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Bears’ defense is still Super Bowl-caliber, but that’s usually not enough to win one

Charging into a season with an elite defense and a brutally bad offense rarely leads to success in the modern NFL. As the Bears try to go against the current, they need their offense to be at least average.

Chuck Pagano remains one of the top defensive minds in the NFL.
Chuck Pagano remains one of the top defensive minds in the NFL.
Mark Tenally/AP

The preseason didn’t matter much to Bears defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano last year, regardless of how he magnified its importance in news conferences. Come on, it’s not like Khalil Mack needed the reps.

But that was a different roster. Teams must constantly fill holes when players age out or get squeezed by the salary cap, and Pagano will have 14 practices — no games — to get new players acclimated and iron out plans in the secondary and on the defensive line.

“It’s going to be a huge challenge for everybody across the league because we’re all going to want to have live [tackling] periods — everybody’s scared to death to do that in practice,” he said. “We’ve always had the four preseason games, and ... our guys were going to play more [this year], so they were going to get that.”

And Pagano was going to get that. Preseason games would’ve been vital for evaluating new safety Tashaun Gipson and rookie cornerback Jaylon Johnson, picking a nose tackle after Eddie Goldman opted out and getting a feel for how pass rusher Robert Quinn fits. Pagano also needs to establish depth at several positions, especially linebacker after Nick Kwiatkoski left in free agency.

The Bears’ goal is to smooth out all those transitions and maintain an elite defense. Over the last two seasons, they’ve been outstanding: third in points and yards allowed, third in takeaways, fourth in yards allowed per rush, second in opponent passer rating and third in third-down stops.

Their core is still intact. The Bears count on having the NFL’s best pass rush with Mack, Quinn and defensive lineman Akiem Hicks. Kyle Fuller can be an All-Pro at cornerback. Gipson should look better than ever when paired with two-time Pro Bowl safety Eddie Jackson.

To the question of whether Pagano can fit everyone together and make this the best defense in the NFL, the answer is yes. If they stay healthy, they’re miles ahead of any NFC team.

But then there’s the next question: Is that enough?

The Bears learned the hard way that a Super Bowl-caliber defense often can’t compensate for a pitiful offense. They’re one of six teams in the last two seasons to finish in the top 10 in points allowed but miss the playoffs. Those teams finished, on average, 27th in scoring.

The Bears’ bid is countercultural in the modern NFL, where only three teams have reached the conference-title round without a top-10 offense. In 2018, the four finalists were also Nos. 1-4 in scoring. And while the Chiefs have been good defensively, the reason they’re at the dawn of a dynasty is because they’ve averaged 31.8 points in Patrick Mahomes’ young career.

The Bears have almost no hope of suddenly blooming into a fearsome offense. A more realistic — albeit still ambitious based on last season — target would be the middle of the pack. If better quarterback play, presumably from Nick Foles, and a stronger offensive line can get them there, that’s enough to give the defense a shot.

The Packers made it to the NFC Championship Game last season with the 15th-ranked offense and the No. 9 defense, and the 2016 Steelers got to the AFC title game with a team that was 11th in offense and 10th in defense.

The best template for the Bears, though, is the 2015 Broncos.

While they had quarterback Peyton Manning, he was 39 and struggling through his last season. Between him and Brock Osweiler, the Broncos managed a 76.3 team passer rating that ranked second-to-last and finished 19th in scoring. They scored 20 points or fewer in eight of 19 games (including playoffs) but went 6-2 in those because they had the No. 4 defense.

There’s no doubt Pagano can keep the defense at that level this season. But the offense has to be at least average for that to matter.