Bears are on edge about pass rushers, but they can get help from within

The Bears pressured opposing quarterbacks on 22.3% of their snaps when they didn’t blitz last season, according to Pro Football Focus, and sacked them 2.8% of those times. Someone else is coming to help — probably.

SHARE Bears are on edge about pass rushers, but they can get help from within
DeMarcus Walker (95) had seven sacks for the Titans last season.

Bears defensive end DeMarcus Walker had seven sacks for the Titans last season.

Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Bears edge rusher DeMarcus Walker spent the offseason training in some of the highest-altitude locations in the United States and at its southernmost point. He met with Larry Johnson Sr., the Ohio State assistant who is one of the most respected defensive line coaches at any level, and a workout coach recommended by Von Miller nicknamed ‘‘Hell’s Trainer.’’

To improve his game, Walker went to all four U.S. time zones — from Dallas and Denver to San Francisco and Key West, Florida, to Columbus, Ohio, and Las Vegas — and pulled out his phone to offer proof: a United app with 201,327 frequent-flier miles on it.

‘‘I’ve been all over,’’ he said. ‘‘I never close my mind off from learning.’’

That alone might not be enough for the Bears. General manager Ryan Poles didn’t land a big-name edge rusher this offseason, either in the first wave of free agency or the draft. He grabbed Walker in the second wave by offering him a three-year, $21 million contract to try to improve on the seven sacks he posted last season for the Titans.

Walker has been one of the most boisterous competitors in training camp so far, trying to spread enthusiasm — loudly — throughout practices. But he won’t fix the Bears’ NFL-worst pass rush by himself.

The Bears pressured opposing quarterbacks on 22.3% of their snaps when they didn’t blitz last season, according to Pro Football Focus, and sacked them 2.8% of those times. Both ranked last in the league. PFF ranked the Bears’ defensive line as the second-worst in the league entering 2023.

Someone else is coming — probably.

Since the night the draft ended, Poles has said the Bears would be interested in adding a veteran pass rusher, either via trade or free agency. There are plenty of free agents still available, including Yannick Ngakoue and Justin Houston, each of whom has experience with the Bears’ staff, as well as former No. 1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney. The NFC North rival Vikings took a potential trade target off the market when they agreed to give edge rusher Danielle Hunter a new one-year deal that can be worth up to $20 million.

Time will tell whether the salaries the free agents seek will come down to where Poles is comfortable. The Bears have the most salary-cap space in the league, but he has vowed to be disciplined.

Walker said the idea of the Bears adding another edge rusher is motivating and frustrating at the same time.

‘‘I take it personally — and the more, the merrier,’’ he said. ‘‘What I’ve been through and the rooms I’ve been in, I’ve been blessed with the talent I’ve been able to work with. That’s another opportunity for me to continue learning. But I also take it personally.’’

Until the Bears make a move, they need to see production from the other three edge rushers on their two-deep roster: veteran Rasheem Green, who has been getting first-team reps opposite Walker, and returning players Trevis Gipson and Dominique Robinson. As anonymous as they might be, they hold the key to the defense.

Green spent last season with the Texans and had 3½ sacks. A third-round pick by the Seahawks, Green thinks his game has gotten better with age.

‘‘It’s not like I got taller or bigger,’’ he said. ‘‘I feel I got better the last few years with my approach each day. Just being a pro day in and day out. . . . This is an opportunity, fresh start, another chance to prove myself.’’

Gipson and Robinson need to do the same. Between the two, they totaled one sack in more than 1,100 combined snaps after Week 2 last season.

‘‘I didn’t like it, honestly,’’ Robinson said. ‘‘It is what it is. It’s out the window now. But it was a learning experience. . . . I sat down with the coaches, watched some things, got better from it.’’

One piece of advice Robinson got from Poles and head coach Matt Eberflus in exit meetings was to pick someone else’s brain. Robinson was recruited to Miami (Ohio) as a quarterback before switching to receiver. He moved to defensive end for his senior season.

He no longer thinks of himself as a receiver — ‘‘That guy’s gone,’’ he said — but he knew he needed some edge-rusher savvy. With help from his agent, he connected with Robert Mathis, the former Colts star whose 123 career sacks rank 20th all-time.

Mathis told him about the importance of studying his blocker and coming into the game with a plan. He even shared a few moves.

‘‘I think there’s a lot of opportunities in the room to be had and taken advantage of,’’ Robinson said. ‘‘And we’ve just got to take advantage of them.’’

Gipson, who is two years removed from a seven-sack season, knew what he needed to fix this offseason: his ability to change directions. Gipson said his 2022 season was littered with near-misses of quick quarterbacks — from the Bills’ Josh Allen to the Dolphins’ Tua Tagovailoa to the Eagles’ Jalen Hurts — when they left the pocket.

Short of a brief trip to Texas to work on his conditioning, Gipson stayed near Halas Hall to train. He focused on being strong enough to put his foot into the ground to stop his momentum and smart enough to keep his eyes on the quarterback’s hips.

‘‘I left a lot of sacks out there on the table,’’ he said. ‘‘That was a part of my game that was exposed.

‘‘People always ask me: ‘Are you mad? Sad? Whatever the case may be.’ I was actually encouraged after the season. It was a weakness that I needed to strengthen.’’

The Bears need to strengthen the position, either from within or with outside help.

Until then, it’s their biggest weakness.

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