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Once a franchise focal point, the Bears’ defense is free-falling

Time is running out. And Drew Brees awaits.

New Orleans Saints v Chicago Bears
Bears outside linebacker Khalil Mack rushes the passer against the Saints in November.
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

On Nov. 30, the morning after a 41-25 loss to the Packers, coach Matt Nagy was still seething about the Bears’ defensive performance. He detailed their ineffectiveness on the Packers’ first three possessions, all of which ended in touchdowns. Take away a kneel-down at the end of the first half, and the Packers scored five touchdowns on their first six drives. Of their first 36 plays, 22 went for five yards or more.

“That’s not who our defense is,” Nagy said.

He was wrong. It’s precisely what the Bears’ defense has become.

That game was the start of a precipitous defensive decline that hasn’t been rectified entering the Bears’ wild-card playoff game Sunday against the Saints. The defense more closely resembles the one at Lambeau Field on Nov. 29 than it does the dominant unit the Bears counted on at the beginning of the season.

Consider:

• In their first 10 games, the Bears allowed an average of 5.11 yards per play, eighth-lowest in the NFL. In their last six games — starting with the first Packers loss — they gave up 5.78 yards per play, the eighth-highest.

• Through 10 games, no team gave up fewer touchdowns than the Bears’ 19. Since then, they’ve given up 22, the fifth-most in the NFL. Conversely, the Bears forced opponents to kick an NFL-high 26 field goals over their first 10 games. Since then, they’ve forced only three, tied for the fewest.

• Opposing quarterbacks had a collective 85.7 passer rating against the Bears through the first 10 games, fifth-best in the NFL. Since then, that rating is 111.1, the fourth-worst.

“We understand what it is that we struggle with and haven’t done so well,” outside linebacker Khalil Mack said this week. “So understanding those different things, you have to learn from them and continue to help that and continue to let that help us get better. Over the course of a week, you’d be surprised what we can get done.”

Time is running out. And Drew Brees, the NFL’s career passing leader, awaits.

The downward trend on defense is alarming, given the Bears’ emphasis on it. Only four teams spent a higher percentage of salary on that side of the ball this season than the Bears, who for three years have touted the unit as an extension of the franchise’s unsurpassed defensive history.

Before the season began, the Bears’ biggest questions revolved around quarterback, tight end, the running game and even their kicking — anything but defense.

But nose tackle Eddie Goldman opted out of the season because of the coronavirus risk. Big-money outside linebacker Robert Quinn struggled in camp and has just two sacks this season. Mack, who had never been limited in practice as a Bear until this year, was hampered by knee, back, ankle and shoulder injuries.

“You know, we have some marquee guys that’s really banged up,” safety Tashaun Gipson said. “And that’s never been an excuse, never should be an excuse — because when you’re on the field, it’s about what you do.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a slump. I think it’s still guys finding their ways.”

Inside linebacker Danny Trevathan, who signed a three-year, $21.75 million contract in the offseason, has looked slow. Cornerback Kyle Fuller, who tied for the NFL lead with seven interceptions in 2018, has one this season. Safety Eddie Jackson, who had six in 2018, has none.

They all need to play like stars Sunday. If they don’t, the Bears will have to ask uncomfortable questions this offseason, starting with whether Chuck Pagano is the right person to be defense coordinator.

When Pagano first addressed his players Monday on a teleconference call, he showed them clips of 20 dominant plays they made against the Saints in Week 8 of the regular season. Then he challenged them to it again.

“I’ve seen ’em do it before,” Pagano said. “We showed a lot of good [clips]. And guys doing their job in those critical situations, third-down situations, red-area situations, they made those plays. In the games that we’ve struggled, we haven’t made those.”

Players took it to heart, Gipson said.

“He challenged everybody individually — ‘Man, if you’re a playmaker, you make plays, and I’m going to put you in a position to make plays,’ ” Gipson said.

Pagano trusts them to do that.

“In order to go down there and play well and beat this team, our guys, our game-wreckers, our five-stars have to play that way,” he said. “Our four-stars, our three-stars, everybody has to play to their ability And I’ve got to do my job, you know? And I have to do it better.”