Will the real Bears defense please stand up?

After a mistake-riddled opening game against the Rams and a five-sack/four-takeaway performance against the Bengals, Sunday’s game against the Browns could be an interesting litmus test.

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Bears linebacker Roquan Smith (58) sacks Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow (9) last Sunday at Soldier Field. The Bears had five sacks and four takeaways in a 20-17 victory.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

When you ask an NFL player or coach an A-or-B question — was it this or that? — the answer is almost always, “a little of both.” But when Bears defensive end Akiem Hicks was asked if the Bears’ defensive dominance over the Bengals last week was a matter of a favorable matchup or the Bears imposing their will, he was definite.

“With respect to that team [the Bengals], I think we imposed our will,” Hicks said. 

We’ll see about that. If you imposed your will one week, you should be able to do it the next. And therein lies the challenge for the Bears’ defense against the Browns on Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland. Even for a defense as accomplished as the Bears’ in recent years, it’s always a little suspicious when you struggle against an established offense like the Rams, then snap back and “impose your will” against a fledgling offense like the Bengals. 

The same goes for defensive coordinator Sean Desai, who looked overwhelmed against the Rams but like a genius against the Bengals. The difference?

“Technique and fundamentals,” Desai said. “Our biggest focus is … making sure we’re disciplined with our technique and fundamentals and I thought we improved that form Week 1 to Week 2. 

“Was it perfect? No. It’s never going to be perfect. That’s what we’re striving for — to keep improving those technique and fundamentals and play within the scheme, so when guys have an opportunity to make plays, they’ll take advantage of those.” 

Facing a Browns offense that has averaged 406 yards in its first two games — 457 against the Chiefs and 355 against the Texans — gives the Bears defense a chance to show who they really are this season after the miscommunication-riddled flop against the Rams and the four-takeaway/five-sack command performance against the Bengals. 

The Bears are primed for the challenge. After showing their age a bit against the Rams, the Bears suddenly looked younger against the Bengals. 

Not only did 24-year-old linebacker Roquan Smith and 22-year-old cornerback Jaylon Johnson take steps toward stardom. But Hicks was a force throughout and looked downright spry at 31 when he chased down Bengals receiver Tee Higgins near the right sideline on one play. Robert Quinn looked fresher with two sacks. Khalil Mack had one and set Quinn up for one of his when the two lined up side-by-side on one play.

The Bears can’t stop the aging process. Sustaining what they’ve built — and re-energizing after two years of regression — depends on their younger players improving at a faster rate than their older players decline. 

Smith, Johnson, defensive end Bilal Nichols and safety Eddie Jackson provide hope they can do that. The return of Eddie Goldman — in his seventh NFL season at 27 — would have given the Bears an even better chance to further that momentum and return the Bears defense to the days when they imposed their will with regularity, not just against the struggling offenses. Goldman, though, was downgraded from questionable to out Saturday and will not play.

Without Goldman, the Bears’ defense still will keep plowing straight ahead. They didn’t whine after the poor performance against the Rams. They didn’t take a victory lap after redeeming themselves against the Bengals. 

“It’s just the same,” Jackson said. “Don’t get complacent. [Stay] the course. Everyone is still doing what we’re doing. The last game, just doing what we did — it’s the type of plays we know this defense is able to make. We want to continue to feed off that every week.”

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