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How much of the Bears’ defensive improvement is real?

They’ve faced bad quarterbacks and forced turnovers, but they’re also popping on tape.

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Chicago Bears Jamie Sabau-USA TODAY Sports

On October 29th of 2023, the Chicago Bears got absolutely destroyed by the Los Angeles Chargers, 30-13. This was before the Montez Sweat trade, and during the brief period where the terrible Tyson Bagent was starting at quarterback. Justin Felds would make his return a few weeks later, on November 19th against the Lions, but we should dwell on the Chargers game for just a second, as it is the last time the Bears defense gave up a significant number of points.

The Green Bay Packers face the Bears on Sunday, and the current Bears have been hot. They look quite a bit different than the team that faced off against the Chargers, as their defense has climbed to 5th in Weighted DVOA, and the offense has improved post-Bagent. But then again, it may not have improved as much as you think. In the Charger game, Tyson Bagent was awful of course, throwing two picks, but it’s worth noting that on each of Justin Herbert’s three touchdown drives, the Chargers traversed the entire field. The Bagent picks led to a Dicker field goal and an Austin Ekeler fumble. When the Chargers scored touchdowns, they did it by going through the entirety of the Bears' defense.

It is also worth noting that the Chargers were unable to run the ball at all in this game with Ekeler, Josh Kelley, and Isaiah Spiller combining for 53 yards and a fumble on 24 carries. The Chargers have had an awful year with the running game, so this isn’t a huge surprise, but it is a consistent theme for the Bears, who are one of the league’s best rushing defenses. Only Atlanta, New England, and Houston have held opponents to a lower rush EPA per play, and Chicago’s defensive Rush DVOA of -17.8% matches that ranking. The Bears’ run defense was legit in this game and has been legit all season. In the first Packer-Bear game, the Bears held the Packer running backs to 82 yards on 27 carries.

That first Packer game, against what appeared to be an unprepared Bears defense in week one, actually looked quite a bit like the Chargers game. The Bears stopped the run, and frankly, the Packers probably ran too much, but Love threw for three scores, just as Herbert did. There were a few other notable performances in that first Packers game. Jayden Reed had something of a breakout in his very first game, catching 2 passes for 48 yards, and a healthy Aaron Jones was a force in the passing game, catching two passes for 86 yards and a score. No other Packer receiver really did much, though Doubs did catch two short (but impressive) touchdowns.

If you don’t pay attention to the Chargers much you may think of their star receiver, Keenan Allen, as a prototypical outside guy, but in reality, he is their primary slot receiver, lining up there on 59% of his snaps while Josh Palmer and disappointing rookie Quentin Johnston play outside. Allen can play anywhere and does move around, but he’s most effective in the slot, and against Chicago, he did most of his damage from there, catching 8 of 10 balls for 69 yards. It wasn’t a great performance, but he converted several key first downs, and led the receivers in yards and catches. He also didn’t need to do much, because while Austin Ekeler struggled on the ground, he was absolutely sensational through the air, catching 7 of 8 targets for 94 yards and a score.

Chicago has been outstanding defending outside receivers, largely due to the ascension of corner Jaylon Johnson and his 90.8 PFF grade. Chicago is the 2nd best team at defending an opposing number one receiver, and they rank 7th defending opponents' other outside receiver thanks to Tyrique Stevenson’s great coverage on the other side. However, they’re just 26th against slot receivers, and when it comes to covering running backs out of the backfield, they are dead last. What they take in run defense by cheating up, they surrender in the area between the ILBs and the safeties, especially on play-action.

Chicago’s defensive chart at RBSDM for the season looks like this.

They’re great against the run, and meh against the pass. Since week 12 it looks like this, easily the best defense in football.

They’re still good against the run, but the pass defense finally caught up, it seems. But…

Defensive Matchups and Defensive Volatility

Last week, the Bears beat the Atlanta Falcons 37-17, and a lot of those positive tendencies showed up. Outside receiver Drake London caught just 4 of 10 targets for 56 yards, and quarterback Taylor Heinecke was picked off 3 times and sacked twice. It was a dominant performance to be sure, but it’s worth noting that Atlanta is kind of a weird team. They don’t really use a traditional slot receiver at all, with tight ends Kyle Pitts and Jonnu Smith getting most of the actual slot work. The Bears are bad at covering small, shifty slot guys, but they’re outstanding when taking on tight ends, ranking 4th in DVOA, and Pitts and Smith combined for just 1 catch on 9 targets.

