From worst to ...? Bears’ defense anticipating giant leap in 2023

The Bears were last in the NFL in points allowed in 2022. But with a revamped front seven and a more experienced secondary, the defense already has a swagger in training camp that has players thinking big. “That we’re going to dominate,” cornerback Jaylon Johnson said.

SHARE From worst to ...? Bears’ defense anticipating giant leap in 2023
Defensive tackle Justin Jones (93) is the only full-time starter remaining from the Bears’ front seven that started Week 1 last year against the 49ers.

Defensive tackle Justin Jones (93) is the only full-time starter remaining from the Bears’ front seven that started Week 1 last year against the 49ers.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Less than a year after the Bears finished last in the NFL in points allowed and in the bottom five in most major defensive categories, Eddie Jackson can feel the difference.

“I feel good, man,” the two-time Pro Bowl and former All-Pro safety said. “I don’t want to sound like a broken record, but it’s fired up out there, man. It’s intense. Everyone is flying around. Guys are locked in. It’s a whole different mindset compared to last year.”

Nobody knows the difference like Jackson. In his first two seasons in the NFL in 2017-18, he helped fuel the rise of Vic Fangio’s defense to elite status. He had five defensive touchdowns in that span, including three in the glorious 2018 season, when Fangio’s defense, headed by Khalil Mack and Akiem Hicks, became a wrecking crew and led the NFL in fewest points allowed.

Five years later, Jackson and his teammate are picking up the pieces after last year’s implosion, when All-Pro linebacker Roquan Smith and franchise sack-record holder Robert Quinn were traded and Jackson missed the final five games with a Lisfranc injury.

The Bears’ defense had nowhere to go but up, but two weeks into training camp, with defensive intensity and swagger obvious in practices with or without pads, the question is: How high can it go?

“You guys see it, if y’all out there watching — we are on fire, man,” Jackson said. “We’re really flying around. We’re really getting it. Everyone is locked in, buying into it, and everybody is trying to get better. No one is complaining. When you get that, I feel like it’s always headed in the right direction.”

And that’s without newly signed defensive end Yannick Ngakoue on the field. The addition of Nga-koue — whose 65 career sacks are tied for the seventh-most in the NFL over the last seven seasons — has only built upon the momentum. It has the Bears thinking even bigger.

“That we’re going to dominate,” cornerback Jaylon Johnson said. “I think we have all the tools and the pieces. We felt confident before we got [Ngakoue]. So now that we’re adding him, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t go out here and dominate and do what we know we can do.”

It remains to be seen if the Bears’ defensive resurgence is real or inflated by success against a formative offense. But by upgrades alone, it’s clear the arrow is pointing up.

With Ngakoue, the Bears should be better in 2023 than they were at the end of 2022 at seven or more positions: Ngakoue, defensive end DeMarcus Walker, defensive tackle Andrew Billings, linebackers Tremaine Edmunds and T.J. Edwards, cornerback Kyler Gordon and safety Jaquan Brisker. And that’s before they know how much of a boost they’ll get from a promising rookie class that includes defensive tackles Gervon Dexter and Zacch Pickens and cornerbacks Tyrique Stevenson and Terell Smith.

“We’ve got a lot of new faces,” Johnson said. “You add two high-level linebackers — I can easily say they’re two of the top 10 linebackers in the league. That sets a tone up front. We did a lot adding to that D-line. I know we’re experienced on the back end, and we’re jelling together. Adding a pass rusher, I don’t think there’s anywhere we’re weak at, quite frankly. There’s nothing we can’t do.”

With all those new faces, Matt Eberflus’ track record figures to be a factor. Eberflus’ defenses with the Colts ranked fifth, 16th, ninth and ninth in points allowed in his four seasons as defensive coordinator. The Bears’ performance last season more likely is attributed to a roster teardown than Eberflus losing his touch.

The Bears aren’t looking for a miracle. A bottom-five team in points allowed has jumped into the top 10 the following year 10 times in the last six seasons — at least once a year. And all but one of those teams fits the Eberflus profile — a defense in the first or second year under a new coordinator or head coach.

The Jets, in fact, jumped from 32nd to fourth in points allowed last season in former 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh’s second season as head coach.

“I would just go from my past experience,” Eberflus said. “When I got to Indy, they were last in the league in all those [categories]. And last year we know we were not very good. I certainly see a jump in talent. I see the experience and the -familiarity with the scheme helps.”

Stopping the run will be the key factor. The Bears were 31st against the run last year.

Of their four interior lineman, only Justin Jones remains, with the Bears adding Billings and touted rookies Dexter and Pickens seen to be part of the rotation.

“We’ve got some guys that are pretty rugged up front,” Eberflus said. “Our front seven’s changed. There’s only a couple of guys that are still part of that front seven from last year, so there’s been a big changeover.

“The secondary’s young. And they certainly supply a lot of that run force and a lot of aggression. It’s a team defensive thing. And we’re excited where it is.”

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