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Bears Front Seven Must Shoulder the Load

With a pieced-together secondary, the Bears defense in its first year under Sean Desai will need to rely heavily on the pressure Khalil Mack, Akiem Hicks and Roquan Smith can create in the front seven.

If the Bears defense needed a rallying point beyond sliding out of the top 10 last year, they can always play the disrespect card.

Even Khalil Mack has been drawing criticism, although it was no less than self-proclaimed experts Pro Football Focus who labeled Mack the No. 1 edge rusher again and graded his 2020 game film accordingly.

ESPN quoted a "coordinator," as saying Mack "...simply didn't win enough for a player of his caliber" following his nine-sack season, and called him the fourth-best edge in the game. 

Fourth best isn't bad, but besides Mack's nine sacks he had two others wiped out by penalty, another wiped out in postseason by penalty and did all this despite appearing on the injury report 10 weeks without missing a game. He also did it with no help from the edge rusher on the opposite end.

"Robert Quinn didn't do him any favors," the "coordinator" was quoted as saying. The article didn't say whether it was an offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator or special teams coordinator who made the comment. Maybe it was a special teams coordinator, who would know about as much as your average fantasy football owner about pass rushing.

Mack wasn't the only one getting disrespect. 

The same series said safety Eddie Jackson "...lacks special top-end speed." 

Criticism is cheap in the offseason and using it for fuel is the kind of thing poor defenses do. The effective ones produce.

The Bears have some real problems on defense heading into this season and they don't include Jackson or Mack. It would help to have big plays from both, but the holes they need to plug lie elsewhere.

The biggest one is their secondary in general, but more specifically the cornerbacks. The great secondary they had of 2018 is long gone, with only Jackson remaining from it. 

They're relying on dominance from the front seven to help until the secondary comes together in the back.

Does this work?

Tampa Bay threw together a secondary with Carlton Davis, Sean Murphy-Bunting, Antoine Winfield Jr. and Jordan Whitehead last year. They're all young players, and the Tampa Bay defense helped win the Super Bowl.

The Bears are going to rely on young players like Jaylon Johnson and a slot cornerback with very little experience in Duke Shelly. They might have Kindle Vildor at the other cornerback spot if he beats out Desmond Trufant.

The difference between that group and the one Tampa Bay had is Davis, Murphy-Bunting and Winfield were all second-round picks. Whitehead was a fourth-rounder.

The Bears are trying to throw a secondary together relying on Shelley, who was a sixth-round pick, or Thomas Graham Jr., another sixth-round pick. Vildor was a fifth-round pick.

Here are the ratings for Bears defensive starters. The potential to rebound is there because of their front seven, but it's going to take more than outrage over some slights in the media to get it done.

NT Eddie Goldman

A Pro Bowl alternate two years ago when he had to hold down the fort without Akiem Hicks for three-quarters of a season, no one is 100% certain he'll be available after opting out in 2020 but it does appear this way. How will an opt-out affect a 318-pound nose tackle? His body ought to be free from the aches and pains all linemen must live with, but more than a year away could be very disruptive to technique. In Goldman's case, the scheme change under a new defensive coordinator isn't a big issue because he played in Sean Desai's system under Vic Fangio, and he also is a nose tackle. That role doesn't change a great deal. It's a wrestling match on every play.

Starter rating: 3 on a scale of 0-5.

Trend: Descending

DE Akiem Hicks

The big question is whether Hicks has lost a half-step because he failed to get a sack after he had 3 1/2 in the first three games last year. He kept the pressure coming from inside because he had a career-high 21 quarterback hits, and his 29 pressures overall were the same as in 2018. He led the team in penalties, as well. Without Goldman, it was easy to see why the run-stopping ability of the defense looked worse. If he has lost something, it would stand to reason there would be drops in these other areas beside sacks and not increases. Hicks appears no less physical and imposing than he did three years ago, and Tampa Bay's Ndamukong Suh keeps showing interior defensive linemen can continue to be effective past 30. Age shouldn't be a problem in the final year of Hicks' contract.

Starter rating: 4 on a scale of 0-5.

Trend: Descending.

DE Bilal Nichols

The second half of last season represented a huge leap forward for the fifth-round 2018 pick as four of his career-best five sacks and eight of his 13 quarterback hits occurred then. When Nichols has been able to settle in and play healthy, he has always shown progress. That's why the toe injury the Bears said he had during OTAs is a concern. He'll need good health in a contract year, playing in a rotation loaded with capable players. His snaps could go up this year with Hicks in his 30s, and after he showed an ability to handle playing nose tackle last year as well. 

Starter rating: 3 on a scale of 0-5.

Trend: Ascending.

Edge Khalil Mack

Chuck Pagano and assistants always said they had to do more to help Mack be free of double teams or triple teams, yet it seemed they never did. When Quinn flopped last year, it didn't help. However, Desai was part of a defense that knew how to deal with this under Fangio. It's possible the altered scheme will help Mack. What also helped Mack in 2018 was having a defensive edge on the other side who was versatile enough so the two could flip-flop from one side of the line to the other. Quinn does not give the Bears this ability so it will be interesting to see how they handle this problem. Assuming the minor, nagging injury issues are done, Mack could produce those impact plays the "coordinator" in the ESPN article said he didn't make last year. Starter rating: 5 on a scale of 0-5.

