Confident Bears defense looks to regain its mojo

Hopes are high for a resurgence in 2023. But without linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, safeties Jaquan Brisker and Eddie Jackson and defensive ends DeMarcus Walker and Yannick Ngakoue, they’ll have to put it all together on the fly to hit the ground running in Week 1.

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Safety Jaquan Brisker (9) led the Bears with four sacks as a rookie last season.

Bears safety Jaquan Brisker (9) been out with an undisclosed injury since Aug. 5. He has missed 11 practices and two preseason games.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Only two days into padded practices in training camp on Aug. 2, the Bears’ defense was feeling it.

With safeties Eddie Jackson and Jaquan Brisker leading the way, the defense was in midseason form emotionally, playing with an edge, a verve and a swagger that made Justin Fields and the offense look timid by comparison.

“There are a lot of guys that bring a lot of juice,” Jackson said that first week in -August. “There are a lot of guys that are going to talk, get riled up. On offense, we’re just trying to get that going for them. They got more silent assassins . . . guys that do it with their play. We want to keep bringing that energy and juice to practice every day to get them fired up.”

Three weeks later, the defense still has that juice and still is fueled by the belief that it is on a path toward being one of the best in the NFL. But injuries to key players have short-circuited the edge and muted some of the outward emotion that create that swagger.

Linebacker Tremaine Edmunds returned to practice Tuesday after missing 10 practices and two preseason games and just started playing substantial reps in team drills Thursday. Brisker has been out since Aug. 5. Jackson has been out since Aug. 16.

Defensive end DeMarcus Walker has been minimally active in practice since Aug. 1. He returned in pads last week in practices against the Colts but was back on the sideline this week. And defensive end Yannick Ngakoue, signed to a one-year contract Aug. 4, has been mostly in “ramp-up” mode, though he participated in team drills Thursday.

Eventually, the Bears’ defense expects to be whole by the Sept. 10 opener against Jordan Love and the Packers.

But with six new starters from a defense that finished last in the NFL in points allowed last year, things will have to come together in a hurry.

Not a big deal, they say.

“Naw,” cornerback Jaylon Johnson said, “because Tremaine is not somebody that is new to this league. Brisker, I feel like he’s coming in hot — we worked together in OTAs, minicamp, then the start of fall camp. It’s not a big, big difference.”

From coach Matt Eberflus to defensive coordinator Alan Williams to the players, the “mental reps,” walkthrough reps and meeting-room work will fill the void, they say. Conditioning and chemistry likely will be hurdles, but nobody’s worried about that.

“When they come back, I know they’re going to come in and make plays,” Johnson said. “I have no doubt we’re going to hit the ground running.”

Eberflus said starters will play in the Bears’ preseason finale against the Bills on Saturday at Soldier Field.

But it remains to be seen which starters and for how long. Eberflus was noncommittal when asked about Edmunds, who’s healthy but is still just returning from a three-week absence.

Even after that game, the Bears will have two weeks to prepare for the Packers.

“We’re still not there yet,” Edmunds said. “We still have some time, so there’s no need to panic. There’s no need to worry about things, but we just have that sense of urgency to get this thing right. You can see it.”

At full strength, this Bears defense has several likely positional upgrades over 2022 — Ngakoue, Walker, defensive tackle Andrew Billings, Edmunds and linebacker T.J. Edwards at the top of that list. The unknown is how quickly they’ll mesh at regular-season game speed.

“If you’ve got a guy who’s experienced and has played a lot of football in the NFL, as long as you get him the mental stuff during the walkthroughs, they can be effective,” Eberflus said. “As long as they have a few days . . . they can get themselves sharp and knock the rust off and be ready. That’s been my experience with those guys.”

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