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Chicago Sun-Times
Chicago Sun-Times
Mark Potash

1st-and-10: D-line moves to top of Bears’ want list

Jets running back Ty Johnson (25) leaves Bears defensive end Trevis Gipson and others in his wake on a 32-yard touchdown run in the Bears’ 31-10 loss Sunday at MetLife Stadium. (Al Bello/Getty Images)

The acquisition of wide receiver Chase Claypool didn’t drop “difference-making weapon for Justin Fields” from the top of the Bears’ 2023 want list. But the demise of the Bears’ defense might have. 

The Bears still need a dynamic wide receiver to accelerate the development of Justin Fields. And they still need a major upgrade at offensive tackle. But with a withering defense that struggles to pressure a quarterback, let alone sack him, defensive line arguably has jumped to the top spot of the Bears’ need list for 2023.

After allowing 31 points and 466 yards in a 31-10 loss to the Jets on. Sunday, the Bears have allowed 173 points (34.6 average) in the last five weeks — the most in the NFL in that span. Even if you subtract the four touchdowns scored against them on special teams (two) and offense (two), the 145 points scored against the Bears still are tied with the Cardinals for the most overall points allowed in that span — just on defensive points allowed alone.

Through 12 games, rookie safety Jaquan Brisker leads the Bears with three sacks — a glaring indictment of a defense that is philosophically disdains leaning on the blitz to pressure the quarterback. “We believe in the four-man rush,” coach Matt Eberflus said in Week 3. 

At that point, Eberflus had reason to state that so resolutely — rookie defensive end Dominique Robinson had 1.5 sacks against the 49ers in the opener; defensive end Trevis Gipson had two sacks against the Packers in Week 2. But since then, the Bears’ defensive line has just five sacks in the last 10 games. Armon Watts’ sack of Jets quarterback Mike White on Sunday was the first sack by a defensive lineman in six games — since Al-Quadin Muhammad’s sack against the Commanders in Week 6. 

It’s not only sacks. The Bears have just 34 quarterback hits this season — by far the fewest in the NFL (the Rams’ 45 quarterback hits are the second fewest). 

Lack of opportunity — obvious passing downs — is one culprit. The Bears’ defense has put opponents in third-and-seven or longer situations 5.4 plays per game this season — 30th in the NFL. 

The Bears’ 27th-ranked run defense (24th in yards per carry) is a big reason for that. The Jets had 32 carries for 158 yards (4.9 average) against the Bears on Sunday. With leading rusher Breece Hall out with an injury and Michael Carter leaving in the first quarter with an injury, Ty Johnson (5-62) and Zonovan Knight (14-69) combined for 131 yards on 19 carries. They came into the game with a combined nine carries for 30 yards this season — all by Johnson. Knight is an undrafted rookie who had never played in a regular-season NFL game. 

Circumstances can’t be ignored. The Bears traded Khalil Mack and did not re-sign Akiem Hicks in the offseason. They traded Robert Quinn in Week 8 and Roquan Smith in Week 9. They’re starting four rookies. Two of them, cornerback Kyler Gordon and safety Jaquan Brisker, are in concussion protocol and did not play against the Jets. Safety Eddie Jackson suffered a season-ending foot injury in the first half. 

But the defense’s production hasn’t met even lowered expectations. And it starts up front, where a difference-making defensive tackle or end moves to the top of the Bears’ offseason want list. 

2. At 3-9, the Bears currently are second in the 2023 draft order. If they lose out, they would finish no worse than third. The Rams and Broncos are 3-8 and would win strength-of-schedule tie-breakers against the Bears. But the Rams and Broncos play each other in Week 16, so one of them (or both in the event of a tie) would fall behind a 3-14 Bears team in the draft order. 

In that scenario, the Bears’ best option might be to trade down with a team desperate for a quarterback to acquire more picks. But Alabama defensive end Will Anderson and Georgia defensive tackle Jalen Carter — both rated worthy of a top-five pick — would be tempting as potential difference-making players. 

3. The Bears trading their own second-round pick to the Steelers for Claypool — instead of the second-round pick they got from the Ravens in the Roquan Smith trade — is looming larger with every loss. Their original second-round pick is currently 34th overall. The pick they got from the Ravens is 56th. 

4. The Bears are at a low-point with Fields injured and Jackson and Darnell Mooney out for the season. But while they need a lot of help — likely more than general manager Ryan Poles envisioned when he revamped the roster — the idea that they need wholesale changes on both lines is a little overwrought. Difference-making players turn liabilities into assets. With a high draft pick and a ton of salary-cap space, Poles needs to hit home runs instead of a bunch of doubles. 

5. It’s hard to believe the Bears wouldn’t have been better off had Matt Eberflus named Trevor Siemian the starter last Monday, given Siemian the full complement of starters reps in practice and the entire week to prepare mentally as the starter — instead of Siemian literally not finding out that he was the starter until Sunday morning. 

The juice of keeping the Jets in the dark wasn’t worth the squeeze of that charade. It almost never is. The Jets named Mike White the starter last Wednesday. Maybe it was just a coincidence he had a 149.3 passer rating and Siemian’s was 75.2, but it worked out well for Robert Saleh.

6. Did You Know? Undrafted rookie linebacker Jack Sanborn has more tackles in his first four starts for the Bears (43) than Roquan Smith had in his last four starts for the Bears (37). In fact, after his 14 tackles against the Jets, Sanborn’s average of 10.8 tackles per game is better than Smith’s season average of 10.4, when he was leading the NFL in tackles. 

7. Jackson going on injured reserve with a foot injury is another major blow to a defense still reeling since Quinn and Smith were traded. The Bears were tied for seventh in points allowed, 12th in yards allowed and 15th in yards allowed per play in seven games with Quinn and Smith. They now are 27th in points, 20th in yards and 29th in yards per play. 

The Jets’ White (149.3) was the fifth consecutive quarterback with a 100-plus passer rating against the Bears — following Marcus Mariota (100.2), Jared Goff (113.6), Tua Tagovailoa (135.7) and Dak Prescott (114.5). Prior to that, the Bears were second in the NFL in opponent’s passer rating (74.6). 

And while they’ve faced better passers recently — Tagovailoa (first) and Prescott (eighth) are in the top 10 in passer rating and Goff is 12th — White is a backup who was starting for the first time in more than a year. His 149.3 rating against the Bears is the sixth highest in the Super Bowl era for a quarterback with fewer than four career starts coming in. 

8. Mooney had at least one catch in his first 44 games with the Bears before getting shut out prior to his injury Sunday. That’s the second-longest streak in franchise history to start a career — behind Harlon Hill’s 61. 

9. Josh McCown Ex-Bears Player of the Week — Panthers kicker Eddy Pineiro was 3-for-3 on field goals (42, 26 and 36 yards) and 2-for-2 on PATs in a 23-10 victory over the Broncos. Pineiro has made 22-of-24 field goals and 18-of-20 PATs this season. 

10. Bear-ometer: 4-13 — vs. Packers (L); vs. Eagles (L); vs. Bills (L); at Lions (W); vs. Vikings (L). You know the Bears are going to surprise somebody. 

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