At the heart of the Chicago Bears' franchise history is the Monsters of the Midway, Dick Butkus, Brian Urlacher – a whole lot of punishing defenses, that is – Sweetness, the Super Bowl Shuffle and a seemingly inescapable cycle of misery at quarterback. In 2021 the Bears are riding yet another ferocious 'D' into contention…but may also be introducing the man who can stop that spinning QB cycle.
Chicago's current defensive monsters are led by Khalil Mack, who in terms of sacking the quarterback is somehow off to the best start of his illustrious career. The 2016 NFL Defensive Player of the Year is tied for sixth in the NFL with 6.0 sacks, the most he's ever had through the first six games of a season, which means he could still be heating up. The Bears bracket opposing passers with Mack and their other star edge rusher, Robert Quinn, who also has 5.5 sacks. Chicago is tied for the NFL lead overall with 21 sacks to go with 34 QB hits, which has helped the Bears allow just 218.7 passing yards per game.
Strangely, though, the Bears aren't getting a ton of pressure outside of their sacks. Quinn has 12 quarterback pressure so far this season according to NFL Next Gen Stats, and Mack has eight. In addition, both Mack and interior-line stud Akiem Hicks are playing through injuries. Hicks recorded a sack in last Sunday's loss to Green Bay but also appeared to tweak an existing groin injury, limiting him to 24 snaps. Mack is dealing with a foot ailment, though he played 81% of the team's defensive snaps in Week Six.
There is no such concern in the middle of the defense, where versatile linebacker Roquan Smith patrols, or in the secondary, where cornerback Jaylon Johnson is emerging as a star. The Bears are putting more on more on Johnson's plate as their top corner after letting long-time standout Kyle Fuller go in the offseason. In Week Six, Chicago had Johnson travel with Green Bay's Davante Adams, even into the slot, which was an unfamiliar position for him. With Johnson in coverage, Aaron Rodgers only targeted Adams five times (down from his usual average of around 12 per game) resulting in four catches for 89 yards.
Overall, Chicago's defense ranks seventh in yards allowed per game and eighth in both points allowed and passing yards allowed. It also leads the league with a sacks-per-pass-play rate of 11.48%. Tampa Bay ranks third in the league with 32.5 points per game but Chicago is only allowing 20.7 per game.
Chicago may need to win that battle in order to have a strong chance to defeat the Buccaneers for a second year in a row because its offense is near the bottom of the league's rankings with 16.3 points per game and is dead last with 246.3 yards per game. But, again, there is that new hope under center and his name is Justin Fields, the 11th-overall pick in the 2021 draft. The Bears gave up next year's first-round pick to move up eight spots to get Fields and, after an injury to veteran Andy Dalton in Week Two have now accelerated their timetable to put the offense in his hands.
Not surprisingly, the results have been spotty so far, as an incredibly-hyped rookie class of quarterbacks (Fields, Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Mac Jones) is mostly struggling across the league. In Fields' case, he has shown promise after an historically bad showing by the Bears' offense against Cleveland in his first start. Chicago produced only 47 total yards of offense in that game but Fields had a much better outing the following week against Detroit and has made some splash plays in the past two weeks.
Head Coach Matt Nagy later admitted that the Bears put too much on Fields' plate from a play-calling standpoint in that first start, and Offensive Coordinator Bill Lazor has since taken over the calling of plays. Chicago has helped Fields in recent weeks with a stronger rushing attack but is now without starter David Montgomery and – depending upon his COVID status – possibly top backup Damien Williams. However, fifth-round rookie Khalil Herbert looked good with 97 rushing yards and a touchdown in his first start last weekend.
Chicago's offensive line has not helped in Fields' early-career adjustment, allowing an NFL-high 22 sacks so far and the league's worst sacks-per-pass-play rate. Injuries to tackles Teven Jenkins – a high second-round pick – and Germain Ifedi have not helped.
