Step 2 in Restoring Bears Defense: The Turnarounds

Phase 1 of the Bears defensive turnaround included Eddie Goldman's return and fortifying a run defense difficult for any offense to handle but phase 2 will require turnarounds from players who struggled in 2020.
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Unless the Bears envisioned Manti Te'o starting in their grand plan back two months prior to his October signing, the defensive lineup they threw onto the field to face the New Orleans Saints in the playoffs was hardly ideal.

When assessing the decline in Bears defensive production last season, health played a huge role again in 2020 as in 2019.

In fact, it played a big role in their playoff loss to Philadelphia after the 2018 season. Eddie Jackson and Bryce Callahan represented a substantial chunk of their pass defense that year, and were unavailable then just like Roquan Smith, Buster Skrine and Jaylon Johnson were unavailable in this year's playoffs.

Teams rarely have the personnel they start the season with by the time they reach the playoffs.

READ: PHASE ONE OF RESTORING THE BEARS DEFENSE

Yet, the dropoff in defensive play for the Bears went well beyond health this season.

There was a real decline in the productivity of some players not necessarily due to injuries or an opt-out, like with Eddie Goldman. Robert Quinn, Eddie Jackson and Buster Skrine experienced down years.

At least in two cases, the defensive solution for 2021 will have nothing to do with adding personnel. It's largely a case of hoping for better from good players.

The Not-So-Mighty Quinn

Remember all the excitement over Robert Quinn's signing in Chicago?

This was to be the pass rush from hell, the ruination of Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford and Kirk Cousins.

No longer would Leonard Floyd's inability to finish pass rushes be a problem because the Bears had the player with the highest pass rush win rate in the NFL. He'd join forces with one of the best interior rushers in Akiem Hicks, and the game's most terrifying edge rusher, Khalil Mack.

They all got worse in 2020.

Quinn proved the biggest disappointment from the outset.

Quinn couldn't play the opener, had a slow start to training camp for somewhat vague reasons, then finished a full NFL season with two sacks, six quarterback hits and 16 total pressures.

Quinn missed half of 2015 and 2016 with the Rams due to injuries and had better production totals for each season than he had while playing a full 2020 season.

The theories why: 1) Quinn couldn't fit into the 3-4 as a right edge rusher after being effective in the 4-3. 2) It was a medical issue. The Chicago Tribune's Brad Biggs reported Quinn suffered at the outset from a condition known as "drop foot," which caused him some difficulty running. 3) Offenses took drastic approaches to negate Bears edge rushers, like chipping, double-team blocks, throwing repeatedly on three-step and five-step drops, moving quarterbacks more and generally keeping the rush off balance. 4) An inability to stop the run kept the pass rushers from being in easier sack situations.

All of the theories have some truth to them with none being the main answer.

Quinn has always been productive regardless of where he played. The Bears can't simply cut Quinn because of the $33 million guaranteed money they gave him. They wouldn't have the money to acquire another edge rusher to play ahead of Quinn.

Quinn will be 31, not 41, when next season starts. So he should have plenty left.

This is one situation where they have to trust the player to improve, possibly with better coaching and more familiar surroundings.

Fast Eddie

Eddie Jackson's first season without an interception and two total interceptions came after he signed a new contract for $58.4 million.

The theories: 1) Quarterbacks threw away from Jackson; 2) The drought became a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts because the first year Chuck Pagano arrived he told Jackson that opponents will start throwing away from him and interceptions would be harder to get. They did and they were. Being told that repeatedly didn't help. It only had Jackson not expecting balls in his area, and he missed on at least three chances for interceptions this year when they did come there. He normally would have made those plays in the past. 3) Pagano's called coverage schemes allowed little opportunity for Jackson to take a gamble for a pick or to jump a route. They made the safeties too much into safety valves instead of play makers.

Like with Quinn, there's nothing personnel-wise they can do to change things.

Jackson is the only safety they have under contract and they're paying him plenty. His athletic ability remains unaltered. Like with Quinn, perhaps a new defensive signal caller makes a difference and puts Jackson in better positions to make plays.

Otherwise, their faith has to be in a player they committed to prior to 2020. Jackson has to prove he's better than zero interceptions and the 110.1 passer rating against when targeted that he had last year. It was an increase of more than 50 points from what he did the previous year.

Buster

The salary cap and Skrine's injury problems pretty much ensure the Bears have seen the last of their slot cornerback of the last two years.

He struggled when healthy and had a 125.7 passer rating against when targeted, and allowed 78.1% completions when targeted. The concussions he suffered had little to do with these numbers.

Some teams picked on Skrine by sending taller outside receivers down into the slot to match up with him.

Pro Football Focus assigns grades to all players after reviewing film and called this Skrine's worst NFL season in terms of pass coverage. They gave him a 46.2 rating in pass coverage. He was at 59.1 in his other Bears season.

The Bears can realize a cap savings of about $2.7 million but cutting Skrine. Considering his diminished play, it seems likely he'll be cut.

The two concussions—the fifth and sixth reported in his NFL career—don't help, either.

So the Bears do need personnel change at this problem area. Duke Shelley and Kindle Vildor are possibilities but both struggled to some extent last year when replacing Skrine.

This will be a spot where the Bears actually can look in free agency or in the draft to add someone capable of going into the slot and clamping down on receivers.

It's a difficult position to fill because the best cornerbacks in college usually are playing outside.

The Bears found Callahan by chance as an undrafted free agent. They'll need to scower every possible place to find another.

Perhaps Shelley or Vildor will also progress to make the next step at the position.

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