Bears’ defense has significant questions to answer in 2020 season
Most of the attention on the Bears’ remodeling has been on the offense, but they’ve made some moves defensively that raise uncertainty. Will they still have a Super Bowl-level defense in 2020?
As the Bears tinker with their offensive personnel and playbook, the assumption is that’s all it will take to make them a contender again. But there’s question marks on the other side of the ball.
While the Bears have had an elite defense the last two seasons, it requires constant maintenance. There are no assurances about how long it will last as players age and contracts run out. As general manager Ryan Pace navigates the offseason, he hopes he’s staying in front of those concerns.
The pass rush is the heart of the Bears’ defense — and the team at large, really — and Pace retooled by cutting underwhelming former first-round pick Leonard Floyd in favor of signing virtuoso Robert Quinn.
If Quinn can stay healthy and productive, he’ll be an upgrade. The Bears also will improve up front if defensive tackle Akiem Hicks stays on the field after a season in which he missed one game with a knee injury and 10 with a dislocated elbow.
With Hicks out and Floyd faltering, the Bears’ pass rush slid from great (third in sacks, first in interceptions and first in opponent passer rating) to just OK (24th, 25th and eighth, respectively).
Opposing offenses concentrated fully on Khalil Mack, often triple-teaming him, and he posted his second-lowest sack total at 8½. As great as he is, he can’t do it alone.
He needs Quinn, going into his 10th season, to be a proper running mate. If that happens, the Bears will return to having the NFL’s most feared pass rush. And it’s encouraging that he had 11½ sacks for the Cowboys last season.
But that was Quinn’s first double-digit season since 2014. He had a run from 2015 through ’18 in which he averaged six sacks per season, and one of his explanations for the dip was the Rams moving him from defensive end to outside linebacker when they switched to a 3-4 defense. That’s what the Bears play, too.
No problem, according to Pace.
“This was something that was talked about thoroughly with our coaches and scouts,” he said last month. “You do have to look at it and say, ‘OK, how has this player had success in the past, and how can we make sure we maximize that?’ So that was discussed . . . So, hey, let’s get everybody in the spot where they’re best, but without
being predictable at the same time. So we feel very comfortable with that.”
Quinn said he’ll be fine as long as he plays on the right side, which is compatible with Mack’s preference to play on the left. But there’s a big difference between talking about it in the spring and actually doing it in the season.
At the back end, the Bears picked up journeyman safety Tashaun Gipson and don’t know yet who will replace Prince Amukamara at cornerback. Gipson was a celebrated pickup, but he was dumped mid-contract by his last two teams.
The cornerback vacancy figures to be filled by a competition between former Steelers draft bust Artie Burns, rookie Jaylon Johnson and backup Kevin Toliver. No guarantees there, either.
And there are two wild cards in the middle of the defense: linebackers Roquan Smith and Danny Trevathan. Smith has long been thought to be a future star, but his unexplained absence last season raised questions about reliability. Trevathan has been the voice of the defense for years, but he missed significant time in two of the last four seasons.
The Bears re-signed Trevathan (30) instead of Nick Kwiatkoski (26) for virtually the same price. For that to be prudent, Trevathan has to remain at the same level at which he played before suffering a season-ending elbow injury.
While none of those concerns are massive and the Bears’ defensive personnel is still as coveted as any in the league, it has been a few years since this unit entered a season with this many questions.