Bears GM Ryan Pace’s shaky plan for secondary yields ... shaky secondary
The shocking thing isn’t that the Bears’ secondary struggled against the Rams. It’s that Pace thought this would work in the first place.
The Bears can’t possibly be surprised by the appalling failures of their secondary against the Rams after going into the season with a flimsy plan that put affordability over ability.
Imagine putting a team together in the modern, pass-happy NFL without solid answers at cornerback. No need to imagine, actually. General manager Ryan Pace did exactly that, and the result of his wild experiment was Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford lighting up the Bears for 321 yards, three touchdowns and a career-high 156.1 passer rating — the highest number the Bears ever have allowed.
They keep trying to spin it as an aberration. Missed tackles, blown coverages, getting straight-up burned — that’ll never happen again, they’ve said.
But it might. This weekend.
The Bengals are just as capable of exploiting the Bears’ secondary with quarterback Joe Burrow and big-time receivers Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd, plus rookie No. 5 pick Ja’Marr Chase, who opened his NFL career with five catches for 101 yards and a touchdown.
The Browns are next, by the way. Then the Packers and Buccaneers loom next month. The Bears can’t hide this.
There’s no help on the way, either. They gave three free agents a tryout this week, but those would be practice-squad-level players. D.J. Hayden is 31 and played only five games for the Jaguars last season, Lafayette Pitts is almost 29 and hasn’t played since 2018 and Kevon Seymour was out all of 2018 and ’19 before getting into two games with the Eagles last season.
That sounds bleak, but that’s the aisle in which Pace has been shopping for a while. Banking on Jaylon Johnson to step into the No. 1 cornerback role is a reasonable projection after salary-cap cramps forced the Bears to cut Kyle Fuller. But after him?
Kindle Vildor was a fifth-round pick who played only 13% of the snaps last season.
Marqui Christian, who started at nickel against the Rams and still doesn’t know which way Cooper Kupp went, spent almost all of last season on the practice squad.
Artie Burns wore out his welcome with the Steelers and played only 6% of their defensive snaps in 2019 before missing last season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
Duke Shelley seemed like the default answer at nickel, but the Bears were so unimpressed that they made him inactive.
‘‘We are real hungry for an opportunity just to get back, to shut people up,’’ Johnson said. ‘‘I feel like people get it confused. We have playmakers. We have guys that have played at a high level for a very long time.
‘‘[People] let one opportunity, one situation that happened cloud their judgment or talk in a certain way. So for us, it’s just about being short-minded and bouncing back.’’
Johnson is free to be mad. He’s not the issue. He’s pretty much the only Bears defensive back who can say that right now.
Pace either lived in denial about this inevitable problem or thought he could sift through late-round picks and castoffs to find gold. Vildor is his best hope of being right about that.
Years of kicking money down the road and trying to clean up missed draft picks, such as Leonard Floyd, with pricey free agents, such as Robert Quinn, caught up to Pace, and the price was Fuller.
With minimal cap space, the best the Bears could do in free agency was a cheap deal for Desmond Trufant. They cut him in August.
With alarming holes elsewhere, namely quarterback and left tackle, they couldn’t even consider addressing cornerback in the draft before the fifth round. Johnson, a second-rounder, is the only cornerback Pace has drafted in the first three rounds. That position wasn’t a concern when Fuller was around, but now he’s not.
A GM can tell himself and the public whatever he wants in the offseason about how he solved a certain problem. But the truth always comes out on the field, and the Bears are feeling the consequences of mismanaging a vital position.