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Why Leonard Floyd could make the Bears’ good defense a great one

Adam L. Jahns’ “Inside the Huddle” column appears in game-day editions of the Chicago Sun-Times.

Before Mitch Trubisky, outside linebacker Leonard Floyd was the Bears’ answer to Packers superstar Aaron Rodgers. Whereas Trubisky was drafted with the vision of matching Rodgers offensively to some degree, Floyd was selected to attack and sack him.

Rodgers won’t be in the game Sunday — sidelined indefinitely after surgery for a broken collarbone last month. Will Floyd miss chasing him around?

“As long as you play your quarterback, I’m trying to get you,” Floyd said. “It [doesn’t] really matter who the person is.”

Bears OLB Leonard Floyd. (AP)

That’s a good mindset for Floyd to have, because no player looks to have a more lasting impact on the defense than him over the final eight weeks. In the Bears’ last four games against the Vikings, Ravens, Panthers and Saints, the defense established itself among the league’s best. Compared with the first four games of the season, the defense improved in several aspects: sacks (14 vs. 9), interceptions (4 vs. 0), pass breakups (20 vs. 15), takeaways (8  vs. 3), third-down percentage (29.8 vs. 47.1) and points allowed per game (16.8 vs. 26.0).

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“We’re just forming an identity,” cornerback Prince Amukamara said. “We’ve shown that we’re going to be a defense that’s great tacklers, it’s going to be tough for you to score on us in the red zone, and we just started ramping up our play-making ability.”

Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio can point to several players for the improvement. Safeties Adrian Amos and Eddie Jackson deserve special mention because of the takeaways they’ve produced. But Floyd’s production stands out in the last four games because it has the best chance to continue in the second half of the season. Four of his five sacks and six of his eight tackles for loss came in the last four games. He also had a safety and five quarterback hits in those games.

“He’s played a good deal of plays,” Fangio said. “He’s been a factor in the rush. He’s doing good as an outside backer in the run game, for the most part. I like his play and like where he’s headed.”

The second half bodes well for Floyd. The Bengals’ Andy Dalton, the Lions’ Matthew Stafford and the Eagles’ Carson Wentz are capable quarterbacks — Wentz is a candidate for NFL MVP — but all rank in the top 10 for sacks this season.

Among qualified QBs, Dalton has the NFL’s third-highest sack rate at 9.2 percent. Stafford (7.9 percent) and Wentz (7.3) aren’t too far behind. That’s different from what the Bears faced in their first eight games. The Saints’ Drew Brees (2.8  percent), the Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger (3.5), the Buccaneers’ Jameis Winston (4.8), the Falcons’ Matt Ryan (4.9) and even the Ravens’ Joe Flacco (6.1) have been sacked less frequently.

It’s unknown who will start at quarterback when the currently winless 49ers and Browns visit Soldier Field in December, but Floyd and the Bears will be favored. Former Patriots quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo might change the 49ers in time, but they have allowed 32 sacks — behind only the Colts’ 36 this season. And Browns rookie DeShone Kizer has been sacked 15 times in seven starts. He’s also tied for the most interceptions thrown with 11.

The only similarity between Rodgers and Packers backup Brett Hundley is their sack numbers. Rodgers typically is sacked at a high rate each season, but he has shown year after year that he can compensate. Case in point: In their first meeting last Oct. 20, Floyd sacked Rodgers twice — including forcing a fumble that Floyd recovered for a touchdown — but the Packers still won 26-10 at Lambeau Field.

Bears players say they have to be mindful of Hundley’s running ability Sunday, but he has been sacked eight times in four games since taking over for Rodgers.

“You’ve just got to be smart with your rush,” Floyd said.

Hundley isn’t Rodgers, but the sacks still count. And Floyd’s ability to make them could arguably define the rest of the season.

“It could be a third-string quarterback,” he said, “and I would feel the same way by sacking him.”

TWITTER MAILBAG

@JamesDellAringa: If Mitch [Trubisky] has a productive rookie season, do the Bears first turn to receivers to help him, or offensive line help to keep him healthy?

A: If you’re asking me to rank offseason priorities, my first two are receiver and outside linebacker. Cam Meredith (torn anterior cruciate ligament) and Kevin White (broken shoulder blade) should return next season, but help is needed. While the draft is more important, it will be interesting to see how much general manager Ryan Pace is willing to spend on free agents. Receivers such as Jarvis Landry and Sammy Watkins likely will be available. A reunion with Alshon Jeffery is unlikely; it’s in the Eagles’ best interest to turn his one-year deal into something longer and more lucrative. Outside linebacker is a priority because Willie Young is 32 and injured. Pernell McPhee’s knees also are a concern.

@RoadNinja49: Whatever happened to Taquan Mizzell? I was excited to see what he had to offer, especially as a receiver, and thought they might throw him in the slot on occasion with [Tarik] Cohen, but he seems to have gotten lost on the depth chart.

A: Mizzell was active against the Saints (six special-teams plays, one on offense) and the Panthers (one play on offense). In general, the offense has been limited because Trubisky is limited in it. Calls should expand along with Trubisky’s development, but that takes time. Mizzell might be intriguing because of his pass-catching and return abilities, but he’s still behind Cohen, starter Jordan Howard and third-down back Benny Cunningham on the depth chart. The Bears need more consistent production from Cohen before expanding their playsheet to include Mizzell.

EXTRA POINTS

Suddenly No. 1

With Zach Miller on injured reserve and Dion Sims dealing with an illness for two weeks, rookie tight end Adam Shaheen is in line to be the Bears’ No. 1 tight end against the Packers. The pressure could be good for Shaheen, who hasn’t been the immediate contributor the Bears envisioned after selecting him in the second round.

“You saw in training camp, in the open practices, when he flashed and was making plays; it looked like it would be a seamless transition,” tight ends coach Frank Smith said. “But some of that stuff that seemed easy for the position, obviously, [his development is] a large, encompassing thing.”

Shaheen, who’s listed at 6-6, 278, has improved markedly as a blocker, but he was drafted 45th overall because of his pass-catching prowess. His only reception is his two-yard score off play action in Week 3 against the Steelers.

Mitch Trubisky targeted Shaheen in the red zone against the Saints, but safety Vonn Bell’s physical man coverage negated his route over the middle.

“That wasn’t the ideal coverage for him to get the ball on that play,” Smith said.

But Smith said Shaheen still could have beaten Bell — who had inside leverage — with a better release.

Shaheen will be in similar situations more with Miller out.

“As the pass-game stuff comes around, as that gets called more, [Shaheen’s] improvements will start taking a jump, too,” Smith said.

Good answer

Trubisky seemingly understands his place and importance in the Bears’ rivalry with the Packers.

“I just try to control what I can control, and that’s going against the defense, making sure our guys are on the same page, executing our plays,” Trubisky said. “[But] you want to be able to say you beat Aaron Rodgers head-to-head because he’s got the name and he’s been so successful in this league.”

Trubisky won’t get his first shot at Rodgers until next season. But his beat-the-best answer is another example of the swagger the Bears coveted in their pre-draft evaluation of him.

“He’s done a great of job understanding how to push, how to pull on his teammates, and then they’ve obviously responded to him,” quarterbacks coach Dave Ragone said.

 

Follow me on Twitter @adamjahns.

Email: ajahns@suntimes.com