeaways, 15th in keeping opponents out of the red zone in the first place and 14th in total yards allowed.

Their biggest issue is they haven’t figured out their pass rush, and that’s damning, considering it’s Pace’s top priority.

“It’s a passing league, [and] if you hit the quarterback, your corners are better, your safeties are better,” Pace said in September. “If you’re hitting the quarterback, those balls are going to get thrown up. . . . We’ve loaded up the secondary with guys that have ball skills. With a defense that can generate that kind of pass rush, that can equate to a lot of turnovers.”

The Bears averaged one sack every 13.3 times their opponent dropped back in 2018. That level of pressure helped them lead the NFL with 27 interceptions (the most by any team since 2013) and a 72.9 opponent passer rating (the lowest since 2010).

They had a good defense going into that season, and the trade for linebacker Khalil Mack trade put them over the top. Mack had 12.5 sacks and six forced fumbles, and defensive end Akiem Hicks had 7.5 sacks and three forced fumbles. They’re nowhere near those numbers as this season comes to an end, and Pace’s $70 million splurge on linebacker Robert Quinn hasn’t had much impact.

It’s fine for Pace to commit $44.5 million in salary-cap space to Mack, Hicks and Quinn, but only if he gets a commensurate return on the investment. The Bears can’t spend that amount on pass rushers and still not have an overwhelming pass rush.

The price for that trio goes up to $53.3 million next season, by the way. Their only alternative to paying all that money is to release Hicks with a dead-cap hit of $1.5 million and see if they can unload Mack’s contract in a trade. That would create cap space and likely bring draft picks to address other needs.

For now, though, they have no choice but to ride it out with this group and hope the defense regains enough of its form to challenge the Packers in the regular-season finale.

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