Home > NFL > Is the defense of the Chicago Bears improving or declining?

Is the defense of the Chicago Bears improving or declining?

13th, 1st, 3rd, 16th, 16th.  The chronological rank of the Bears’ defenses, ranked by points against, under head coach Lovie Smith.

If the Smith-era Bears fail to win a championship, they will be remembered as unique for two reasons: 1) having a consistently excellent special teams unit, with Devin Hester as the face of the unit, and having a historic scoring defense, despite considerable player turnover throughout the era.

The Bears have now missed the playoffs in two consecutive years, and Devin Hester’s career on special teams appears to have gone the way of, well, every other special teams superstar.  The Bears are still producing an excellent group of units, led now by Danieal Manning, a second round safety who busted on defense, but found his niche as a kick returner.

The Bears special teams is expected to be excellent again, but then again, I’m not writing about the Bears’ special teams.  With a viable, but still somewhat underwhelming offense, led by a developing gunslinger in Jay Cutler.  The one unit that very well may decide the fate of the NFC North is that unique Chicago defense.  This unit appears to have peaked in 2005 and 2006, the two years they went to the playoffs.  Since then, they’ve been middle of the pack in points against.  Since the long term trend shows a declining unit, would it be reasonable for us to conclude that Lovie Smith’s downfall will be marked by the collapse of a once great defensive unit?

Reasonable: yes.  Likely: not so much.

Points against simply doesn’t tell the whole story regarding the Bears defense in the Smith-era.  It suggests a lot of variance that I have reason to believe may have been overstated.  The Bears scored an average of 20.9 PPG in 2007 and all the way up to 23.4 PPG in 2008, good for 18th and 14th in the NFL respectively, despite high turnover totals in both seasons.  34 and 26 in those seasons respectively.  This just doesn’t jive with the prevailing logic of the team: that the 2007 Bears were a terrible offensive team, and that the 2008 Bears were improved-but-still-below average.

We can break down the offense: 3 QB changes + Cedric Benson’s team leading 4 rushing TDs in 2007, uninspired, but improved offense in 2008 led by Hester, Orton, and Forte; clearly though, you either have to believe that the Bears were lucky to have produced a positive point differential last year, or that they were good.  And by good, I mean, had a top defense, since that’s the unaccounted for variable that is the subject of this column.

Let’s say that the 2008 Bears weren’t lucky and consequently, their Expected Win total of 8.7 last year (for a 9-7 team, mind you) was well earned.  This implies–via process of establishing the offense, loosely, as belowaverage–that the Bears were a top-quartile defense in 2008.  In fact, if we apply the same standard and adjust for three downright terrible offenses in the Smith-era, we can extrapolate that the Bears have been a top quartile defense (or “top ten,” if you prefer) in each of the last five years.  Simply by their virtue of being able to score points with offense that have proven unable to get themselves on the scoreboard, I would imagine that up to a third of the total value of the Bears defense is simply not measured by points against.  It looks like the Bears have consistently outproduced this measure over the long run, and not to mention that this effect has held through a scheme change away from the cover-two.

Of course, you don’t have to buy this argument.  It’s far from established fact that having a point scoring defense is a repeatable skill, and the fact that the Bears defense has been such a prolific scoring defense does not mean they will continue to be one.  And frankly, if you don’t think the Bears are one of the defenses in the NFL who can consistently add to the team’s points scored total, then it’s more likely than not that the Bears will hover around the second quartile on defense (9th-16th) over the rest of the Smith-era, until say, a complete outlier season ends up outing Smith and his entire staff.

Of course, the defensive core on this team is as strong as it’s ever been, and most of the team is still in it’s prime, and they have not failed to add talent in the draft every season, often ignoring the offense in an attempt to add young pieces to the defense.  The amount of draft value alone would suggest that the Bears are NOT a declining defense.

But in the NFL, if you aren’t actively improving your team, the pace at which the game evolves will force your demise.  And the Bears have for 5 years managed to defeat this macro-trend, albeit in varying degrees.  The pessimist among us would certainly suggest that, sooner or later, futility will catch up to the Bears defensive unit, and for this to happen in the very year that they finally go out and get a franchise quarterback, well, you could sell some books with that narrative.  However, it just seems a little unrealistic to conclude that the Bears are a declining unit when a lot of the evidence suggests that they are more likely to vault to the top of the NFL this year than they are to fall into it’s bottom half.

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  1. August 15, 2009 at 2:29 am

    I wouldn’t say that the Bears’ defense has had ‘considerable’ turnover in the 04-09 span. In 2004 you had Lance Briggs, Brian Urlacher, Alex Brown, Adewale Ogunleye, Charles Tillman, Nathan Vasher, and Tommie Harris, all who will start this year if healthy. The turnover has come from the Tank Johnson fiasco, finding a better replacement for Hillenmeyer, the injuries of Mike Brown and the revolving door at the other safety position.

    The success of the Bears unit will mostly hinge on the continued success of these players and new talent being ready to replace or supplement them relatively soon. This includes player such as Marcus Harrison, Zach Bowman, Pisa Tinoisamoa, Jamar Williams, Mark Anderson, Kevin Payne and others.

    Also, don’t be too quick to write off Danieal Manning as a defensive bust, as Lovie Smith has restored confidence in him and he is currently leading the camp battle at free safety. This season will tell if he can be a viable NFL starter on defense.

  2. August 15, 2009 at 12:06 pm

    Given, the Bears LB corps is probably one of the most historically stable in the entire realm of professional football, but I don’t know if I’d go to that extent on the defensive line, and I know I wouldn’t touch that with a ten foot pole regarding the secondary.

    When ‘Wale and Tommie Harris have been healthy, they’ve been in the lineup, but I think you can make a good case that the Bears have mismanaged Alex Brown while chasing Mark Anderson’s potential, and the DT2 spot has always been a revolving door.

    The secondary is four different guys every week.

  1. August 25, 2009 at 6:03 am

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