The Packers had a wide receiver line up in the slot 662 times this season. Atlanta had a receiver line up in the slot 349 times this season. You may consider this splitting hairs a bit given Kyle Pitts is basically a giant slot receiver, but the one thing he is not is a small, shifty, slot receiver. The Falcons were ill-equipped to exploit one of the bigger Bear weaknesses as a run-first team with limited receiving weapons. But what about the other Bear weakness? On that front, running back Tyler Allgeier did most of the damage on a brilliant 75-yard catch and run for a touchdown. It’s a bit surprising the Bijan Robinson wasn’t more explosive, but the Falcons just weren’t very smart in terms of gameplan here, and of course Taylor Heinecke isn’t very good.

Interceptions are huge, high leverage plays for a defense, but while a good secondary and a good pass rush can contribute to causing interceptions, they’re mostly a quarterback stat, and it’s not surprising that Taylor Heinecke threw a bunch of them. In 2021 when he started 15 games for Washington, he threw 20 touchdowns against 15 interceptions. He also fumbled 7 times. Since November 19th the Bears have played 6 games and have created at least 3 turnovers in 5 of those games. One of those was in a loss to Cleveland on December 17th where the Joe Flacco Experience threw for 374 yards, 2 touchdowns, and 3 picks. It is, perhaps, the most Joe Flacco stat line of all time, and especially this year as Flacco has thrown as least 1 pick in every single game, but also no fewer than 2 touchdowns in every single game. The Bears did their “Bear thing” of holding Jerome Ford, Kareem Hunt, and Pierre Strong to 30 yards on 17 carries. The Browns’ ostensible slot receiver, Elijah Moore, actually lines up outside (52.5%) more than in the slot (44.9%) and the Browns are a bit like the Falcons in this respect. Big ol’ Joe and his big ol’ arm actually had a good amount of success targeting Amari Cooper and David Njoku down the field, but one of Flacco’s picks was intended for Njoku, and the other two (one of which was a Pick-6) were intended for the other outside receiver, Cedric Tillman, who isn’t very good.

Josh Dobbs also threw a lot of picks when the Bears beat the Vikings 12-10 on November 27th. As it turns out, Josh Dobbs isn’t very good either, and has thrown 5 picks for both Arizona and Minnesota this year. It did not help matters that Justin Jefferson, who could have moved into the slot for this game (31.2% for the year), where he is very effective, was out for this one.

But...

The Bears have feasted on some poor quarterbacks, which explains some of their success, but it’s more than the Packers did against many of those same offenses. And there is one recent Bears opponent that should cause some worry. The Bears have eaten up Jared Goff and the Lions repeatedly, though the Lions did win the first meeting. While the Lions have struggled down the stretch, much of that is due to a defensive collapse, and shutting down their offense is impressive. The most worrisome development is probably the last Bears game against Detroit where they shut down Amon-Ra St. Brown (3 catches on 8 targets, 21 yards, 0 touchdowns) in addition to picking Goff twice and forcing a fumble. St. Brown is one of the premiere slot receivers in football and he ate up the Bears in game one, but Chicago adjusted in game two, treating him not as “the slot receiver” but as the best receiver, and adjusting coverages accordingly. Imagine a defensive coordinator actually learning a lesson.

The Bears also managed to successfully speed up Goff’s clock. When Goff believes he’s under pressure, he’s horrible, and always has been. Last time he faced the Bears they got to him a few times early, at which point he started falling for fake blitzes and throwing too early, into traffic. Often that traffic contained Johnson, or Tremaine Edmunds, or Tyrique Stevenson, and they caught every opportunity.

The Packers have the weapons necessary to exploit the Bears’ defensive weaknesses. Love is a patient quarterback, and generally remains cool under pressure. Between Jones, Reed, and depth that prevents a team from focusing exclusively on Jones and Reed, they can hit the Bears’ weak spots. And unlike most recent Bears opponents, the Packers’ offense is simply very good. But it’s going to be much more difficult than it was last time, and with Joe Barry still coordinating the defense, the offense won’t have much margin for error.