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Bears’ defense has one last chance to live up to 2018

It starts Sunday night in Los Angeles — ironically, against a Rams team that had the NFL’s best defense last year. 

Bears linebacker Khalil Mack and safety Eddie Jackson celebrate with fans after beating the Vikings in 2018.
AP Photos

Bears coach Matt Nagy doesn’t want his players to live in the past. That’s not easy in a city that canonized the 1985 champions. Or while playing for a franchise whose most prolonged success came in the 1930s. Or when you’re compared to a defense that, just three short years ago, was the best in the NFL.

“Clearly, that 2018 team and defense was something special,” second-year cornerback Jaylon Johnson said. “And I feel like we’re tired of hearing, ‘When can we get back to that?’

“It’s about being who we are and playing tough, sound, physical football each and every week. And that’s how we attack practice. That’s how we attack everything we’re doing. So just trying to get back to that and kind of take that doubt out of people’s minds about what type of defense we are.”

Even outside linebacker Khalil Mack, the best player on the 2018 defense, is tired of the comparison.

“You’ve got to understand, it’s a new year, new team, new possibilities and new goals,” he said. “You continue to set goals for yourself, so you’re supposed to get better. Ultimately, that’s what this year’s all about. Looking forward to getting better with this new group we have.”

This season might be the Bears’ last chance to recapture the magic. It starts Sunday night — ironically, against the Rams, who had the NFL’s best defense last year with an average of 18.5 points allowed. The Bears were tied for 13th at 23.1.

Their connection to 2018 is growing fainter by the year. After they traded cornerback Kyle Fuller and let defensive lineman Roy Robertson-Harris walk this offseason, six players remain from the unit that played in the opener three years ago at Lambeau Field: defensive linemen Eddie Goldman and Akiem Hicks, inside linebackers Roquan Smith and Danny Trev-athan, safety Eddie Jackson and Mack. That number figures to be even smaller next year. Hicks is in the last year of his deal, and the long-term futures of Trevathan and Goldman seem murky.

The Bears don’t have a single position coach left from 2018. Only one defensive coach remains in the building: new coordinator Sean Desai, who was a quality-control coach under former coordinator Vic Fangio three years ago.

Still, 2018 hangs over the team.

“That’s what we keep hearing as a defense, and that’s all they keep showing us, so it’s like, we’re tired of that,” Jackson said during training camp. “Now it’s time to get back to how we know how to play.”

When Chuck Pagano retired in January, Nagy interviewed nine defensive coordinator candidates. He chose Desai because of his connection to the 2018 defense but also because of his ability to move beyond it. Nagy wants to revive two things from that season: game-changing plays and swagger. The team hopes Desai can play to individual strengths the way Fangio did.

Desai has changed the culture “100%” from when Pagano was in charge, Johnson said. Players have ownership of the defense and hold each other accountable.

Veterans trying to explain the 2018 team to younger players describe the same thing: a tight-knit culture, from how hard they worked to their choreographed on-field celebrations.

“I think it starts off the field,” Mack said. “Getting more personal with guys. Understanding what’s going on with COVID and all these different protocols, but us getting that closeness back as a group off the field is going to be beneficial to us.”

So will takeaways. Last year, the Bears tied for 25th with a combined 18 fumble recoveries and interceptions. In 2018, they had twice as many and led the league.

“They all played together, they trusted each other, and they had fun doing it,” Johnson said. “And made a lot of plays.”