Bears defense hopes to take next step with additions, experience
Bears coach Matt Eberflus couldn't help but smirk when asked at offseason team activities Wednesday whether not having a safety lead the team in sacks was as important as not having quarterback Justin Fields rush for 1,000 yards in 2023.
"That would be a correct statement," Eberflus said.
Eberflus can joke in May about safety Jaquan Brisker leading the team in sacks last season with four, but the defensive-minded head coach is looking for growth from a defense that allowed the most points (463), second-most rushing yards (2,674) and fourth-most total yards (6,390) in the NFL last season.
Eberflus expects two big linebacker signings over the offseason by Bears general manager Ryan Poles will make a major difference. Pro Bowlers Tremaine Edmunds and T.J. Edwards have already provided leadership and experience to a young defensive group during two weeks of practice.
"When you have good leadership, you always have a chance, on top of the guys are good players," defensive coordinator Alan Williams said. "You notice that when they're making plays out there, directing the defense, leading the defense. It starts right there in the middle and we are getting that."
Edmunds said last week that he's used his past experiences with the Buffalo Bills to help prepare himself for a leadership role with the Bears. In Edmunds' view, leadership is about listening and understanding that everyone is different.
If teammates can feel like they can be themselves, they'll be more confident in their play.
"It's just developing that every day and meshing with one another," Edmunds said. "Building that chemistry that every team, every good defense has."
The 25-year-old Edmunds led a top-ranked Bills defense with 102 total tackles and added 6 tackles for loss and one interception and a sack each while the 26-year-old Edwards led the Philadelphia Eagles with 159 total tackles and added 10 tackles for loss and two sacks.
Linebacker Nicholas Morrow, who signed with the Eagles this offseason, led the Bears with 116 total tackles in 2022 while Brisker finished second with 104.
Eberflus said Wednesday that he'd prefer to create a pass rush with just the defensive line so the back seven could play coverage, but he's encouraged by having an experienced linebacking corps that can help.
"It's great to have two linebackers in there that have really good experience with (Jack) Sanborn being the other guy that's gotten the rookie year under his belt," Eberflus said. "It's certainly comforting for the young guys."
A stronger rush to the quarterback should also help a secondary group that ranked in the middle of the pack last season with 3,716 passing yards and 218.6 passing yards allowed per game. Fourth-year cornerback Jaylon Johnson hasn't attended OTAs but second-year secondary pieces Brisker and Kyler Gordon have shown Bears coaches progress.
The defensive players have graded better during practices than they did last season, according to coaches, and Gordon said Wednesday that the game has slowed down for him compared to his rookie year.
Again, it's only OTAs, but Williams is encouraged by what he has seen so far.
"We do have talent there," Williams said. "I don't know if you can ever have enough depth, no matter how good your guys are. I do like where we're headed, where we are right now and how our young guys are running around, how our guys we picked up, the vets are running around. We'll see what happens with it."
Williams cautioned against making too many proclamations for the season based on what happens in shirts and helmets in May, but Edmunds knows the importance the first few practices are for setting the foundation of a defense that's looking to grow.
"There are going to be mistakes that we have to get corrected, that's what this time is for," Edmunds said. "It's not about going out there and being perfect from day one, day two, each day we need to continue to build."
Wide receiver Chase Claypool sat out Wednesday's practice because of what Eberflus called a soft-tissue issue. Eberflus wasn't concerned and said it was a precaution.
"Sometimes you get the soft tissue stuff and there's no reason to risk anything at this time," Eberflus said.
Johnson and offensive guard Nate Davis were not at OTAs after missing last week's practices. Ebeflus said he hadn't heard from Johnson whether he'll join the team June 13-15 for mandatory minicamp but he's hopeful he'll be there.