The Buccaneers' offensive front, which had to deal with a very good Eagles pass rush last Thursday but allowed no sacks of Tom Brady, now faces an even bigger challenge against Mack's Bears. However, Shaq Barrett and Tampa Bay's quarterback hunters could also be primed for a big game as they try to keep the Bears' athletic rookie passer in check. Here's a closer look at some of the challenges and opportunities the Bucs will face when they return to Raymond James Stadium for their Week Seven matchup with the Bears:
Khalil Mack is probably the number-one difference-maker on a very good Bears defense, but we've already covered that territory pretty well. Chicago's defense is loaded with talent at all three levels, with big men like Bilal Nichols and Angelo Blackson up front, linebackers Alec Ogletree and Danny Trevathan (just back from IR) in the middle and standout cornerback Jaylon Johnson in the secondary. Fields is now the driving force on offense and he's got a deep backfield to work with when everyone is healthy. In addition to those Bears, here are four who could help swing the game in their favor on Sunday:
1. OLB Robert Quinn.
[UPDATE: Quinn has been placed on the Bears' reserve/COVID-19 list but still could potentially play on Sunday if he is vaccinated, asymptomatic and returns two negative tests 24 hours apart.]
Originally the 14th-overall pick in the 2011 draft by the Rams, Quinn played for four different teams over the past four seasons. Even after he followed up an 11.5-sack campaign with the Cowboys in 2019 by collecting just two sacks in 15 games as a Bear last season, Chicago still saw him as a strong complement to Mack on the edges of their pass rush. And, indeed, Quinn's pressure rate of 12.4% in 2020, according to Next Gen Stats, was only a bit below his 14.0% mark for Dallas in 2019, and it was better than his 11.5% rate for Miami in 2018. In every case, that ranked in the top 20 among qualifying NFL players. Quinn, who had 40.5 sacks in his first four seasons thanks to an explosive first step, is still very quick off the ball. His improved results so far in 2021 may also be the result of better health after he played through a foot injury last year. The Bears and new Defensive Coordinator Sean Desai also seem to be getting more creative with how they use their star pass-rushing duo, even occasionally using them in tandem on the same side of the line. This far into his career, which has produced 88.0 career sacks, Quinn has a well-developed toolkit of pass-rush moves and he remains a very slippery edge rusher who can go wide or set his opponent up with a quick step outside and then dart back underneath.
2. WR Allen Robinson.
After catching a total of 200 passes for 2,397 yards and 13 touchdown passes over the past two seasons, Robinson has gravely disappointed fantasy football players with a very slow start in 2021, as he has scored just once and is averaging roughly 3.5 catches and 40 yards per game. Chalk that up to an anemic Bears passing attack overall, as the 28-year-old Robinson remains a very dangerous receiver who will surely thrive again if Fields and the Chicago offense start to find a groove. Robinson isn't a true burner, but he is talented in a myriad of ways, with great body control, very sure hands, good size (6-2, 220) and an ability to win contested catches. Robinson is very good at beating press man coverage and he can hurt a defense deep even without that top-level speed. Considered one of the NFL's best route-runners, Robinson has already proven that he can put up big numbers even when his offense is run by quarterbacks who struggle to meet league averages.
3. ILB Roquan Smith.
The eighth-overall pick in the 2018 draft, Smith hasn't made a Pro Bowl or earned an All-Pro nod yet, but that might not be true after his 2021 season. The former Georgia Star has quickly developed into one of the NFL's most versatile and talented off-ball linebackers, able to excel in pass rush, open-field tackling and coverage. Last season he combined 139 tackles with 4.0 sacks, 18 tackles for loss and two interceptions. According to NFL Next Gen Stats he ranked first in the NFL in 'hustle stops' with 20, second in pressure rate at 22.0% and second yards per target when the nearest defender at 4.0. The 6-0, 230-pound ball of energy was one of the NFL's best run defenders last year, with ESPN crediting him with 42 run-stop tackle wins, and he leads his team with 62 tackles this year, double the next player on the list. He is instinctive, fast and a sure tackler. Smith also plays with a ferocious attitude and he's capable of patrolling the field from sideline to sideline.
