By almost any statistical measure, the Chicago Bears' defense is trending upward.
The 2017 defense is better than the 2016 defense, which wasn't bad. Even more encouraging, this year's defense has been better in the last four games than it was in the first four.
Players' familiarity with the scheme, improved personnel, better health and more take-aways have all been factors. Free-agent cornerback Prince Amukamara and rookie safety Eddie Jackson have upgraded the secondary, which also has benefited from the healthy return of cornerback Kyle Fuller.
Inside linebacker Danny Trevathan, outside linebacker Pernell McPhee and nose tackle Eddie Goldman all have been healthier and more productive than they were a year ago, although Trevathan has not practiced this week because of a calf injury.
"We're just playing better," defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. "We've had an influx of some new players. That always has an impact."
Fangio believes limiting explosive plays has been a bigger factor than scheme familiarity because several players are in their first or second year in the system.
"I don't think there is a lot of carry-over," Fangio said. "It's my third year here, but I don't think it's many of the players' third years here. I think that's a little overblown.
"Knock on wood, (we) haven't been giving up too many big plays, which is something that will sabotage a game quicker than anything. Hopefully we can continue that."
While the Bears' offense has produced 14 runs of 15 yards or longer, the defense has allowed just 4. In October, Bears opponents had just 4 pass plays of 25 yards or longer, while the Mitch Trubisky-led offense had 5.
"There's been steady improvement definitely over last year," coach John Fox said. "Personnel-wise we're better. Some of the guys we got back healthy make us better.
"We had guys that were playing for the first time a year ago (and) are now a year better or a year improved. And I think really the chemistry that's developed this season, even from the first quarter of the season to the second quarter, are all factors."
All 4 Bears' interceptions have come in the last four games, as have 14 of their 23 sacks.
The turnovers must keep coming for the defensive improvement to continue, according to McPhee, who is third on the team with 4 sacks and envisions a monument to the take-aways.
"It's got to continue just to put ourselves in a position to win," McPhee said. "It's something we practice and preach every day. We're building a museum, and every time we get a take-away we just put pictures up in the museum."
So where's this museum?
"Somewhere," McPhee said. "It's imaginary."
After allowing opponents to convert 47.1 percent of their third downs in the first four games, the Bears have improved dramatically, allowing just 29.8 percent in their last four. The league average is 38.9.
"I thought we played pretty decent for most of the first (four games)," Fangio said. "But then the last (four), we started getting the take-aways, and obviously that pushed our play to a new level."
Defensive lineman Akiem Hicks is playing at a Pro Bowl level and already has matched last year's career-best 7 sacks while also providing stout run defense.
Trevathan leads the team with 52 tackles and has 2 sacks and an interception despite a one-game suspension for a helmet-to-helmet hit. He missed two games early last season with a fractured thumb and the final five with a ruptured patellar tendon but still finished third on the team with 73 tackles.
"He's really played his best football in the last four or five weeks because he's been playing and practicing," Fangio said. "He hasn't had injuries interrupt it. Now he's got another interruption here. Don't know if he'll be able to go or not this week."
Bears defense through first 8 games 2016 and 2017
Year 2016 2017
Total yards 338.9 312.0
Points 22.4 21.4
Sacks 20 23
Interceptions 4 4
Int. ret. Yds. 49 226
fumbles rec. 3 7
Takeaways 7 11
Bears defense Games 1-4 and 5-8 this year
Games 1-4 5-8
Sacks 9 14
Interceptions 0 4
Pass breakups 15 20
fumbles rec. 3 4
Takeaways 3 8
Opp. 3rd-downs 47.1% 29.8%
total yards 306.3 317.8
Points 26.0 16.8
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