Midseason grades: Healthy players would help Bears defense
If the Chicago Bears' defense ever gets back to full strength, it could help salvage a 2-6 season.
Every football team has injuries, but the Bears' had little depth to begin with and injuries to nose tackle Eddie Goldman, linebackers Pernell McPhee, Danny Trevathan, Leonard Floyd and Lamarr Houston, and cornerbacks Kyle Fuller and Bryce Callahan took their toll.
Goldman, the Bears' most talented defensive lineman, has missed the past six games with a sprained ankle, but he could be back for the first game after the Week 9 bye.
Fuller has been out the entire season after arthroscopic knee surgery, but he could return. Houston went on I.R. with a knee injury after playing in two games and is not expected back.
Trevathan, Floyd and Callahan all missed two games and were less than 100 percent in at least one additional game. McPhee didn't return from a January knee scope until Week 7.
Injuries aside, the Bears still have managed to rank in the top 12 in total yards, passing yards, average gain per pass, rushing yards, and average gain per rush allowed, sack percentage and third-down efficiency.
If left end Akiem Hicks played as well as he did against the Vikings every week, he'd deserve his first Pro Bowl trip.
Signed primarily for his prowess as a run defender, Hicks is second in the club with 4 sacks, and his overall production should improve when Goldman returns as the D-line anchor in the middle.
"He's got great knock-back and great shed ability," defensive line coach Jay Rodgers said of the powerful 6-foot-4, 320-pound Goldman. "He just takes up a lot of space in there, and (opponents) can't run in between those two guards.
"He's growing into it. It takes a little while for a defensive lineman in the NFL to be a great player. And he was starting to become that kind of player in the beginning of the year."
Will Sutton filled in adequately for Goldman, despite his lack of size for the position, and Mitch Unrein remains the unsung, blue-collar worker at right end in the base defense.
Cornelius Washington has provided some pass-rush pressure and picked up his second sack last week.
Rookie backup Jonathan Bullard has stretches where he disappears, but he also flashes at times, as he did against the Colts when he had 3 tackles including his first sack.
The third-round draft pick from Florida is generously listed at 6-foot-3 and 290 pounds, a bit undersized for a 3-4 lineman, but coaches love his suddenness, classroom and film acumen and the way he's adjusted to a different scheme than he played in college.
With McPhee and Houston idled and no one else providing much pass-rush pressure, Willie Young stepped up.
He leads the team with 6 sacks and a total of 5 in Games 5-6, although the Bears lost both games. Among the front seven, only inside linebackers Jerrell Freeman and Danny Trevathan have more tackles than the rangy Young.
Freeman arguably has been the Bears' MVP with more than twice as many tackles as the next teammate. He has been an impact player since the season opener, when he had 17 tackles against the Houston Texans.
Trevathan missed just two games with a torn ligament in his thumb and played with a cast after his rapid return. He and Freeman have solidified the middle of the defense.
On the outside, the Bears initially struggled because of injuries. But once first-round pick Leonard Floyd got healthy, he emerged as a difference-maker with 3 sacks in the past two weeks.
McPhee looked rusty in his return in Week 7 and went unnoticed on 19 snaps. But a week later he picked up his first sack and had 3 additional hits on Vikings quarterback Sam Bradford.
Sam Acho filled in admirably when injuries hit and was among the team leaders in quarterback pressures and tackles for loss, but will probably see his snaps decrease if McPhee and Floyd remain healthy.
The only constant here has been change. Veteran Tracy Porter has started every game while dealing with a nagging knee injury for much of the season, and he has been a steadying influence in an otherwise youthful and inexperienced secondary.
Without Fuller, three players have started at least one game at the other corner and three have manned the nickel corner spot.
The common denominator is all of them are rookies or second-year players.
Bryce Callahan started off as the nickel (third cornerback in passing situations) and played well enough to move into the starting lineup. But he has been in and out with a nagging hamstring.
That gave undrafted rookie Cre'Von LeBlanc a chance, and he was promoted from nickel to starter last week, when Callahan was out.
This group has been toasted (see Colts and Packers games), but going forward, Callahan at corner and LeBlanc at nickel could be a winning combination.
Adrian Amos and Harold Jones-Quartey have started every game and have played well against the run. Both have improved as playmakers on the ball, but there is still considerable room for improvement.
Neither has an interception and they have just 2 pass breakups apiece. But considering both are just 23, this could potentially be an area of strength in the future if their improvement continues.
Amos already has made big strides since last season, when he started all 16 games as a rookie. Assistant defensive backs coach Sam Garnes believes Amos has come the farthest of all the young defensive backs.
"He's doing a good job covering, like (Jaguars tight end) Julius Thomas and different tight ends we've faced," Garnes said. "And we've even put him on (wide) receivers as well.
"So I think he's more comfortable playing man-to-man and being underneath zones and he's doing a good job tackling. He's actually leading back there."
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