4. DT Akiem Hicks.
As noted above, Hicks is dealing with a groin injury that could limit him against the Buccaneers on Sunday, but when he's on the field he's absolutely a difference-maker for Chicago and has been for years. In fact, the Bears will hope that Hicks is available for a full load of work on Sunday because they are better against both the run and the pass when he is on the field. In 2020, Chicago allowed 3.7 yards per carry when Hicks was on the field and 4.6 yards per carry when he was on the sideline. As for the pass rush, Chicago generated a 30.9% quarterback pressure rate and 7.6% sack rate on drop-backs when Hicks was in the mix but those numbers dropped to 22.7% and 4.7% when he was off the field. The 6-4, 335-pound lineman most often plays over the right guard and so far this season he has recorded 1.5 sacks, five quarterback hits and two tackles for loss. Hicks is trying to reestablish the sort of rare inside pressure that allowed him to rack up 23.0 sacks and 53 quarterback his from 2016-18, which culminated in his lone Pro Bowl invitation.
As noted earlier, the Bears have a pretty wide statistical split in terms of how they've performed offensively and defensively, but one area in which they've excelled on both sides of the ball is red zone production. Chicago's defense has allowed only 45.0% of opposing red zone drives to end in touchdowns, the third-best mark in the league. And despite their ranking of 30th in points scored overall, Chicago is tied for 10th with a 66.7% touchdown rate in the red zone on offense. The Bears' offense does rank seventh in the NFL with 129.0 rushing yards per game. Here are some more specific ways in which the Bears have performed well during the first six weeks of the 2021 season:
· Chicago's offense may be struggling to find its footing at the moment but at least it has not hurt itself with turnovers so far. The Bears have lost only one fumble through six games and have turned it over just five times overall. That's tied for the third-lowest total in the NFL and is just one off the best mark of four set by Las Vegas and Seattle.
· Oh, and hey, Chicago has finally emerged from the post-Robbie Gould placekicker in which they have full trust. That man would be former Buccaneer Cairo Santos, who is 7-7 on field goals and 11-11 on PATS so far this year. Dating back to last season, in which he went 30-32 on field goal attempts, Santos has now made 34 consecutive field goal tries, the 10th-longest streak in NFL history and the longest active streak in the league. He's also connected on his last 25 extra point attempts.
· One of the reasons that Chicago's defense has been so strong in the red zone is that through just six games it has already produced two takeaways after their opponents earned a first-and-goal situation. They join Washington as the only teams to have two such takeaways; only 14 of the NFL's 32 teams even have one so far.
· Overall, Chicago's defense has been roughly middle of the pack in getting off the field on third down, ranking 18th with a success rate allowed of 41.9%. However, the Bears have been well above average in holding off short third down attempts, those needing three or fewer yards to be converted. Chicago opponents have been good on 48.0% of such attempts, the sixth-best mark in the NFL. The league average is 61.2%.
Other than its strong rushing attack, Chicago has little to trumpet on offense, ranking last in the league in total yards, yards per play, passing yards, passing yards per play and sack percentage allowed. As good as the Bears' defense is, it ranks just 19th in passing yards allowed per play (7.17). Chicago's special teams have allowed opposing teams to average 12.3 yards per punt return, second-worst in the NFL. In addition:
· Chicago's passing attack has produced the fewest yards in the NFL but it also has very specifically created the fewest yards after the catch. The Bears' total YAC of 334 so far is 40 worse than New Orleans for the lowest mark in the league. That represents 37.0% of the team's total passing yards, which is the fifth-lowest percentage of YAC in the league.
