Bears’ wobbly defense looks to get back on its feet

The timing of losing Robert Quinn and Roquan Smith and facing two potent offenses with their starting quarterback healthy has the Bears’ defense reeling — allowing 42 and 28 points. But coach Matt Eberflus is confident they’ll recover. “It just comes down to execution,” he said.

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Bears linebacker Jack Sanborn (57) trips up Dolphins wide receiver Tyreek Hill (10) in the second half Sunday. Sanborn, a rookie starting for the first time in the NFL, had seven tackles.

Bears linebacker Jack Sanborn (57) trips up Dolphins wide receiver Tyreek Hill (10) in the second half Sunday. Sanborn, a rookie starting for the first time in the NFL, had seven tackles.

Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

Justin Fields and the Bears’ offense reached a new level in Sunday’s 35-32 loss to the Dolphins, with Fields setting an NFL record for rushing yards by a quarterback with 178 on 15 carries and throwing three touchdown passes. 

But with the Bears, any offensive renaissance seems to come with an equal decline from the defense. It was uncomplimentary football at its worst Sunday. While Fields was creating one highlight after another, the defense allowed 379 yards, 7.2 yards per play and four 75-yard touchdown drives on the Dolphins’ first five possessions. 

Even the Bears’ normal second-half defensive excellence failed them, as the Dolphins drove 75 yards for a touchdown on their first two possessions of the second half to take a 35-25 lead, before the defense rallied in the fourth quarter to give the Bears a chance to win. 

The special teams also sprung a leak, with Jaelan Phillips’ blocked punt leading to Andrew Van Ginkel’s 25-yard return for a touchdown that ended up being the -difference. 

But it’s the defense that’s most problematic with eight games remaining in the regular season, as the Bears try to right a listing ship after losing both its captains in the last two weeks — defensive end Robert Quinn and linebacker Roquan Smith.

So while the Bears have scored 94 points in their last three games — second in the NFL in that span — they also have allowed 98, which ranks 31st. It’s reminiscent of the dreaded 2013 season, when the Bears improved from 16th to second in scoring with Marc Trestman at the controls, only to have the defense fall from third to 30th.

The difference this time is that the defense is suffering more by design. In 2013-14 under Trestman and defensive coordinator Mel Tucker, the Bears were in an awkward transition from the Lovie Smith era, trying to maintain Smith’s defense as key players neared the end of the line or broke down or both.

This is the exact opposite, a clean rebuild with most of the players hand-picked by new general manage Ryan Poles for coach Matt Eberflus’ defense. In fact, 10 of the 13 players who played 40% or more of the defensive snaps against the Dolphins are newcomers. Four of them are rookies — cornerback Kyler Gordon, safety Jaquan Brisker, defensive end Dominique Robinson and linebacker Jack Sanborn.

There’s room for a lot of growth. And Eberflus’ record as defensive coordinator with the Colts from 2018 to ’21 indicates they’ll eventually make progress. Eberflus inherited a defense ranked 30th in points allowed in 2017 and finished 10th or better in three of his four seasons.

The timing of losing Quinn and Smith while facing two of the NFL’s most potent offenses with their starting quarterbacks — the Cowboys and Dolphins — is a factor in the Bears dropping from seventh to 21st in points allowed and from 12th to 18th in yards allowed the last two weeks. But Eberflus’ expectations have not been lowered. 

“It just comes down to execution,” he said. “Those guys [the coaches] were in the meeting, and they spelled it out for them. They went through every their-down assignment … every first down with the same thing. 

“They all looked at each other and said, ‘Hey guys, this is execution.’ That’s the position coaches, the coordinator and myself. I’m the head coach. And the players. We gotta do it together, and we gotta get better.”

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