Trend: Holding steady.

ILB Roquan Smith

This is Smith's defense now. He's in his fourth year and is a high-impact player in the middle. His stats last year were far better than some of the inside linebackers ahead of him on Pro Bowl and All-Pro teams and he really only began to put this type of advanced play forth after the first quarter of the season. Then he didn't get to play in the playoffs. Pro Football Focus graded Smith at an elite level in pass coverage. He had a career high in sacks. He is an all-around play maker and needs to maintain this momentum. His willingness to come in and practice during OTAs when almost all other Bears defensive starters were no-shows displayed his desire to get this accomplished. 

Starter rating: 5 on a scale of 0-5.

Trend: Ascending.

ILB Danny Trevathan

He has become less of an impact player now in his 30s, although still an emotional field general. Trevathan never was strong in pass coverage. It's even less the case now and if the Bears had an alternative on passing downs then they should turn to that player. Last year Trevathan initially was even poor against the run but some of this had to do with a lack of a proper nose tackle in front of the inside linebackers following Goldman's opt-out. Also, Trevathan had an early season injury he played through, according to coaches. The Bears will try to squeeze one more year from their leader. Starter rating: 2 on a scale of 0-5.

Trend: Descending.

Edge Robert Quinn

He came to Chicago complaining that he couldn't play the left side of the line, which immediately removes some of the surprise element with the defensive front. He isn't as good standing up as he is with his hand in the dirt, which isn't ideal in a scheme like the Bears run. Now Quinn has injuries. Something prevented him from practicing in the offseason, just like something prevented him from starting the opener last year. Perhaps the bigger issue here is whether GM Ryan Pace actually did his homework before committing $33 million guaranteed to a one-dimensional, 4-3 pass rusher with two sacks and six quarterback hits last year. 

Starter rating: 1 on a scale of 0-5.

Trend: Descending.

CB Jaylon Johnson

Instead of criticizing Mack and Jackson, perhaps ESPN's unidentified "coordinator" should have been looking at cornerback and specifically Johnson. Bears fans and numerous others have thrown rose petals at the second-year cornerback, who had a fast start in the opener against Detroit. The rest of the year didn't go as well, although he had moments. Pace liked Johnson enough to make him their No. 1 corner by getting rid of Kyle Fuller. Johnson gave up a passer rating of 107.5 when targeted last year, and five touchdowns. This is mundane to poor. He did allow only 56.4% completions on 78 targets, and no one would complain about this. Johnson is good percentage-wise when targeted because he is in his element in man coverage, but needs to continue improving his zone coverage greatly because this is the emphasis of the Bears defense. He also needs to do something else because a cornerback can't have this happen—he missed 17% of his tackle attempts (nine total). Fuller missed more than 19% and he's gone. 

Starter rating: 2 on a scale of 0-5.

Trend: Ascending.

CB Desmond Trufant

There were plenty of other proven, younger, healthier cornerback options available for the Bears when they signed Trufant. It would have taken more than the pocket change they threw at Trufant to get them, though. He did come to OTAs and minicamp and is battling. Nothing that occurred on the field in the offseason indicates success or failure for the former Lions and Falcons defender, who turns 31 before the season starts. He has avoided injury thus far, but the real work begins in camp and he hasn't been able to avoid injury when the real play begins since 2018. 

Starter rating: 1 on a scale of 0-5.

Trend: Descending.

S Tashaun Gipson

Gipson will be 31 when the season starts but has been able to retain his health and stay on the field. It led to his best overall season since 2017 with Jacksonville. It's going to be difficult for him to duplicate this, and it's possible Desai's defense could expose him to dangers that Chuck Pagano's did not. They could put more pressure on him to make plays than he had. Gipson is heady and still physical enough to play safety in a quarters defense or one using cover-3 a lot like the Bears do. 

Starter rating: 2 on a scale of 0-5.

Trend: Holding steady.

S Eddie Jackson

The problem with ESPN's rip job on Jackson wasn't the nature but the tone. There was a ring of truth, it just took the situation too far. Jackson didn't have a good 2020 after signing his $58.4 million contract. Having Gipson in the back of the secondary will help Jackson because he hasn't had this type of familiarity of system and player to work alongside since Adrian Amos in 2018. He needs to make plays on the ball like he always had in previous years. The ESPN hatchet job ripped on Jackson's tackling. He never has been a great tackler, and the Bears knew this. However, criticizing him for this last season shows an overall lack of attention by whoever did the commenting. Jackson had a better year tackling than any time since his rookie year. He missed 13% of his tackle attempts, according to official NFL stat partner Sportradar. Considering he had to make a career-high 82 tackles—nine more than in any other year—missing 13%  was hardly an issue. In fact, it actually bordered on being a strength. To bolster his sagging grades and confidence, Jackson just needs to make plays on the ball when he has the chance. He had two interceptions that could have turned around losses if he had made them. 

Starter rating: 3 on a scale of 0-5.

Trend: Descending.

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