· The Buccaneers may want to consider throwing the ball on first down as often as possible on Sunday, even against the NFL's eighth-best pass defense. For some reason – perhaps a less ferocious pass rush on early downs – the Bears have struggled to stop the pass on first downs. On 74 first-down throws, Chicago opponents have completed 52 of them for 660 yards, six touchdowns and one interception. That works out to a first-down passer rating of 119.2 for Bears foes, which is dead last in the NFL.
· Tampa Bay's rushing attack has had more success this year running to its right, ranking sixth in the league in yards per rush over right guard (4.83) and fourth over right tackle (5.45). However, they might want to tweak that strategy Sunday against the Bears, who are allowing 6.33 yards per carry over left guard, the worst average in the NFL.
· Justin Fields has a very strong arm and was well-known for his accuracy on deep balls while starring at Ohio State. That bodes well for the future of the Bears' downfield passing attack, but so far in 2021 that has not ben a strength for the team. Chicago has only notched nine completions of 20 or more yards this season, and only one over 30. The Bears and Saints, also with nine 20+-yard completions, are the only two teams not yet in double digits in that category.
NEW FACES IN 2021
Obviously, the Bears restructured their entire quarterback room in 2021, letting Mitchell Trubisky walk and adding Andy Dalton in free agency and Justin Fields in the draft. Chicago also has a trio of new receivers, including former Buccaneer Breshad Perriman, and will likely be turning to free agent addition Elijah Wilkerson at right tackle for the time being. Other new Bears in 2021 include:
1. T Jason Peters. When Oklahoma State tackle Teven Jenkins slid out of the first round in last April's draft, the Bears traded up to nab him. A few weeks later, they released Charles Leno, their starting left tackle in 2020, seemingly clearing a spot for the mauling rookie. Unfortunately, a back ailment that required surgery in the summer has landed the rookie on injured reserve. The Bears adjusted by signing Peters, the long-time Eagles standout who had been on the free agent market for five months. The 39-year-old has 219 games played but so far this season has shown he has plenty of tread left on his tires, handling that left tackle position well.
2. RBs Damien Williams/Khalil Herbert. David Montgomery got off to a very good start in the Bears' backfield, with 358 yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns in the first four games, with an average of 4.5 yards per carry. However, a knee sprain suffered in Week Four pushed him to injured reserve, where he must remain at least through Sunday's game. The Bears still put together a solid rushing attack the following week with Williams, signed after he was released by the Chiefs, and Herbert, a fifth-round draft pick, combining for 139 yards. Williams appeared set to start last week's game against Green Bay, as well, but ended up on the COVID list, which shifted the lead role to the rookie. Herbert responded well in his first NFL start, with 19 carries for 97 yards and a touchdown and another 15 yards on two receptions.
3. WRs Marquise Goodwin/Damiere Byrd. The Bears fleshed out their receiving corps behind Robinson and Mooney with a pair of additions who do not count as unrestricted free agents in the compensatory pick system. Goodwin was released by the 49ers and Byrd was re-signed by the Patriots or signed by the Bears until May. Goodwin and Byrd have both played about 40% of the Bears' offensive snaps so far but haven't had much production yet. Goodwin has seven catches for 75 yards, Byrd three for 19.
1. T Germain Ifedi. Ifedi held off a challenge from offseason addition Elijah Wilkinson to start the season at right tackle, but now the job is in Wilkinson's hands after Ifedi was forced to injured reserve on October 13 with a knee injury. He will not be eligible to return in time for Sunday's game at Raymond James Stadium.
2. RB David Montgomery. As noted above, Montgomery's stint on injured reserve will last at least through this Sunday's game, keeping the Bears' leading rusher out of action against the Bucs.
3. OLB Jeremiah Attaochu. Chicago tried to deepen their pass rush rotation behind the powerful duo of Khalil Mack and Robert Quinn by signing the former Broncos rotational player. That's a formula that has served the Buccaneers well with Shaquil Barrett, but Attaochu hasn't really gotten started in Chicago yet. He had just one quarterback hit before a hamstring injury bumped him to I.R. on October 13.