Bears’ many defensive woes are rooted in D-line play
The Bears are near the bottom of the NFL in sacks and third-down defense. Without Khalil Mack and Robert Quinn, someone needs to step up.
The surest way for the Bears to stop allowing a deluge of points every time they take the field is to ignite their pass rush.
But who’s going to do it?
The Bears offloaded their best option when they swapped defensive end Robert Quinn for a 2023 fourth-round pick, and that came after the offseason trade of Khalil Mack.
Clearly in rebuilding mode from the jump, general manager Ryan Poles opted for bargains in free agency. He also surveyed a roster laden with deficiencies and didn’t get around to drafting a pass rusher until Dominique Robinson in the fifth round.
That leaves coach Matt Eberflus and defensive coordinator Alan Williams with limited choices.
Sixth-year defensive end Al-Quadin Muhammad had a career-high six sacks last season but has only one this season.
The Bears hoped Trevis Gipson was poised for a breakthrough after getting seven sacks last season. He got Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers twice in Week 2 but hasn’t had a sack since.
Likewise, Robinson got 1½ sacks in the season opener and has been shut out for eight games.
Muhammad and Gipson played 77% and 74% of the snaps, respectively, against the Dolphins on Sunday, followed by Robinson (40%) and undrafted rookie Kingsley Jonathan (12%).
That’s not a concrete depth chart, though. Eberflus said it’s essentially an open competition in practice each week.
The Bears are 29th in sacks with 12. That shortcoming factors significantly into the Bears ranking 31st in third-down defense, with opponents converting 50.5%. Only the Lions, who visit the Bears on Sunday, are worse at 51%.
“The D-line is the engine,” Gipson said. “The defense goes as we go, and we need to step it up, honestly. Plain and simple, we need to step it up.”
As always, it’s a multifaceted problem. It’s never simply one thing.
Bears opponents have the third-shortest distance to go on third downs at an average of 5.9 yards. That stems in part from their trouble against the run, where they’re allowing the third-most yards per game in the NFL at 147.2.
“If we don’t get those guys into obvious passing situations, it just makes it more difficult,” Gipson said. “It’s a whole bunch of factors, but that’s the main thing: stopping the run on first and second down and getting them in a [bad] position on third down.”
Blitzing might help, and safety Jaquan Brisker leads the team with three sacks, but that’s not part of the Eberflus-Williams blueprint. The Bears have blitzed 14% of the time, last in the NFL, and that’s unlikely to change given Eberflus’ emphasis on establishing a clear style of the play for the long run.
That’s his and Williams’ choice, though, so it’s on them to find an answer within their scheme.
“It’s not just player-driven; some of it is coordinator-driven,” Williams said. “I have to be creative putting guys in position to accentuate what they do well. Some places I need to be more aggressive. Some places I need to let the guys rush and mix up the looks that we’re giving to people.”
It’s noble of Williams to take responsibility, but the underlying challenge defensively is there’s only so much the Bears can do without top-tier weapons such as Mack and Quinn. They’re desperate for someone to emerge.