It’s easy to forget the 5-11 Chicago Bears had a stout defense in the 2017 season.
The last place team in the NFC North had the ninth-ranked defense in football and allowed 23 points or fewer in seven of their 11 losses. The unit held its own but was complemented by an ineffective offense led by a rookie quarterback with very few credible pass catchers.
Now the offense — armed with several marquee free agents in the passing game and an improving Mitch Trubisky — is carrying its weight, and the defense has raised its play a notch higher as the Bears hold the division lead 10 weeks through the season.
Chicago has six players that rank in the top 10 at their respective position, according to Pro Football Focus. Five are on the defensive side of the football. Eddie Jackson is ranked second amongst safeties. Corners Bryce Callahan and Kyle Fuller are third and fourth, respectively. Akiem Hicks is fourth at defensive tackle. Khalil Mack is ninth amongst edge rushers.
It was the preseason acquisition of the three-time Pro Bowler Mack for a pair of first-round picks that presumably pushed the Bears defense over the edge.
“I think he’s added a lot of swagger to their football team,” said Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer. “I think they have swagger anyway, but I think he’s added some to it, knowing that they’ve got a guy of his caliber that’s in there. He really adds a lot of physicality to their defense.
“Everybody knows he’s a good rusher, but the physicality of defeating a tight end, defeating an offensive tackle, the aggressive nature that he plays with, that probably adds to all the other guys.”
Mack missed two games with an injury but has still totaled seven sacks and four forced fumbles after joining the team just over a week before its Week 1 game and signing a six-year extension worth $141 million. He’s the centerpiece of a defense that has been generating continuity for years. Fuller was drafted in 2014. Callahan and Adrian Amos joined the team in 2015. Hicks and Leonard Floyd bolstered the defensive line in 2016.
After several years of percolating, the Bears defense, led by coordinator Vic Fangio, has skied to fourth in points against, and it leads the NFL with 16 interceptions and a plus-13 in the take-give. Thanks to their group of ball-hawking defensive backs, aggressive 3-4 linebackers and run-stopping defensive linemen, the Bears have 24 total takeaways — only once have they not recorded two or more in a game.
“I think it’s one of the biggest statistics to point to why the Bears are playing at the level they are,” said quarterback Kirk Cousins. “When you create turnovers that is a critical factor in winning football games, so something we have to be very aware of. I don’t know that I drop back saying, ‘Don’t fumble, don’t fumble,’ or ‘Don’t throw a pick.’ You still have to play. But you’re just aware that this is one of the ways they’ve been able to win some football games, by creating turnovers again and again and again.”
Of the Bears’ 16 interceptions, 12 have come from the secondary, including four from Fuller who’s shown a knack for jumping routes. They have four defensive touchdowns, tied with Cincinnati for the league lead. Three have come on interceptions; one on an Eddie Jackson fumble recovery.
They have 13 takeaways on third downs, four more than the next closest team, the Arizona Cardinals. Their 16 forced fumbles are second only to Buffalo, nine of which have been forced by the trio of Mack, Hicks and defensive tackle Bilal Nichols.
Four times the Bears’ pass rush forced a rushed pass that resulted in a pick. Twice a receiver got his hands on the ball, only to have it quickly knocked out for an interception off the carom. And twice the Bears have stripped opposing quarterbacks as they tried to scramble forward for a first down — an area where Cousins has been susceptible.
“Our coaches do a heck of a job of preaching it and teaching it every single day,” said Bears coach Matt Nagy on a conference call, speaking of turnover creation. “It’s important to them, it’s important to the players, we show cut ups, we talk about it, we have things around the building. This is something that doesn’t just happen.”
Even more importantly, the Bears have turned the takeaways into a league-high 89 points.
“Their points off of turnovers are huge,” said Zimmer. “We’re going to have to do a great job of possessing the ball and keeping it and do a good job with being patient in a lot of ways.”
The Vikings are 4-0 when they win or tie the take-give and 1-3-1 when they lose it. Turnovers may greatly influence Sunday night’s game, and the Bears have takeaways artists at many positions that can make the Vikings pay for any slip-ups at Soldier Field.