The Bears' plan to improve their NFL-leading defense


When you’re the best defense in the NFL, can you get better? The Bears and their new defensive coordinator think so.
But with the NFL’s highest-paid defensive player and without a pick in the first two rounds of the draft (the rounds in which they procured four starters over the last five drafts), the opportunities for the exponential leap that came with the trade for Khalil Mack and the selection of Roquan Smith last offseason are next to nil.
Still, “our vision for this defense is to be the best,” said Chuck Pagano upon arrival to succeed Vic Fangio as defensive coordinator. “Can we be the best in the history of the game? The pieces are there and they will continue to add pieces. Can we continue to be better than we were last year? Absolutely.”
The Bears can’t improve on their defensive ranking; hard to go up from No. 1. But the ’86 Bears put up better numbers than the more celebrated ’85 group – under a different coordinator. The Seattle Seahawks ranked No. 1 in scoring defense four straight years (2012-15), No. 3 in 2016, and Top 5 in yardage allowed all five years from 2012-2016, reaching at least the divisional round of the playoffs all five years, going to two Super Bowls and winning one (2013) – with three different defensive coordinators.
So excellence is sustainable. But if you aren’t moving forward, you’re falling behind, because someone (Minnesota? Dallas? The Chargers? Broncos? All are on the Bears’ 2019 schedule). “It's an old cliché’,” said GM Ryan Pace, “but you're never staying the same. You're getting better or getting worse. We need to make sure we're getting better.”
Before the 2018 season, defensive lineman Akiem Hicks stated that a Top 10 Bears defense of 2017 could ascend into the Top 5. And it did, with talent additions in the persons of Mack and Smith. And what Pagano has heard (legally) from his players is, “'We can be better, I can get better,'” Pagano said.
But how can “better” happen?
Offseason talk is easy. In-season getting-better, not so much.
The Bears led the NFL with 36 takeaways, five more than No. 2 Cleveland. Their 27 interceptions were more than their previous three seasons’ combined and the most in more than a quarter-century.
Mack in 13 games (two missed, one hobbled) posted the second-highest sack total (12.5) of his career, had a career-high 6 forced fumbles, and a career-best 4 passes defensed, to go with his second career interception and TD return.
Kyle Fuller’s 7 interceptions, one fewer than the total for the three previous seasons in which he played, tied for NFL honors and his 21 passes defensed led the league.
In just 14 games, Eddie Jackson delivered 6 interceptions (fourth in the NFL), two returned for touchdowns, plus a fumble return for a TD.
Prince Amukamara matched his career high with 3 interceptions. Adrian Amos’ 2 picks doubled his career total from three previous seasons. Roquan Smith went to the Pro Bowl with a team-leading 122 tackles.
All of which leading to a question as to how much better can a defense be after at least half of its starting members had equaled or exceeded their previous personal-bests.
A plan to for “better”
Interestingly, several players had “down” years, not as strong as previous peaks hit. Therein lie the obvious potentials for “better.”
Hicks was voted to the Pro Bowl after compiling 7.5 sacks, down from 8 the previous year. He felt he was stronger in 2017.
Leonard Floyd needed surgery to repair a fractured right hand, resulting in his starting the season with his hand in a large, cumbersome wrap. He went eight games without a sack, then had four in the next six games. The four sacks fell well short of the 7 over his 12-game rookie season.
“Even if he’s not flashy in the way you would want to see your outside linebacker flashing,” Hicks said, “he’s scaring offenses. So he already put that intimidation factor in there, and then to come up with the plays on top of that, the sky’s the limit for that guy.”
Nickel corner Bryce Callahan was lost to IR for the final three and playoff games. Rookie tackle Bilal Nichols had 2.5 sacks and 5 quarterback hits over the final eight games, earning a starting spot by game 10.
The Bears lost more than one-third of their 2017 sack total over the 2018 offseason, then offset most of it back with Mack. Since he has had four straight seasons of double-digit sacks, that range of production ls a reasonable expectation. More from Floyd, Nichols and Smith (5) project as the source of “better” for an already elite unit. 
To that end, Pagano has brought with him a plan.
“Our goal and our mindset will be to come in here and get better every single day at something,” Pagano said. “We will be intentional and we will be deliberate with everything that we do and the coaches will come up with a prescription and just like to the doctor and you're sick and he writes you a script for something.
“We will give these players, every one of them a ‘prescription’ and it will be just three precise, condensed things. We all can get better physically, mentally, knowing an understanding the game, knowing and understanding the playbook, the calls, the opponents. Guys will grow, guys will become better pros, we will get better off the field, we will get better on the field.”

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