Bad news for Bears: Great NFL defenses don't last

Bad news for Bears: Great NFL defenses don't last

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Aaron Rodgers sacked by Khalil Mack, AP photo

Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is sacked by Bears linebacker Khalil Mack during the first half on Sunday, Dec. 16, 2018 at Soldier Field in Chicago. Rodgers was dropped five times, threw one interception and had a rating of 68.9 as the Bears won 24-17.

Mitch Trubisky passed for a Chicago Bears playoff record 303 yards in a first-round loss to Philadelphia, and his 95.4 regular-season passer rating is the highest of any Bear who threw for at least 2,200 yards.

Yet the Bears won with the NFL's No. 1 defense.

And not just any old No. 1 defense. The second-best NFL defense in 16 years, trailing only Chicago's 2012 team.

And that's why Las Vegas has the over-under betting line for Bears wins set at nine, even though Chicago returns all the key parts of a young team that won 12 games.

It's far easier to bet on great quarterbacks — Kansas City's over-under is 10.5 wins because MVP Patrick Mahomes can overcome a defense that allowed 405.5 yards a game, second-most in the NFL last year.

Tom Brady, Drew Breese, Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Ryan, Russell Wilson and Philip Rivers are great, or at least near-great, year after year after year.

But great defenses usually disappear overnight.

That 2012 Bears team that had the best defense since the 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers won the Super Bowl slipped all the way to No. 25 in 2013, according to Football Outsiders value over average ratings. The 1986 Bears team that set a then-NFL record for fewest points allowed in a 16-game season dropped to No. 11 the next year.

The five most dominant defenses since Football Outsiders began its rankings in 1986 averaged a minus-32.2 rating, meaning they held offenses to 32.2% less than they otherwise averaged. But those teams dropped an average of 21.8 points the next season. If that happens to these Bears, who had a minus-26.0 defensive rating last year, 11.5 ahead of No. 2 Buffalo, Chicago would drop down to a rating that would have been ninth-best in 2018.

Only three teams have repeated as Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average champs in the 33-year history of Football Outsiders' rankings: the Steelers in 1993-94, Seahawks in 2013-14 and Broncos in 2015-16.

The Bears officially ranked only No. 3 in the NFL on defense last year, allowing 299.7 yards, seven more than Baltimore. But they were so much better than that, which DVOA made clear. Chicago was No. 1 in fewest points allowed at 17.7. No. 1 in interceptions with 27. No. 1 in takeaways with 36 turnovers. Tied for No. 3 with 50 sacks. No. 1 in fewest rushing touchdowns allowed with 5. No. 1 in most defensive touchdowns scored with six.

That's unsustainable. Even with the reasonable expectations that defensive leaders such as Khalil Mack, Roquan Smith and Leonard Floyd can get even better.

But they are not all going to get better. And Akiem Hicks, Kyle Fuller, Prince Amukamara and Eddie Jackson may have already peaked. Even if they haven't, there isn't much room for them to go up.

Sort of like the Bears defense as a whole. Consider: the Bears' 27 interceptions last year were more than their previous three years combined (24). Chicago's defense also faced only the 23rd-hardest schedule last year.

And the Bears went from the most injury-riddled team in the NFL the previous three seasons to one of the least-injured teams in 2018.

That doesn't mean the Bears have missed their Super Bowl window. It does mean that the double-doink 16-15 loss to Philadelphia, where the Bears wasted a defensive performance that held the defending Super Bowl champs to 10 points in the first 59 minutes, ended a season in which everything possible broke the Bears way.

That won't happen again. And the Bears can't plan on winning with only one side again. Perhaps that's why coach Matt Nagy keeps insisting that Mitch Trubisky has only scratched the surface of the quarterback he will become.

Because the Bears don't just need a kicker. They need an offense that will pull equal weight with the defense, as that defense is far more likely to resemble Chicago's strong unit of 2017 than the crushingly dominant one of 2018.

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