The Chicago Bears finished last season with a 5-11 record, last place in an NFC North that saw injuries to starting quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and Sam Bradford, leaving a desolate landscape occupied by Case Keenum, Brett Hundley, and Matthew Stafford. Finishing 5-11 in such an objectively weak division (despite the Vikings vaunted defense and 13-3 record) doesn’t exactly bode well for the future of the Bears, but under young quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, the front office, and an under-appreciated defense may have them closer than you think.
The Bears are the team that most obviously grab my eye when evaluating which teams could have surprise seasons. Despite an offense that ranked 30th in total offense and 32nd in passing, while running middle of the pack in rushing, the defense managed to rank top 10 in total, passing, rushing, and scoring defense.
Jacksonville’s defense became so fearsome not only because of an astounding pass rush, but because of a secondary that deployed the tandem of AJ Bouye and Jalen Ramsey to aid the pass rush. The Bears have a similar situation, with cornerbacks Prince Amukamara and Kyle Fuller buoying a defense that returns defensive end Akiem Hicks, who had 8.5 sacks a year ago, and a talented crop of linebackers.
Newcomer Roquan Smith, drafted out of Georgia, will surely make an immediate impact in the Bears 3-4 defensive front. In his final season as a Bulldog, Smith tallied 137 total tackles, 14 for loss, and 6.5 sacks on his way to being named a consensus All-American, SEC Defensive Player of the Year, and bringing home the national Dick Butkus Award for Outstanding Linebacker. Smith looks to add a wrinkle of disruption to a defensive front that, while capable, relied heavily on Hicks to create pressure in a defense that felt like it often lacked a pass rush from the inside linebackers.
Not only are the Bears returning a top 10 defense, but the front office made sure to address the passing offense in the offseason. Last year, the Bears saw only one player go over 400 yards receiving, and relied on running back Tarik Cohen immensely in the passing game, as he checked in with the third most receiving yards on the team. This season, the Bears went out and got former Pro Bowler Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel, and Trey Burton to offer Trubisky a level of consistency in the offense.
The other factor the Rams and Jaguars were specifically able to use to their benefit was a running game that complimented their more management style of passing. Neither the Rams or Jags finished inside the top 20 in passing attempts, and both teams finished outside the top 10 in passing yards. However, both teams finished top 10 in rushing, with the Jags finishing first. It’s important to note that the Jags utilized rookie phenom Leonard Fournette as their battering ram, while the Rams saw Todd Gurley enjoy a bounce-back year.
The Bears, similar to last years Rams, will deploy third year running back and two-time 1,000-yard rusher Jordan Howard to compliment their sophomore quarterback. If it sounds familiar, it’s because the Rams’ pairing of Gurley and Goff was exactly the same situation. Both Gurley and Howard saw their rushing numbers fall in their second seasons, in large part because neither the Rams or Bears were considered threats to throw the ball at all in those respective years. This season, with a more confident Trubisky and an at least competent passing offense, Howard should see his production rise again.
The Bears also welcome in a new head coach. The similarities between this years Bears and last years Rams are, honestly, striking, as last years Rams also employed a first-year head coach in Sean McVay. McVay made a name for himself coordinating a Redskins offense that he brought to a third-place finish in total yards in 2016, before leaving for LA. Similarly, Nagy brought balance to a Chiefs offense that, after a hot start, struggled under head coach Andy Reid’s play calling. Once Reid handed the reins off to Nagy, the Chiefs finished the season 4-1 and averaged 28.6 points in the stretch en route to a first-place finish in the AFC West. Nagy has demonstrated he has what it takes to coach at football’s highest level, and the Bears will look to leave the disappointments of John Fox in the rearview mirror.
While the Bears play in what is objectively the strongest division in football, with the Kirk Cousins led Vikings, the Aaron Rodgers led Packers, and Matthew Stafford’s Lions, they have the pieces in place to spark a rapid turnaround, the way the Rams, Jags, and Vikings were able to a year ago. A very good passing defense will be key in a division that will rely heavily on pass-happy offenses, and the Bears stand a chance to have the most consistency rushing the football with Howard and Cohen anchoring the ground attack.
Look for the 2018 Bears to finish in the range of 10 wins, with an opportunity to really turn some heads and potentially make a deep run in the playoffs.