Lake Forest, Ill. -- For all the high hopes surrounding the growth of Chicago Bears quarterback Justin Fields, there won't be much fun around this franchise if the defense doesn't improve. Fields can keep generating excitement with his improvisational ability. He can inspire big dreams if his passing skills develop even more in his third season. What he can't do is change the fact that he needs plenty of help around him, including much better play on the other side of the football.
There was no lousier defense in the NFL last season than the unit Chicago fielded. That's bad enough in its own right, but even more disturbing when considering the legacy of this particular franchise. The Bears have always been known for their defense, as all seems right in the Windy City when that bunch is dominant and downright nasty. Considering the ineptitude that occurred with that group in 2023, there should be an undeniable urgency to produce something far more respectable this fall.
Yes, this is a quarterback-driven league. Chicago is also a defense-loving town, one that should be desperate for a team that is as adept at limiting points as it is scoring them.
"I've been telling people all offseason that we're a hungry bunch," Bears cornerback Jaylon Johnson said. "From the new additions we picked up to the rookies, everybody is coming in here determined to be the best defense in the NFL. We definitely have the intangibles to do it. It's just a matter of going out there and executing every week at a high level and being on the same page."
Chicago's D was bad in just about every possible way in 2022, as the team stumbled to an NFL-worst 3-14 record. The Bears gave up a league-high 27.2 points per game. They ranked 31st in rushing yards allowed, 29th in total yards allowed and amassed a paltry 20 sacks, the league's lowest total. Any team looking to gain confidence in its offense last fall had to be giddy about a game vs. Chicago. The Bears made life easier for almost every offensive coordinator who spent the week preparing for them.
That's a lot to stomach when a franchise is led by a defensive-minded head coach like Matt Eberflus. He made his name as the coordinator of a feisty Indianapolis Colts defense from 2018 through 2021 and he would love to erect a similarly stingy unit in Chicago. That's a big reason why there are so many new faces on this defense. The first thing that had to change around the Bears' unit was the personnel. General manager Ryan Poles used free agency to sign defensive end DeMarcus Walker and linebackers Tremaine Edmunds and T.J. Edwards. The acquisition of Edmunds was especially crucial because the Bears needed somebody in the middle to replace All-Pro Roquan Smith, whom Poles traded midway through last season.
"I want to be able to bring leadership and experience," said Edmunds, who spent his first five seasons in Buffalo before signing a four-year, $72 million deal with Chicago. "I was fortunate enough to be on a good defense and see what it felt like to win big games and close games. We have a lot of young guys and a lot of them don't necessarily know what [success] feels like because of how last year went. But there's some great talent here, guys who are very passionate about the game. You can feel it when you get out there."
There are no mysteries about what the Bears need to do to be more formidable. It starts up front with a defensive line that will rely heavily on Walker to be a difference-maker. The 28-year-old is the most polished pass rusher in that group -- he posted a career-high seven sacks for the Tennessee Titans in 2022 -- and he's also a stout run defender. If Walker can simply be effective enough to force offensive lines to focus on stopping him, that could create more appealing matchups for his fellow linemates. Creating pressure is vital because Eberflus thrived in Indianapolis with strong defensive fronts and ball-hawking defenders on the back end. Edwards, who starred for the NFC champion Philadelphia Eagles, and Edmunds will help with the physicality, while the secondary is the unit's most established strength, with Johnson and safeties Eddie Jackson and Jaquan Brisker. Johnson said the two major areas the defense must improve upon are run-stopping and forcing more turnovers. (Chicago ranked 14th in the league last season with 23 takeaways.)
Johnson added that the adversity the Bears endured last year could ultimately lead to a more confident group in 2023.
"I realize that even though there are a lot of new faces (this year), we always had that fighting mentality (last year)," Johnson said. "We never gave up. We never went down easy. For what it was, you can respect that, as a man. At least we didn't quit. Guys still came to the building every week looking to get better and figure out how to win. We had a lot of tight games. It wasn't like we were that far off."
The Bears did have seven losses by margins of eight points or less. They also didn't win a game after Oct. 24, enduring a 10-game losing streak to close the season. The hope is that Fields can blossom even more and capitalize on a better supporting cast of skill players to prevent prolonged stretches of futility. Those close defeats also suggest Chicago could be more competitive by making just a few more plays on defense.
That possibility is something that attracted Edmunds when he hit free agency in March. He wanted to come in on the ground floor of something special, and then help the Bears build themselves into contenders. He's been encouraged by the unit's collective mentality -- "We've got some dogs and that gets me excited," Edmunds said -- and even more so by the younger players around him. Edmunds realizes Chicago isn't going to change its situation overnight, but it's important for less-experienced teammates to show faith.
"I'm seeing the young guys buying in," Edmunds said. "We talk about all these things, but half the battle sometimes is buying in. It's a positive thing to see. Guys care and they're not just out there going through the day to say they put the time in. It's about getting better. Guys are taking accountability."
Time will tell if that attitude yields better results. The Bears will benefit from the softer schedule that comes with finishing in last place, and it won't hurt that Aaron Rodgers no longer plays for the NFC North rival Green Bay Packers. But despite all of the attention Fields is receiving as a potential breakout candidate, the opportunity to generate more hope for this franchise doesn't merely rest on the 24-year-old quarterback taking a star turn -- it comes down to this team reconnecting with its roots and making life harder on opposing offenses once again.