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Bears’ defense closer to good than great so far, and that’s concerning

Few teams depend on their defense like the Bears, who are 23-12 under Matt Nagy despite being 20th in scoring during his tenure.

Akiem Hicks (left) and Khalil  Mack (right) have teamed with Robert Quinn to produce six of the Bears’ seven sacks this season.
Akiem Hicks (left) and Khalil Mack (right) have teamed with Robert Quinn to produce six of the Bears’ seven sacks this season.
John Bazemore/AP

For a team that depends on its defense as much as the Bears do, any warning signs are full-blown alarms. If this unit isn’t what it was the last two seasons, the Bears are in real trouble, even at 3-0.

There was concern when the lowly Lions romped to a 23-6 lead in the third quarter of the season opener, and again the next week when the Giants put together a 95-yard touchdown drive in the fourth quarter to pull within one score.

The tension rose a notch Sunday in Atlanta when the Bears allowed a season-high 437 yards and trailed 26-10 in the third quarter. The Falcons’ Todd Gurley averaged 5.7 yards per carry — the third consecutive week an opposing running back did as he pleased.

The Bears escaped all three games with victories, and their defense still is ninth-best in points allowed. But there have been enough lapses to wonder whether the group will straighten itself out like usual or if something more problematic is surfacing.

The Colts, with new quarterback Philip Rivers, come to Soldier Field on Sunday with one of the better offenses the Bears will face in the early season. They rank 13th with 28 points and 384 yards per game, with more success passing than on the ground.

So coach Matt Nagy had better be sure defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano is fixing this.

“I really do like where our defense is at right now,” Nagy said. “Two out of the three games, we’ve been affecting the quarterback. So I think we definitely can get better, but I like where we’re at.”

The Bears have indeed made life miserable for quarterbacks, and that’s the most promising part of their defensive performance. They have built around a pass rush of Khalil Mack, Robert Quinn and Akiem Hicks, and the early results are excellent. While the Bears rank just 11th in sacks with seven (six from the aforementioned trio), their overwhelming pressure has helped keep opponents to the lowest completion percentage (56.7) in the NFL. They’re also fourth in fewest yards allowed per pass (6.5), second in opponent passer rating (71.4) and third in third-down stops (31% converted).

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan completed just 3 of 9 passes on third downs Sunday and was sacked twice. At times, it seemed smarter to just kick or punt on third down rather than risk whatever mayhem Mack, Quinn and Hicks might cause.

In the second quarter, it looked as if the Falcons were actually thinking along those lines when they ran on third-and-5 at the Bears’ 35. The plan likely was to safely pick up a couple yards and take the field goal. But that’s when the Bears’ deficiency against the run showed. Brian Hill raced 35 yards for a touchdown, bursting through a huge hole at the line, zipping through a crowd and outrunning safety Tashaun Gipson and cornerback Kyle Fuller.

The Bears were in all-out pressure, expecting a pass, and couldn’t course-correct.

“They broke a tendency there from a run-pass standpoint . . . and they hit us on it,” inside linebackers coach Mark DeLeone said. “At the end of the day, we’ve got to get the guy down there.”

While no defense is perfect, the Bears have been closer to good than great so far, and many of the questions they had coming in still linger. At inside linebacker, can Roquan Smith be steady, and can Danny Trevathan stretch his prime a bit longer? Is the safety playing opposite Eddie Jackson truly interchangeable? Can a front seven built for the pass rush adjust when a team pulls something like the Falcons did on that third-and-5?

The last two seasons, the Bears had every answer. They might have them again eventually, but they don’t at the moment.