Bears’ defense overmatched by Bills, but ‘we’re not soft’

Effort has kept the Bears competitive, but it hasn’t been enough to sufficiently offset the talent deficit they usually face.

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Expectations are everything, which is why both of the Bears’ 8-8 seasons under Matt Nagy were maddening. Yet, there’s an air of optimism around Matt Eberflus’ 3-11 team despite it plummeting toward the franchise’s worst record in more than 50 years.

Everyone sees that the Bears have few NFL-starter-grade players left on defense, and there’s only so much they can do with that personnel. Even though they’ll never say it publicly, Eberflus and defensive coordinator Alan Williams know it better than anyone.

So what can they do?

They can push.

With the benefit of having a roster comprised mostly of fledgling players fighting just to secure a job for next season and rookies with everything to prove, Eberflus’ creed of playing full-speed, full-force at all times hits receptive ears.

Even a grizzled veteran like 29-year-old safety Eddie Jackson remarked that it was the first time in his six seasons with the Bears that the team would “actually go out there and practice fast all the time.”

That hasn’t produced wins, and the Bears have allowed the third-most points in the league, but it’s clear they aren’t a pushover. Even a team as mighty as the Bills, the betting favorite to win the Super Bowl, won’t be able to sleepwalk to victory Saturday at Soldier Field.

“We’re not soft,” cornerback Jaylon Johnson said when asked what the defense has managed to establish this season. “We’re not gonna quit, ever. This team and the people in this locker room are always going to go to war, no matter what the circumstances are.

“There’s some things that haven’t gone our way, but there hasn’t been any quit, any complaining. The only thing lacking is execution. But as far as the men we have, we’re definitely tough.”

That part about lacking execution hints at the talent deficit. Hustle and grit only get you so far against the best of the best. The Bears presumably will use their mountain of salary-cap space and draft capital to get better players, and better players will execute.

Speaking of good players, by the way, that quote will be Johnson’s final contribution to the Bears this season. They put him on injured reserve Friday with rib and finger injuries.

Anyway, for all their effort, the Bears are allowing 25.6 points per game, which would be their most since 2013 and their seventh-most ever. It’s disorienting to watch from a team that had a historically good defense in 2018 and was still championship-caliber in ’19 before descending to this.

Nonetheless, another Super Bowl contender found out last week that playing the Bears is no vacation. They have no pass rush, no Pro Bowl selections and no one making more than $4.6 million this season, but they held MVP candidate Jalen Hurts to his lowest passer rating of the season and kept the Eagles below their average at 25 points.

The Bears still have rookie corner Kyler Gordon, who is progressing rapidly, and fellow second-round pick Jaquan Brisker has been a deterrent from the jump. With the rest of the lineup filled by people playing as though their careers are on the line, very little will come easily for the opposing offense.

Hurts ultimately threw for 315 yards, but he also threw two interceptions, and the Bears had the ball with 8:25 left trailing just 17-13. He escaped with a 25-20 win.

That’s a familiar story: Virtually everyone beats the Bears, but hardly anyone does it effortlessly. That should be instructive to Josh Allen. If he has an off day, he’ll be fighting to the end to salvage a win.

Three weeks ago, Aaron Rodgers had 137 yards passing, and the Packers trailed 19-17 in the fourth quarter.

Of the Bears’ 11 losses, only three were thorough defeats. They had fourth-quarter leads in four of them. They all count the same in the standings, but few of their conquerors walked away thinking it was a breezy day.

That, along with Justin Fields’ prowess, means they have a chance. They also have a chance of being blown out, of course. The Bills are fourth in the NFL at 27.5 points per game and do everything well.

They’re one of five teams, including the Bears, averaging five yards per carry in the ground game. Allen averages 325.9 yards passing and rushing combined and even got close to 500 in a game in October. The Bears probably will lean on Gordon to cover superstar wide receiver Stefon Diggs, and even if that goes well, Gabe Davis remains a problem.

For all the Bears’ clawing and praying that the weather works in their favor, the Bills have more talent at every turn — a mismatch further exacerbated by Johnson’s exit. And as the Bears have seen many times, that’s hard to overcome.

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