The opportunity to finally see the Bears’ defense at full strength was over before it started. Linebacker Danny Trevathan was put on injured reserve with knee soreness when the 53-man roster was announced last week. Alec Ogletree replaced him in the starting lineup against the Rams on Sunday night at SoFi Stadium.
But first-year defensive coordinator Sean Desai faced an even bigger hole to fill when the Bears kicked off the 2021 season. Nose tackle Eddie Goldman, whose return after opting out of last season because of coronavirus concerns was the key on-field upgrade from 2020 under Chuck Pagano, did not make the trip to Los Angeles because of a knee injury.
It gave Desai an early chance to test the defensive line depth that had been a strength under previous line coach Jay Rodgers — now the defensive line coach for the Chargers and Brandon Staley. In an interesting move, seventh-round rookie nose tackle Khyiris Tonga started at the nose. Bilal Nichols, who replaced Goldman as the starting nose tackle last year, stayed at defensive end.
It was a vote of confidence in Tonga, who had been impressive in training camp and the preseason. As it turned out, Nichols also spent time in the middle against the Rams, with veteran Angelo Blackson at end.
“Really impressed [with Tonga],” said Bears defensive line coach Chris Rumph, who replaced Rodgers. “He’s a guy that came in and fit right int he room, busted his but during OTAs [offseason practices] and continues to get better every day.”
Desai inherited a defensive core largely intact from the one that dominated in 2018 under Vic Fangio — led by defensive end Akiem Hicks, outside linebacker Khalil Mack, inside linebacker Roquan Smith and safety Eddie Jackson.
But he had other holes to fill — cornerback Kindle Vildor starting for Kyle Fuller, the former Pro Bowl player who was cut in a salary cap move; and nickel back Marqui Christian, replacing Buster Skrine, who was not signed in the offseason.
Christian getting the nod over Duke Shelley at nickel wasn’t an upset, but that Shelley was inactive was a little surprising.
None of that mattered on the Rams’ first series, when Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford caught the Bears napping. Stafford rolled to his left, then threw a deep ball to his right — and found wide receiver Van Jefferson wide open downfield at the Bears’ 20-yard line.
Jefferson stumbled at the 15 after catching the ball. And inexplicably, neither Jackson nor safety Tashaun Gipson bothered to touch Jefferson and end the play. So Jefferson got up, and ran into the end zone for a 67-yard touchdown that gave the Rams a 7-0 lead.
It was only one play — and just the third play of the first game of the season for the Bears’ defense. But it was still an inexcusable lapse by two veteran safeties and a poor reflection on Desai, who is expected to have a rejuvenating impact on the defense after two years of regression under Pagano.
The hope is that Desai not only presents new ideas and a new voice, but also renews the edge and bite this defense had under Fangio that turned it into a takeaway machine. A lackadaisical play like that was an inauspicious start to the season.
To its credit, the Bears’ defense found its legs after that wobbly start in the first half. When the Rams had a first-and-goal at the Bears’ 2-yard line, Jalen Johnson and Ogletree stopped running back Darrell Henderson for a two-yard loss and the Rams settled for a field goal.
And on the next possession, Hicks and outside linebacker Robert Quinn sacked Stafford and on third down, Smith stopped Robert Woods short of a first down to force a punt. After a bad start, the Bears’ defense under Desai started to look familiar. But Stafford opened the second half with a 56-yard touchdown pass, and the Bears defense again was on tilt. There’s a long way to go, but obviously some work to be done.