There are great unanswered questions about Bears troubles last season and they're all on defense.
The problems on offense can be largely detected with the naked eye, as long as it's looking straight at the quarterback position.
Issues on defense are more confounding and even qualify as mysteries.
They're also alarming. This is because the Bears were so good on defense and created even greater expectations. Everyone anticipated their offense would stink, and it simply lived down to expectations.
Real Bears defensive decay occurred under coordinator Chuck Pagano over the last two seasons, as they gradually slipped from No. 1 in scoring defense and third in yardage under Vic Fangio in 2018.
The defense went from 50 sacks under Fangio to 32 and 35 sacks under Pagano the last two years. They had 27 interceptions under Fangio and 36 total takeaways. In the last two years it was eight and 10 interceptions, 17 and 20 turnovers caused.
These sad numbers in 2020 could be traced back extensively to three disappearances, two figurative and one quite literal.
Touching all of this was Pagano's scheme and tendencies, which changed somewhat from those used by Fangio.
The Bears are facing plenty of big tasks this offseason and quarterback is the biggest. However, only one available quarterback is capable of leading them back to a high level of contention with their defense playing at the level it did in 2020. That's Deshaun Watson and he isn't coming to Chicago because they rank ninth or 10th on the list of teams with possible trade compensation for Houston to get Watson. None of the other quarterbacks being talked about—Carson Wentz, Derek Carr, Jimmy Garoppolo or Jameis Winston—could get the Bears to a Super Bowl with the defense playing as it did in 2020 or 2019.
Considering the level of quarterback the Bears will have, they have to get their defense back up to a level closer to 2018. Although they've grown older and had a few defections, this is entirely possible to accomplish. It's been numerous times. Pittsburgh and Baltimore have made retooling their defense into an art form and stayed viable for the better part of two decades. Bill Belichick did it constantly with the Patriots.
The first place for the Bears to start is where the improvement will come naturally and it can affect every other position.
When No. 91 is back on their practice field balance will be restored to their defensive force.
Eddie Goldman's opt out proved a huge change in personnel the Bears couldn't cope with in 2020. Take the Pro Bowl alternate nose tackle out of the lineup, Akiem Hicks' right-hand man, and they were trying to scramble for a nose tackle by converting players at other positions or picking up leftover players from elsewhere, like John Jenkins.
There was no preseason, no real way to integrate these changes into the way their defensive front played. It's a position where physicality is everything and they had no real physical practice until the first game at Detroit. It showed immediately as their two inside linebackers weren't physically ready to handle runs coming their way without a nose tackle in front of them capable of eating up blocks and even pushing the line of scrimmage backward.
The Bears allowed 110 yards on the ground in games without Akiem Hicks but with Goldman in 2019. They allowed 109 yards a game on the ground in games they had Hicks but not Goldman last season. When they had both on the field in 2018 and 2019 for 20 games, they allowed 79 yards rushing a game.
Goldman returns, and the Bears run defense looks quite a bit different. Those second-and-5s now became second-and-8s for opposing offenses. The third-and-2s are third-and-6s. There are more three-and-outs, fewer long drives.
The pass defense becomes better for facing more manageable situations thanks to their run defense.
Coaching is a major unmeasurable factor in all of this. Sean Desai is defensive coordinator and not Fangio or Pagano.
Another is age, at least in Hicks' case. He's going to be 32 during next season. It's still young enough to have an impact up front and the Bears would have Roquan Smith playing at a higher level behind both Hicks and Goldman at a higher level than in 2018-2020.
When the season ended, GM Ryan Pace started running through the list of injured or missing players from the defense not on the field to play the Saints.
"Starting with Eddie Goldman, Roy Robertson-Harris, Buster Skrine, Jaylon Johnson, not having Roquan at the end, as good as he was playing and just the leader he is and captain he is on the field, that was significant," Pace said. "And then we had Khalil (Mack) playing through an injury (shoulder). So those are all factors with the defense and that's going to be an important offseason discussion."
The return of Goldman, and then return of others are actually the first steps in refortifying the Bears defense and one important enough to bolster all other aspects of play.