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How Defense Improved with Free Agency

The defensive improvement might not be as obvious and extensive with Bears free agent additions so far, but it's there nonetheless and starts with linebackers.

Free agency from the outset blessed the Bears defense with ability unavailable to last year's team.

Then the benefits immediately slowed with fewer signings on that side of the football.

Still, what they've done so far in the offseason leaves the Bears in a better position to address underlying problems.

Their defense actually ranked lower last year than their offense, as they finished with most points allowed for the first time in franchise history.

So any improvement is welcome and there was no other way to describe the additions of Tremaine Edmunds and T.J. Edwards.

Watching ineffective linebacker play behind a line that hung them out to dry all year couldn't have sat well with Bears coach Matt Eberflus, himself a former linebacker coach and linebacker. Now he has two dynamic players behind a slightly improved line.

The ability to avoid big running plays looks better. It could get better, but at least it looks better than their pass rush.

Here are the better capabilities of the defense since free agency began.

1. Stuffing the Run

Nose tackle acquisitions Andrew Billings combined with two big-play linebacker types in Edmunds and Pierce give them the makings now personnel-wise to shut down running attacks. Justin Jones was the best of their interior defensive linemen last year at three technique and they can be expected to add on in the draft. Billings played consistently against the run and pass in his second and third seasons, 2018 and 2019, then had an opt out and injury issues that appear in his past after last season, his best overall in the NFL—Pro Football Focus graded him the league's 16th best interior line defender.

The signing of DeMarcus Walker also solidifies their run defense. Walker can be end or three technique in a 4-3 and last year was graded by PFF among interior defenders only eight spots behind Billings. Like Billings, he was rated better against the run than pass. What both players have on their side is strong tackling ability at the point of attack.

They'll no doubt add to the run defense with draft picks at three technique and end, maybe even linebacker later. However, the basis for a stronger run defense is in place and it needs that young dynamic, explosive pass rusher or three technique and some more depth pieces.

The linebacker additions should help prevent some of the disastrous runs around end by receivers, backs or quarterbacks that proved embarrassing last year.

2. Defending Short Passes

Edmunds was the top pass defender among linebackers in the NFL last year according to PFF. Edwards was eighth best.

Adding those two obviously should elevate the pass defense overall and it doesn't take PFF numbers based on subjective film review to prove this.

According to, the Bears last year ranked no better than 20th in completion percentage allowed for every short area of the field. They were 22nd (72.73% allowed) for stopping passes to the left short area, 20th over the middle short (70%) and 27th to the right short (72.1%).

Edmunds had a spectacular passer rating against when targeted of 69.9 according to Sportradar. They had Edwards at a very strong 82.1.

The Bears, meanwhile, were defending passes with linebackers who had passer ratings against of 101.8 (Nicholas Morrow), 95.0 (Jack Sanborn), 116.9 (Joe Thomas) and 90.8 (Matthew Adams). They were getting strong coverage from Roquan Smith (73.2) but traded him after eight games and their coverage fell off. He had an 82.6 rating-against for the Ravens.

3. Pass Rush Consistency

It only looks marginally better with the addition at end of DeMarcus Walker. He was the only addition and he'll come at the QB from inside or end. Last year he was most effective inside. He has had 17 1/2 sacks over the last four seasons, including seven last year. The seven sacks were encouraging, but even moreso were the 16 quarterback hits. He was achieving good heat on QBs overall and had 17 pressures according to Sportradar.

The optimist might look at Trevis Gipson and expect more sacks and improvement in his second year playing in this scheme with his hand in the dirt after his NFL experience had been playing standing up at the left edge spot. Gipson did not have a bad year necessarily with three sacks, 11 QB hits and a career-high 18 pressures.

Another way they'll be helped is in blitzing from linebackers. They won't change their philosophy, which means they'll continue to blitz very little. It's what Eberflus believes. 

However, Edmunds used to blitz regularly before last season. He had 227 blitzes in the first four years of his career, then only 18 last year.

When they add players in the draft the pass rush pressure could really be impacted.

4. More Interceptions

No doubt Eberflus was used to more interceptions from his defense. He always had more in Indianapolis than last year when the Bears were 12th with 14 interceptions.

Here's how it works for more picks, even though they haven't added anyone in the secondary.

Eberflus calls better pass rush a matter of opportunity. They stop the run, they give themselves the chance to pass rush with more long down-and-distance situations. If they're rushing passers better, it's more heat on the quarterback and more mistakes, leading to more and easier interceptions.

It's a formula that worked for top 10 in interceptions all four years Eberflus was coordinator for the Colts.

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