Monday night was an evening of firsts for Chicago Bears head coach Matt Eberflus, who managed his first win over an NFC North rival and his first victory against an opponent with a winning record by taking down the Minnesota Vikings, 12-10, in Week 12.
The Bears also became the first NFL team to win a game in 2023 without scoring a touchdown. Justin Fields and Co. want to put more points on the board, but the fact that Chicago pulled out tonight’s victory is a testament to its defense, which Eberflus has been running since ex-DC Alan Williams resigned in September.
Will the Bears’ defensive resurgence help Eberflus keep his job? Or will Chicago be searching for a new head coach in 2024?
Is Bears HC Matt Eberflus Still on the Hot Seat?
Eberflus’ defense looked like one of the worst units in the league through the first four games of the season, all of which were Chicago losses. The Bears gave up at least 27 points in each game and ranked 31st in EPA per play, ahead of the Denver Broncos, who’d given up 70 points to the Miami Dolphins in Week 3.
But since Week 5, Chicago has allowed just 18 points per game and improved to 13th in EPA per play. Even with Fields out of the lineup for part of that stretch, the Bears managed a 4-4 record over that eight-game span.
Their most significant improvement has come on the ground. Chicago ranks No. 1 in EPA per rush and rushing success rate over the past two months. Only one Bears opponent has topped 100 rushing yards since Week 5, while Chicago has limited RBs Josh Jacobs, Austin Ekeler, and Alvin Kamara.
Of course, the Bears’ defense has still had issues against quarterbacks like Justin Herbert (298 yards, three touchdowns) and Jared Goff, who tossed three picks but led the Detroit Lions to a devastating comeback against Chicago in Week 11.
But the club might have shown enough flashes — and won enough games — to save Eberflus’ job. If young defenders like safety Jaquan Brisker, cornerbacks Tyrique Stevenson, and defensive tackles Gervon Dexter and Zacch Pickens can continue to develop alongside veterans such as pass rusher Montez Sweat and linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, the Bears could have a workable core.
Let’s Make a Shopping List for the 2024 Bears Defense
Still, Chicago’s roster makeover isn’t nearly complete. While Bears general manager Ryan Poles could use most of his available assets to improve the club’s defense, there will be need areas on the defensive side of the ball.
Here are the top three moves Poles could consider to improve Eberflus’ defense in 2024.
Extend CB Jaylon Johnson
Multiple teams reportedly made offers for cornerback Jaylon Johnson at this year’s trade deadline, but the Bears ultimately held on to the pending free agent. The 24-year-old posted his third interception on Monday night as he continued his breakout campaign.
Entering Week 12, Johnson ranked second in snaps per reception (18.2), third in opponent passer rating (49.5), fourth in yards per reception (8.8), and sixth in catch rate allowed (51.4%).
He should be in line for a contract worth $20 million or more annually, especially after the Bears already extended Sweat — a trade acquisition, not a draft pick — at $24.5 million per year.
But Chicago projects to have over $80 million in 2024 cap space, eighth-most in the NFL, per Over the Cap. That level of flexibility should give Poles the breathing room to franchise tag Johnson if two sides can’t agree on a deal.
Add Another Edge Rusher
The Bears already addressed their pass-rushing woes by acquiring and extending Sweat, but they shouldn’t stop there. Eberflus wants to get pressure with his front four, so Chicago needs additional edge defenders to help Sweat.
No other Bears defensive end has more than three sacks or six quarterback hits. As a team, Chicago has the fourth-worst pressure rate in the NFL (16.9%).
Free agent pass rushers like Brian Burns and Josh Allen might not actually hit the open market, but the Bears could pursue FAs like Danielle Hunter, Bryce Huff, and D.J. Wonnum next offseason. They’ll also have the draft capital to target the 2024 NFL Draft EDGE class on Day 1 or 2.
Sign a Free Agent Safety
Eddie Jackson is one of the Bears’ longest-tenured players, but the 2017 Draft pick will turn 30 years old in a few weeks and has already missed five games due to injury this season. Chicago can clear $7.5 million by releasing Jackson next year.
If the Bears cut Jackson, they should target a free agent defensive back to play opposite Brisker in the back end. From top to bottom, safety might be the most impressive position group during next year’s free agent period.
Antoine Winfield Jr., Geno Stone, Grant Delpit, Kam Curl, Kyle Dugger, Xavier McKinney, and plenty of others are playing on expiring contracts. The variety of options might cap asking prices, but Chicago should be able to afford the FA safety it wants.
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