While Justin Fields and the Chicago Bears‘ offense garnered most of the attention last season, the team’s woeful defensive performance also contributed to their eventual NFL-worst 3-13 record. After making several significant additions to their defense over the offseason, will the Bears still have a bottom-three defense in 2023?
The Chicago Bears’ Defense by the Numbers
Head coach Matt Eberflus and defensive coordinator Alan Williams didn’t have much of a chance as they implemented their scheme with the Bears’ lacking personnel in 2022. After losing Khalil Mack and Akiem Hicks over the offseason, Chicago simply didn’t have the horses, which was reflected in year-end statistics.
The Bears gave up more points (27.2 per game) than any team in the league last season, and the results only got worse after Chicago traded Roquan Smith and Robert Quinn. Things truly fell apart when they gave up 49 points to the Cowboys in Week 8 — from that game on, Chicago allowed more than 30 points per game to close the campaign.
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Eberflus’ defense ranked dead last in DVOA and expected points added per play, with problems arising against both the run and the pass. The Bears finished 32nd in defensive drive success rate, allowing opposing offenses to convert a first down or touchdown on more than three-quarters of their drives. Meanwhile, they allowed offenses to score on 41.8% of their drives, the second-worst rate in the NFL.
Given that lackluster performance, it’s easy to see why Pro Football Network’s Arif Hasan ranked the Bears’ defense as the No. 31 unit in the league heading into 2023, ahead of only the Rams. While Chicago has made numerous additions over the offseason, it’s worth wondering how much of an impact those new players will make.
The Bears Have Made Improvements and Are Betting on Growth
The Bears began their defensive overhaul in free agency by signing linebackers Tremaine Edmunds and T.J. Edwards, both of whom come from winning cultures — Bills and Eagles, respectively — and experienced personal and team success in 2022.
Edmunds and Edwards should help fortify the middle of Chicago’s defense, but linebacker play doesn’t typically have much of an effect on overall defensive performance. The Bears gave Edmunds $18 million annually on a four-year contract, placing him just behind Roquan Smith, Shaquille Leonard, and Fred Warner among linebackers. Edmunds will need to be as productive as those cohorts in order to live up to his salary.
After using the free agent market to upgrade the second level of their defense, Chicago looked to the draft to supplement the trenches. Gervon Dexter and Zacch Pickens may have been overdrafted (at least, according to the Industry Consensus Board), but they should be able to help prevent opposing rushing attacks from destroying the Bears’ run defense. However, they may not make much of a difference for Chicago’s pass rush, at least in their rookie campaigns.
The Bears used another early pick on Miami cornerback Tyrique Stevenson, who looks like a Day 1 starter in Chicago’s secondary. Eberflus and Co. are also hoping to see strides from safety Jaquan Brisker and nickel corner Kyler Gordon, the club’s second-round picks in 2022. Combined with veterans Eddie Jackson and Jaylon Johnson, the Bears’ young defensive backfield could show improvement next season, but they might also be prone to more inconsistencies.
Chicago’s defense probably has a higher floor in 2023 than it did in 2022. Veteran additions and development from up-and-coming players should help the Bears prevent explosive plays and field a more sound unit. But they still don’t have enough impact defenders on their roster, especially in one key area.
Chicago Still Has One Major Need on Defense
Eberflus wants his defensive line to win their matchups with only four rushers and prefers to limit his blitzes to specific situations. Here is where Eberflus’ defenses have ranked in blitz rate over his career as a defensive coordinator/play-caller:
- 2018: 17.5% (No. 29 in the NFL)
- 2019: 22.9% (No. 27)
- 2020: 17.1% (No. 31)
- 2021: 20.2% (No. 29)
- 2022: 18.2% (No. 25)
That strategy can work if a team has an elite edge rusher, but the Bears haven’t had a Pro Bowl-caliber defensive end since trading Mack before the 2022 campaign. Last year, Chicago ranked 31st with a 15.9% pressure rate and finished dead last with just 20 sacks.
Defensive end remains a major hole for the Bears heading into 2023. They signed roster fillers like Rasheem Green and DeMarcus Walker, and can hope for a step forward from Trevis Gipson or Dominique Robinson. But Chicago doesn’t have a difference-maker on the edge and didn’t use a single draft pick on a defensive end this year.
Luckily, pass rusher is the one position with talented players remaining on the free agent board. The Bears still lead the NFL with more than $32 million in available cap space, so it wouldn’t be a surprise for them to add a veteran DE before training camp.
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Jadeveon Clowney, Yannick Ngakoue, and Frank Clark are all available, but the best fit might be Justin Houston, who played under Ebeflus with the Colts from 2019-20. Houston turned 34 years old in January, but he managed 9.5 sacks and 17 QB hits for the Ravens a season ago.
A veteran like Houston won’t suddenly turn the Bears’ defense into a behemoth, but steady growth from Chicago’s corners and contributions from their new linebackers could help the unit trend toward league average if everything breaks right. But given the lack of Tier 1 defenders on the Bears’ roster, it’s fair to view them as a bottom-three NFL defense for the time being.