Bears midseason grades: Rating Sean Desai's defense after Week 9

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Bears midseason grades: Rating defense after Week 9 originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

Heading into the 2021 season, the Bears had plenty of questions surrounding the defense. How would the team replace Kyle Fuller? What would the defense look like under Sean Desai? Could he fix the pass rush? Would Eddie Goldman play up to the standard he set earlier in his career? Would Goldman play at all?

Halfway through, we’ve got a pretty good sense of the answers to all of those questions, and it’s been a bit of a mixed bag. Here’s how things have gone, through the first nine weeks of the season:

DEFENSIVE LINE: B-

It may have been unfair to expect Goldman to jump right back in and play at a Pro Bowl level, after missing all of 2020 and a good chunk of the offseason training regimen due to injury and a stint on the reserve/COVID-19 list. It took some time for him to get his legs under him, but in Week 9 Goldman started to look like the dominant nose tackle he was in 2019. Akiem Hicks has been the best player on the line when healthy, as usual, but unfortunately he’s battled nagging injuries that have forced him to miss several games. Bilal Nichols has gotten home for a couple of sacks, but he hasn’t taken the big step forward many imagined before the season began. Angelo Blackson and Mario Edwards have both provided some pop in rotational roles, but Edwards’ several penalties often hurt the team more than his production has helped. Finally, rookie Khyiris Tonga has flashed raw talent in his limited snaps. With some time to develop, he looks like he could be an impact player in a year or two. Overall, this unit has helped in pass rush, but outside of Hicks and recently Goldman, they haven’t done enough to stop the run.

OUTSIDE LINEBACKERS: A

Khalil Mack is playing like Khalil Mack, Robert Quinn is playing the Bears expected he would when they signed him last season, and the two of them have combined to form the most prolific pass rush in the NFL so far. The Bears’ 33 sacks lead the league, largely because both Mack and Quinn are having great seasons. Desai deserves some credit here too, as he’s drawn up creative concepts like stunts, or stacking one side of the line with both Mack and Quinn, to help them get to the quarterback. The only problem is each Quinn and Mack have missed games this season, due to a stint on the reserve/COVID-19 list and a nagging injury, respectively. The Bears hoped free agent acquisition Jeremiah Attaochu could contribute as a rotational edge rusher, but he tore his pectoral muscle in Week 5, ending his season. He had no sacks and one QB hit. That opened the door for second-year player Trevis Gipson to play more snaps. Gipson was made a healthy scratch in Week 2, but since then has made the most of his opportunities by disrupting several plays, either by deflecting passes, forcing fumbles or getting to the quarterback. The Bears should feel pretty good about moving forward with a core of Mack, Quinn and Gipson for the rest of this year, and next year too.

INSIDE LINEBACKERS: B

Roquan Smith is once again playing at an All-Pro level. He’s tied for second in the league with 93 tackles and is poised to shatter his career high of 139 tackles. Smith has also always had a penchant for sacking the quarterback when his name is called, and he’s continued that this season too. But one area where Smith seems to have taken a step forward is as a vocal leader in the locker room. Previously, Smith showed a more reserved personality, but he appears to be taking more ownership over the defense as a whole, trying to hold everyone to a high standard. His teammates have noted the passionate speeches he’s given after games. Meanwhile, the Bears still haven’t fully sorted out who plays beside Smith. Alec Ogletree started the season as the second inside linebacker, and played well against the run. But since Danny Trevathan has returned from a knee injury, Desai has deployed a rotation of sorts between Ogletree and Trevathan. At it’s best, the rotation hasn’t been noticeable, but other times it’s looked disjointed. Neither Ogletree nor Trevathan have looked exceptional in pass coverage.

CORNERBACKS: C+

There’s probably no bigger disparity between the Bears’ best player and their second-best player than there is at cornerback. Jaylon Johnson has cemented himself as a legit CB1 this season, with Desai opting to use him to shadow an opponent’s top WR in certain scenarios. Kindle Vildor on the other hand hasn’t lived up to the hopes that he could step in as the team’s second outside corner. To provide further context, Johnson has given up a 53% completion percentage when targeted, versus Johnson’s 69% completion rate surrendered. In addition, quarterbacks have a 150.3 passer rating when targeting Vildor, which is worst in the NFL according to PFF. Johnson on the other hand has only given up an 88.5 passer rating. The Bears’ slot corners have also been exposed, causing Desai to flip flop between several players. They started with Marqui Christian, before switching to Duke Shelley in Week 2. But several others have gotten work as the nickel back too, like Teez Tabor and Xavier Crawford. None have been particularly impressive, although Shelley has improved in recent weeks.

SAFETIES: D+

No position group has been more disappointing on defense than the safeties. This was a unit that many hoped would generate turnovers to put the offense in favorable situations. Instead, they’ve given up more big plays than they’ve made themselves. What’s most concerning is how the safeties have given up the big plays. Too many times there have been coverage miscommunications, or straight-up brain farts like when neither Eddie Jackson nor Tashaun Gipson touched down Van Jefferson in Week 1. There’s been poor tackling in pass coverage too, which has led to big gains and touchdowns. If there is one positive, it’s that both Jackson and Gipson have looked good when called upon to come up to the line of scrimmage to help with run defense. The play of DeAndre Houston-Carson has also been a silver lining. He’s played reliably as a backup, and showed incredible hustle to prevent Deebo Samuel from scoring on his 83-yard screen catch and run.

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