The Chicago Bears’ defense hopes to dismiss Week 1 as a case of mistaken identity.
“That game we just played defensively last week [against the Detroit Lions] is not who we are,” Bears coach Matt Nagy said via Zoom on Thursday.
The Bears escaped with a 27-23 victory -- courtesy of Mitchell Trubisky’s three fourth-quarter touchdown passes, Kyle Fuller's opportunistic late interception and the Lions' utter incompetence -- but the defensive effort was lacking.
Detroit ripped the Bears for 426 net yards, 138 rushing yards and 288 passing yards. Even after Trubisky’s heroic, go-ahead touchdown pass to Anthony Miller, the Lions' offense marched down the field with little resistance and would have won the game had rookie D'Andre Swift not dropped an easy touchdown throw from Matthew Stafford.
So Chuck Pagano’s defense is supposed to be among the league’s elite?
In 2018 -- under former coordinator Vic Fangio -- Chicago played a historically great brand of defense that led the NFL in virtually every category (points allowed, rushing yards, total takeaways, interceptions, lowest passer rating, fewest first downs allowed, fewest rushing touchdowns and fewest total plays allowed of 20-plus yards).
Many feared the decline would be steep after Fangio left for Denver. The doom and gloom prognostication failed to materialize. The Bears retained the title of top-10 defense in Pagano’s initial season in Chicago. In 2019, the Bears allowed just 18.6 points a game -- top in the NFC and fourth overall in the league. The Bears were top 10 in net yards per game (324.1), rushing yards (102.0) and passing yards (222.1).
With four Pro Bowl caliber players (Khalil Mack, Akiem Hicks, Eddie Jackson and Fuller) returning on defense and expensive free-agent pass-rusher Robert Quinn set to replace Leonard Floyd, Nagy said early last week he felt Chicago had the NFL’s best defensive group.
Then Detroit happened -- without Quinn (inactive/ankle) or nose tackle Eddie Goldman, who opted out because of COVID-19.
“Not good,” Pagano said Thursday. “I don’t think you’d find anybody on the defensive side -- coaches or players -- who would say, hey, we’re OK. Because we weren’t good. I have to do a better job preparing these guys. I have to do a better job of coaching. And then we have to execute better. That’s just how it is. We didn’t do our job. We didn’t play well in certain situations and particularly in the run game. We pride ourselves on stopping the run. So we have to be better there.”
According to Nagy, the Bears' defense got the message: What happened in Week 1 is unacceptable.
“In our team meetings that we’ve had the last couple of days, they’ve felt that [what they did in Detroit wasn’t good enough], in a good way,” Nagy said. “They don’t take it personal. See, some people would take it personal, they don’t. And Wednesday out at practice you could see that they were understanding of where myself and the defensive staff were coming from. You felt it at practice. There was a little bit of aggression going on at practice, which I like.”
The Bears host the downtrodden New York Giants on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, CBS). The Giants have a formidable weapon in running back Saquon Barkley, but rookie head coach Joe Judge’s team is on a short week after losing to Pittsburgh on Monday night. Conditions seem favorable for Chicago’s defense to right itself.
“We have high expectations for ourselves,” Hicks said. “We look to play ball the way this defense plays football but we also know that we are human, we are going to make our mistakes, we are going to get beat on a rep but having the strength and resolve to come back and say, 'Hey, I know what type of player I am and I'm going to show it not only to the cameras and what not but my teammates battling with me.'
"That's the essence of our defense. We believe in ourselves and we know what type of ball we can play. Whenever it comes out, we plan on showing it every Sunday."