It’s time for part two of our Bears midseason (well, really two-thirds of the way through the season) awards. This time we’re focusing on defense. If you missed the offensive awards, check them out here.
Expectations varied for the team this year, with some believing they could push for a playoff spot and others believing they would repeat as the worst team in the NFL. As it turned out, things trended closer to the latter than the former, but it’s clear they’re an improved football team. The run defense has gone from one of the worst units in the league to one of the best. The addition of Montez Sweat has improved the pass rush immensely. Jaylon Johnson is playing some of the best ball of his career.
Scroll on to see who’s taking home our bye week hardware:
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MOST IMPROVED PLAYER
Winner: Kyler Gordon
Runner up: Jaylon Johnson
Gordon went through his fair share of struggles as a rookie last year, when he bounced between outside corner and slot corner. This year he’s just focused on playing inside and has noticeably improved. Gordon has said his game right now is nowhere near where it was last season. He’s thinking less and playing faster, and the result has been performing more instinctively. Gordon’s been a key contributor on run defense and has made several tackles near the line of scrimmage. His violent approach in the middle of the field has caused several incompletions, as well. Gordon has started to come into his own this season and appears to have a bright future defending the slot.
It seems a bit silly to have Johnson listed for this category since he’s been such a great coverage corner throughout his career, but his improvements as a ballhawk warrant praise. The only knock on Johnson had been his lack of interceptions and forced fumbles and he’s made great strides in the takeaway department this year.
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
Winner: Tyrique Stevenson
Runner up: Gervon Dexter
The Bears rookie defenders haven’t made an enormously positive impact this year, but Stevenson has made the biggest mark of the bunch. He earned a Week 1 starting job opposite Jaylon Johnson, and unsurprisingly has been picked on a ton by opposing quarterbacks. That’s life for a rookie CB– especially one who shares the field with a lockdown defender like Johnson. Stevenson has had his fair share of struggles, which is understandable given the situation. He’s also noticeably improved as the year has progressed. Stevenson has given up fewer explosive plays recently and has also displayed some of the ball skills that enticed the Bears enough to trade up in the draft to select him.
Dexter has also improved as the season has gone on and has quietly risen up the team’s pressure leaderboard. He’s still looking for his first sack, but his 17 pressures rank sixth among Bears defensive linemen and his 11.7% pass rush win rate trails only Sweat. But his small 38% snap share kept him from winning our ROY award.
MOST IMPACTFUL NEWCOMER
Winner: Montez Sweat
Runners up: Andrew Billings, T.J. Edwards
Sweat hasn’t even been with the Bears for a full month, yet he’s given the pass rush a noticeable boost already. In just four games, Sweat ranks second on the team in sacks (2.5), tied for fourth in QB hits (6) and tied for fifth in total pressures (18). His ability has also allowed Matt Eberflus to get more creative with personnel groupings and simulated pressure looks, which have helped others get free. In the four games since Sweat joined the team, the Bears have averaged 0.5 sacks more per game. They’ve also averaged one extra interception per game as opposing quarterbacks have had their clocks sped up.
Two players are equally deserving of honorable mentions in this category in Billings and Edwards. When the Bears signed Billings to a one-year deal this offseason, the expectation was he would be a run-stuffer to eat up snaps while rookie Zacch Pickens developed. However, Billings worked on his body and his technique and ended up being the team’s most reliable pass rusher at nose tackle, a position not typically known for big pressure numbers. Meanwhile, Edwards has shaken off a slow start to emerge as a wonderful weakside linebacker in Eberflus’ defense. He’s already racked up 127 tackles, which lead the defense by a whopping 50 stops.
SIXTH MAN OF THE YEAR (BEST NON-STARTER)
Winner: Terell Smith
Runner up: Jack Sanborn
Playing cornerback in the NFL as a rookie is tough. Coming in to do it off the bench, after taking far fewer practice snaps than starters receive, is even harder. And yet, Smith has performed admirably when pressed into duty. Over seven games and three starts Smith has surrendered a 63% completion rate and 89.9 QB rating when targeted. He’s also made impressive tackles in the open field to prevent first downs and explosive gains. The Bears are bullish on Smith’s ceiling and it’s easy to see why.
Jack Sanborn made a splash last season when he rose from UDFA rookie to starting middle linebacker after the Roquan Smith trade. The Bears opted to sign Tremaine Edmunds to a monster deal and move Sanborn to strongside over the offseason, but when Edmunds went down with a knee injury Sanborn slid right back into his old spot and played reliably. A great depth piece for the defense.
Winner: Jaylon Johnson
Runner up: Montez Sweat
Without a doubt, Johnson has been the best player on the Bears defense. He’s continued his stellar play at cornerback by posting career bests in yards/completion allowed (9.1), yards allowed/target (5.2) and quarterback rating allowed (59.4). His 57.4% completion rate allowed is the second-best of his career. Add in the improved playmaking ability with three interceptions, one fumble recovery and one touchdown, and you’ve got a cornerback developing into a truly elite defender.
Sweat has made a major impact on the Bears defensive line and helped to transform it into a much more effective unit. But he’s only been with the team for a month compared to Johnson who’s been helping the squad all year.