Bears film study: One player fell and the defense collapsed

                                                                                                                                                                                                   
  • Chicago Bears defensive end Akiem Hicks, seen here pressuring Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers during a 2018 game, was a big part of the Bears' defense for the first four games last season. When Hicks went down with an elbow injury, the defense seemed to lose its luster.

    Chicago Bears defensive end Akiem Hicks, seen here pressuring Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers during a 2018 game, was a big part of the Bears' defense for the first four games last season. When Hicks went down with an elbow injury, the defense seemed to lose its luster. Daily Herald File Photo

 
 
Updated 8/9/2020 5:51 PM

Quarantine gave Mike McGraw time to study coaches film from the Bears' 2019 season. Here is Part 2 of his observations, focused on the defense.

Looking back at the 2019 Bears season, the moment when everything turned rotten is easy to identify.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

It was in the first half of the game against the Raiders in London, when defensive tackle Akiem Hicks' elbow bent grotesquely backward. Hicks came back to play against the Packers late in the season with his arm in a brace, but he was basically done for the year when the injury happened.

Hicks meant just about everything to the Bears' defense, which played lights-out in the first four games. Without Hicks commanding and often beating double-teams, the players around him all took a step back.

Fellow linemen like Bilal Nichols, Eddie Goldman and Roy Robertson-Harris looked pretty good when playing next to Hicks, then turned to ordinary without him. Opposing offensive lines didn't have to dedicate an extra player to blocking Hicks, which allowed guards to run downfield and seal off linebackers Roquan Smith and Danny Trevathan. Kahlil Mack didn't make as much of an impact.

If Hicks stays healthy this season, then maybe the Bears' defense goes back to being dominant. But it is a little disconcerting that one player is so vital to the group's success.

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The Bears lost DT Nick Johnson (Lions), who was second on the team with 6 sacks last year. But Nichols, Robertson-Harris and Brent Urban should be fine, as long as Hicks stays on the field. Goldman opting out will hurt the Bears' depth -- if there is a season -- but I don't think he stood out from the other interior linemen. It was Hicks and everyone else.

Everyone wondered why Mack's big plays faded away after a stellar 2018. The conclusion here is Mack was the same guy. He played hard and barely left the field, but he also felt Hicks' absence. Opposing teams were also very wary of Mack's presence. He might have led the league in being one step from the quarterback when a pass was launched.

Leonard Floyd, the No. 9 overall draft pick in 2016, certainly wasn't a bust. He's a solid player, just not much of a pass-rusher. Floyd is now with the Rams, while free-agent addition Robert Quinn will take over the outside spot opposite Mack.

Mystery unsolved

A few things are hard to figure about last year's defense. As mentioned above, it was outstanding at the start and the 16-6 win over Minnesota in Week 4 was about as dominant as a defense can be against an eventual playoff qualifier.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The thing is, Hicks missed the Minnesota game with a knee injury and that was also the day Smith was a late scratch for personal reasons. Smith looked like he was headed for the Pro Bowl during the first three games, then never was quite the same after that.

So why did the Bears defense dominate without Hicks against the Vikings, then seem overmatched the rest of the year? One explanation is they ran into some good offensive lines.

The Raiders' middle three were overpowering in London. Then the Saints in Week 7 and Eagles in Week 9 were both rated among the top five offensive lines in the league by Pro Football Focus. The Eagles swept the Bears off the line of scrimmage like a snow shovel clearing an inch of dust from the sidewalk.

At linebacker, both Smith and Trevathan missed the end of the season with injuries, and there wasn't much drop-off with Nick Kwiatkoski and Kevin Pierre-Louis. Between Kwiatkowski's aggressiveness and Pierre-Louis' speed, it made you wonder if the Bears should consider a shake-up.

They didn't. Trevathan got a nice extension and Smith is back to try to lead the Bears in tackles for the third year in a row. Kwiatkoski got a nice raise from the Raiders, while Pierre-Louis joined the Washington football team.

Openings available

The defensive secondary was solid last season. I wish I could find stats on this, but the Bears definitely seemed to fare better in man-to-man than the occasional Cover 2.

I wouldn't say Kyle Fuller is an elite coverage cornerback, but he's a good all-around player and an avid run-stopper. It was interesting how in each of the last two seasons, opposing teams threw at Fuller more than Prince Amukamara. And the Bears' cornerbacks didn't switch sides, so it's not like Fuller was following the best receiver or anything like that. Amukamara, 31, got beat deep a few times, but is still playing well.

Safety Eddie Jackson is a rising star and the Bears found a pretty good replacement for Adrian Amos in Ha Ha Clinton-Dix last season.

But now 50 percent of last year's secondary is gone, with Amukamara (Raiders) and Clinton-Dix (Cowboys) moving on in free-agency. Make that 40 percent, actually, since the Bears play plenty of nickel and Buster Skrine was very good last season. Skrine was a nice upgrade from Bryce Callahan, who guarded the slot in 2018.

There will be competition for the two vacant spots, but it appears rookie Jaylen Johnson is the future at cornerback and veteran Tashaun Gipson has the edge at safety. The Bears are banking that Quinn will help the pass rush to the point where it negates the fact that the secondary will be less talented. We'll see how that works out.

But as we've already seen, a healthy Hicks is the key to everything.

• Twitter: McGrawDHBulls

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