The 2014 version of the Chicago Bears defense looked much like the 2013 version in their last preseason game against the Jaguars, but the fact that they didn’t break could be a good sign for this season.
Technically, the Bears did break once, but we all know that was bull. The Jaguars started their third possession at the Bears 23 and the drive seemed to be stopped when Trevor Scott sacked Chad Henne on third down, but Kelvin Hayden was called for a bogus illegal contact penalty. (The excuse was that the NFL referees have “points of emphasis” in preseason, but it’s hard to see how a receiver running into a defensive back can be a penalty on the defense no matter what the case is. The sack would’ve forced the Jaguars into a long field goal attempt. Josh Scobee is an excellent kicker, but kicks over 50 yards in Soldier Field are another story.)
Prior to that, the Bears held the Jaguars to field goal attempts after Jacksonville had a third-and-1 on the Bears 27 on their first drive and a first-and-goal at the Bears 7 on their second.
Preseason is basically just a glorified practice, maybe we shouldn’t put any stock into anything that happens, but there are reasons to think that the Bears can be a “bend but don’t break” defense.
First, let’s go back to a practice on the first day of August when the Bears’ offense — the seventh best at scoring red zone touchdowns in 2013 — failed to score even once in 13 attempts inside the 10-yardline. The offense was a bit short-handed along the offensive line with both starting guards missing practice that day, but the point remains. It was just practice, but padded practices in August tend to get highly competitive, just ask The Black Unicorn. The defense didn’t just win that battle, they dominated.
The reason why this year’s version of the Bears may be pretty good when the field shortens is a matter of strengths and weaknesses.
The Bears biggest strength in 2014 figures to be their defensive line, both in terms of pass rush and stopping the run. Teams still try to spread the field when they get close, but it becomes more difficult with less space to work with. A team with a good defensive line can drop seven players back in coverage and essentially close the throwing windows.
We saw that on third-and-goal from the Bears 10 when the Jaguars had to throw a three-yard pass and were tackled well short of the end zone.
It isn’t a coincidence that the top four red zone defenses in the league were also teams with the best defensive lines. Three of those teams managed this with questionable secondaries.
The Bears biggest weakness is going to be their safety play. As the field tightens, the safeties suddenly have less ground to cover, therefore less space to screw up. If the defensive line does its job, the safeties are more easily hidden, especially with extra players dropping back in coverage. Of course, when safeties do screw up in the red zone, it’s a sure touchdown.
If I were a betting man, I’d bet that the Bears will be starting veteran Adrian Wilson along with Chris Conte by midseason. Conte is capable of being better than he was last year, something he showed in 2012. Wilson’s biggest shortcoming is his age and declined athleticism, something that isn’t nearly as much of a factor in the red zone. At the very least, Wilson should be able to get the Bears lined up correctly and not screw up. If he can merely accomplish that, he’ll be a massive upgrade. Essentially, the Bears need him to be what Chris Harris was in 2010 and not what he was in 2011. (Odd fact, Wilson is two years older than Harris, who is now a coach with the Bears.)
The Bears also have three cornerbacks who are physical, something that can’t be understated. They can go to sub-packages and not get bulldozed. Say what you will about Tim Jennings’ size, but how often do you see receivers catch passes over him in the end zone?
The biggest X-Factor for the Bears defense in the red zone and in general is their linebackers. At the very least, Shea McClellin and Jon Bostic have good size and can cover a lot of ground. They just may not know where they’re going.
This is not to say the Bears defense is going to be great this year. They might not even be good, but if they can drastically improve the rate they allow touchdowns in the red zone, it should lead to a couple more wins. A couple more wins should lead to a playoff appearance.
In 2014, the Bears allowed an average of 3.7 red zone trips per game. Their opponents scored touchdowns on 2.1 of those, the 13th worst rate in the league. If the Bears are able to sneak into the top-10 in red zone defense (allowing field goals instead of touchdowns), the difference would be a point per game. If they get into the top-five, it’ll be two points per game. Every point matters in the NFL.
If the other team misses a field goal or turns it over instead of scoring touchdowns, that difference becomes even bigger. It may not sound like much, but 16-to-32 points over the course of an NFL season adds up. The Bears finished 2013 with a negative point differential, by improving only their red zone defense, they would be about equal.
Just improving the red zone defense alone won’t make the Bears into Super Bowl contenders, but it would be a start. General logic would lead one to believe that the same things that will lead to improvement in the red zone will lead to improvement elsewhere, how much remains to be seen.
If you’re expecting the Bears to compete a turnaround like the New Orleans Saints did from 2012 to 2013, you’re probably expecting a bit much. If they can get into the top-five in the red zone and have slight improvements elsewhere, however, you should expect to see the Bears playing in January.